Fire Fighting in Canada

Volunteer Vision: Reflecting on the fire service

February 22, 2023 
By Vince Mackenzie

It’s ironic that I am writing this column on the 40th anniversary of the day I first joined my fire department as a volunteer. The time has passed so fast that I cannot help but reflect upon the past four decades of my fire fighting career, of which I am still active. I’ve also been set in the reminiscing mood because just last week, my co-columnist, and good friend Tom DeSorcy of Hope, B.C., officially retired as fire chief. 

For those of you that have been around more than 10 years, let’s reflect on where the fire service is today, especially around the current atmosphere of volunteerism across our country. All first responder professions seem to be in some major turmoil as we come out of the pandemic, coupled with our baby boomer population taking on retirement, it seems a lot has changed. But deeper reflection also reminds that the very foundation of why we exist is still there and will always be. To protect lives and property that are threatened in our community has always been why we do what we do. That has not changed, but the systems in which we try to accomplish our missions are constantly evolving.   

This past year has seen some important headlines around our Canadian fire services. The Great Canadian Firefighter survey has shown that volunteer firefighters are in decline in this country. In the broader scope, some the volume of our volunteer firefighters has given way to part time and full-time services. That is a natural progression as larger communities have grown and therefore, some of our volunteer numbers have fallen to full-time staffed departments. That is certainly good but unfortunately most of suburban and rural Canada will not see the explosive growth that makes full-time fire services affordable. Those declining numbers of volunteers to staff rural departments is very concerning indeed.  

I do wish to comment on a recent news documentary sounding the alarm of declining volunteer fire services, attributing deaths to only slower response times of rural fire departments. Nowhere in that documentary was the mention of working smoke alarms and home fire escape planning. There is no way to attribute a guarantee that full-time fire services will save lives because of faster response times. If that was the case, there would be no fire deaths ever in our cities. 


We all know that home fires occur at deadly speed and the fire department will be very challenged to save someone that is truly trapped as undetected fires take place in their homes, even if a fully staffed station is minutes away. Working smoke alarms, that are appropriately placed in multiple locations, will always be critical to human survival in Canadian homes. This is always the foundation of occupant fire protection. That also must be met with a public that is educated to how to react to fire in the home, heeding the early warning that smoke alarms provide and escaping. The response time from a fire station is essentially secondary when smoke alarms work properly to alert occupants to call the fire department in the first place.    

Unfortunately, this documentary focused on volunteer fire departments exclusively because typically in those communities, there is a rural and distance component coupled with a lower population density to recruit volunteers. 

My point is that even after my 40 years in the fire service, working smoke alarms will always be paramount to the protection of life, hands down. The public can get fixated that departments will save them but we all know effective fire protection starts with the citizen in prevention.

I’d like to finish off this edition in tribute to my esteemed now retired fire chief colleague Tom DeSorcy.  I would be remiss if I didn’t take this chance to wish him great success in his fire chief retirement, and also thank him for his knowledge, insight and passion he has shared over the years through Volunteer Vision.

Together, we have tag-teamed this column since 2010. 

He and I both now have over 40 years behind us in Canada’s fire services on opposite sides of the country. This has taught me through friendship that Canada’s fire service is indeed the same from coast to coast. Fire department challenges are no different and we have certainly addressed 90 per cent of the topics somewhere in the last decade of Volunteer Vision columns. We both joined our fire departments as true volunteers and now full-time chiefs of the same volunteer fire department we originally signed on to. 

Change we have seen, we literally lived and influenced it. We deserve to be proud of it but also knowing that we are merely building blocks of a service that we pass on to others someday. 

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 current president of the Maritime Fire Chiefs Association. Email Vince at and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince. 

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