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Volunteer Vision: Platooning – a wild and crazy idea

Perhaps it’s about money or community; or it could be that people just don’t like change.

June 1, 2009
By Brad Patton

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Perhaps it’s about money or community; or it could be that people just don’t like change.

It’s getting more difficult to understand volunteer firefighters. I appreciate that we have different personalities. Some would call this the clash of generations X, Y and Z. As I like to put it, one generation likes doing things the old way, another likes the show and the third just likes the money.

This grouping does not fit everyone; there are a lot of well-rounded rational thinkers too. However, if you look at large groups of people they often fit into one of these categories and the difficulty comes when you get them all in one station at the same time and then tell them you’d like to do things differently. That’s when I’d rather be riding the tailboard of a pumper going down a washboard gravel road on a hot day than be a fire chief.

Recently, I brought up the idea of platooning our stations, meaning that only half of the station’s firefighters would be paged out for carbon monoxide and medical alarms. Everyone would still be paged to all other alarms – fires, motor vehicle accidents and rescues. The platoons would alternate weekly. When I presented the idea to get some input from everybody, you would have thought I had sold their homes and families and drank their last beers. It was ugly. The guys were emotional and they didn’t like the idea one bit.

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Two years ago, many of today’s members were applying to be volunteer firefighters, going though the hiring process, then recruit training. They were full of “Yes sirs”, “No sirs” and “Anything to help, sir”. Then they were assigned to the station did a couple of hundred runs, and now they own the work – they jumped to the cause of their brother firefighters and with all the passion of a raging bull, let me know that platooning is a bad idea and that they know what’s best for the community and the fire department. If I had started platooning a day before they started as volunteers, it would have just been the way we do business, no big deal.

I tried to explain my thoughts on platooning, which went over like a solid lead balloon. I said that just under half of our calls are what I described as platoon calls or alarms that require low manpower. The ambulance is sending just two people, so why am I paging out 25? Carbon monoxide and medical alarms are one-truck calls that require a maximum of four firefighters. Many places do it with three. I thought, who wants to get paged out at two in the morning for a C/O alarm when there is no chance of making the responding apparatus? You get up, get dressed, rush down to the hall, place a tick beside your name so you get paid and your attendance is recorded, then go home back to bed. Or, perhaps you leave your employer to figure out how to get along without you while you go down to the station just to sign in.

I really thought platooning was a good idea but I ended up feeling like WKRP’s Les Nessman when he thought turkeys could fly. I hoped platooning would give firefighters, their families and their employers all a bit of a break and save the municipality a few dollars.

It’s hard to figure out people at the best of times and it’s even harder when they are in large groups with different values. One-third argues that this proposed change would impact life safety; another third sees this potential change as nothing more than taking their money away and cutting costs or reallocating funds within the department from their wages; and another group sees it as taking away their right to pick and choose which alarms they respond to, or attempting to add structure to their activities or employment.

All I wanted to do was make changes that I felt would better the performance and efficiency of the department and ensure long-term viability.

The discussions will continue. I’ll let you know how it works out. I’m open to any of your suggestions or comments.

What I do know is that as payroll costs escalate, the day will come when it might make sense to have full-time crew and page out the volunteers for structure fires only.

If you have anything to add to this topic or would like to hear my views on any topic concerning the volunteer fire department operations please e-mail me at BPatton@centrewellington.ca with your thoughts or comments – they are always appreciated.

Take care and be safe.


Brad Patton is the fire chief for the Centre Wellington Volunteer Fire & Rescue Department in Ontario, one of the largest volunteer departments in the province. Brad has been though three major municipal  amalgamations in his career and after 30 years of service still enjoys his job! Centre Wellington has a population of 28,500. The department responds to more than 550 alarms a year. Brad can be reached at BPatton@centrewellington.ca


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