Fire Fighting in Canada

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Volunteer Vision: Rebuilding volunteer fire departments from pandemic challenges

April 18, 2022
By Vince Mackenzie

It is finally time to start rebuilding our strength. Fire departments across Canada have suffered damage from the last two years of countless pandemic challenges. Providing emergency services, keeping up on training, and the ability to recruit new members has been insane. The challenge was great, and rebuilding will possibly be just as onerous as the pandemic was. Even before the pandemic hit, volunteer fire departments dealt with many challenges on an organizational level. Those challenges have not disappeared just because there was a pandemic. If anything, our return to normal will be further complicated by the compounding damage inflicted to organizations since March 2020. This column will explore some strategies on how to build your department back to where it was and hopefully better than ever around training and recruitment.

In my in June 2013 Volunteer Vision column, I shared my views on the three Ts, which are the three factors of firefighter motivation as I see it: tragedy, technology, and training. These three factors can be attributed directly to the level of motivation your firefighters have on an ongoing basis. Tragedy motivates groups to change things after it happens and technology motivates us with a shiny new piece of equipment, but both those factors are usually short lived-in organizations. The tragic impact gets accepted. The novelty of new equipment wears off. The one factor that has the longest impact is training. The one true way to have stable motivation is to have an ongoing and challenging training program that empowers your members with new skills and confidence, and hones and builds those they already have.

During the pandemic, many training programs and opportunities were paused or adapted virtually to keep our firefighters current. Training certainly suffered, therefore the motivation of our firefighters undoubtedly suffered as well. Training nights were paused and moved to virtual platforms that help sustain our skills. We all know there is nothing like training with your crews in person to really sharpen and hone skills. We grew tired of virtual platforms attended in our pajamas and eagerly awaited opportunities train in person and attend in person live events in courses and conference again. It simply can not be lost that networking is so important to overall motivation in organizations.

Begin rebuilding with robust and frequent training programs and opportunities. Training plays a vital role in what we do, but don’t fail to see the relevance to the overall morale. It’s conceivable that firefighters don’t even remember how good it feels to “get back in the saddle”. Training weekly may seem foreign and out of sorts after such a long and interrupted hiatus of training sessions.

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The next step is focused recruitment to rebuild our dwindled numbers. Many of our seasoned firefighters have left departments during the pandemic without the opportunity for departments to recruit due to restrictions on group gatherings. This created a formula that further declined our capabilities. The experience that has retired and left did not have the full opportunity to pass on skills in-person. And as if we did not have enough challenges in recruitment before, that specific challenge is faced by your department now.  

A positive trend I noticed is that many people and potential recruits are out there looking for ways to be involved in groups. The pandemic has certainly taught us all how important social interaction is and how having a team to assist you is important to our own personal wellbeing. Fire departments should be ready to seize the climate and appeal to those seeking involvement.

Fire departments have been in the spotlight throughout the pandemic, along with all first responders, and appreciated more now than I have seen in my career. Those that have a good public image will surely attract people to join. I fear it will be a short lived window of recruitment as folks start to return to more normal lives and the time factor sets in as their family activities return to normal as well. 

Finally, we must remember that at the time of this writing, things are improving but there is no guarantee that we are out of the woods yet. At some point, we will be. Uncertainty still exists, but we must stay motivated to guide our way through.  Now is the time to have the plan in place to rebuild, train, and network. •


Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services. Email Vince at firechief@townofgfw.com and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince.