Volunteer Vision: The fragile volunteer
People are often quick to give credit to the volunteer firefighter, and rightfully so. Where else do you find such an important and often lifesaving role placed in the hands of a little or no pay organization? I challenge that no one sees the importance of this more than us, the fire chiefs, who rely upon these dedicated men and women to respond as part of our team. This importance is what the community doesn’t see, or often, understand when they take these truly unselfish volunteers for granted.
I would consider the volunteer fire service to be a unique yet fragile organization. Just think about the extent to which we train and constantly put our members in tense and often life threatening situations. It is a volunteer group that is like no other in the community and those volunteers could all walk away at any time. The trouble is, we’ve gotten so good at what we do, it’s hard to justify an alternative.
With the years of evolution in training and service delivery, the good just keeps getting better. So, how do we fight the demands that are constantly placed upon our members? Not just the physical and mental demands that come with first response, but the demands from outside the department.
The public rarely understands the commitment of their firefighters and that’s where the ‘taking for granted’ comes into play. What they see is the response to their call for help. They also see our non-emergency side, such as fire prevention and training out and about in the community. What they don’t see are the challenges firefighters may face at home from too many calls or the demands on their time for training. Or the pressures at work when the volunteer job starts to get in the way of the real one. This is where the true leaders in the fire service excel in recognizing the need for balance and protection of their team.
Every organization has seen the evolution of the volunteer. The pressures today that we put upon those that simply just want to contribute in their community are almost overwhelming. Yet, how many volunteers join a group or association with the sole intent to make it a career? Not many. The fire department back in the day was no exception. Not many wished to pursue this as a full-time job. In turn, not many career departments considered our training an asset. We were simply giving back to our town, not to mention having some fun socially as a result.
In contrast to what I have said about the fragile nature of our service, there is the career development side. More and more volunteer departments have become “farm teams for the big leagues”, so to speak, and career departments are recognizing this valuable experience. This brings to mind a thought on how we can expand on this relationship. As we all know, about 85 per cent of the fire service in Canada is made up of volunteers. When you consider all of those in the fire service today that are either current or former volunteers, then we have a greater percentage impact on public safety than we ever thought. How’s that for pressure on a person that could leave you at any time?
I often wonder why career departments don’t lean more on volunteer ones to either endorse or mentor training programs. Have a bigger input on the farm teams that may ultimately supply their department. What do you think it would do to your department to have your training program endorsed or supported by a nearby career department? No guarantees or commitments, but support and recognition of what you do. What would that do for recruitment?
I’ve said before that we will see less and less of the long service awards in the volunteer fire service. Today’s recruits will likely get those from a career department as many more aspire to move on, and hopefully they do as the alternative is simply not doing anymore.
There will always be pressure, but that pressure should be focused on us as leaders. We need to constantly be mindful of the men and women that have our backs each and every day. We need to always remind the public of just what they have and how fortunate they are to have it, and we need to cherish the team that makes us look good. Remember to “feed the grass and ignore the moss” and do whatever is needed to put the people first and treat them as you would anything else that’s very fragile.
Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. Originally a radio broadcaster, Tom’s voice could be heard in the early 1990s across Canada as one of the hosts of Country Coast to Coast. Tom is very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of British Columbia as communications director and conference committee chair. Contact Tom at TDeSorcy@hope.ca and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept.