Volunteer Vision: The voice of experience hushes up and listens
First, thanks to the hundreds of people who took the time to read my last couple of columns and those who e-mailed me. I received e-mails from all across the country and what I find most interesting is that everyone agrees that now is the time for massive change.
February 5, 2009 By Brad Patton
First, thanks to the hundreds of people who took the time to read my last couple of columns and those who e-mailed me. I received e-mails from all across the country and what I find most interesting is that everyone agrees that now is the time for massive change. It doesn’t matter whether the senders were in P.E.I. or British Columbia – everyone thinks we can do more to serve the public. I will set some time aside and try to reply to each e-mail. I greatly appreciate your comments.
I love my job. For the most part, I find the job easy, even when it takes some long days or nights to get things done. But it hasn’t always been that way. I went though many changes to get where I am. Most of you have experienced, or will at some point, these same changes. Perhaps I can help to reduce the pain a bit.
When I first started in the fire service, I was lucky to have a great chief – Don Shapton, who was the deputy for the Niagara Falls, Ont., department before he became chief in Flamborough, Ont., where I was a volunteer firefighter. Don encouraged me to take as many courses as I could, and the same can be said of the next six fire chiefs for whom I worked.
I took many courses over many years, learned a lot and, at the age of 34, I was a full-time deputy chief of a great department of 130 volunteer firefighters working out of five stations. I thought I knew it all. Boy, was I wrong. I made a lot of mistakes that I barely noticed at the time – I just kept going full speed ahead.
We were one of the first departments to have and use a command system. When we went for a tank shuttle accreditation to reduce rural insurance rates, we needed to pump 250 gallons per minute. But, of course, we set the goals much higher, and with a lot of training and practice we accomplished 686 gpm for two hours on the night of our certification. Like everything I managed, the standard was never good enough. The same thing happened when I worked for the Hamilton Fire Department. I’m sure no one knew how many hours I put in there trying to make things work in the newly amalgamated city with 300 volunteer firefighters. We had a lot of successes. But when I look back there were also a lot of failures and I realize now that the failures came with a high price.
My philosophy of change at the speed of light was flawed. It was too hard on the department and it was too hard on me. I’d missed the most important part of making a good volunteer department great – the people.
So how did I get where I am? It comes down to one good tactic and one good strategy:
- You have to stop, actively listen and engage as many firefighters, recruits and senior officers as you can. Be big enough to realize that you will never be as smart as all of them. Each one brings something different to the table. Don’t prejudge, don’t ask if you already have the answer you want. I rarely make a big decision that will affect my department without sitting down with the guys and asking what they think. It’s important that your team management realizes that you are the chief officer and you make the decisions. Still, they should understand your decisions even if they don’t like them. This way, they will feel they are part of the process.
- Ensure you have the right people. Everyone on the department has to understand that it’s a team environment, on and off the fire ground, that they are expected to want to improve themselves and the department whenever there is an opportunity, and that they must be a positive influence and fit your department. The higher the quality of officers and firefighters you have, the better the quality of applications you will receive when hiring. Getting rid of poor staff is one of the hardest things to do. It is also the best thing to do. It’s not personal, it’s just good business.
I have slowed down a bit. I take a closer look at what the department really needs by scheduling more formal and informal discussions with everybody. I watch and listen carefully and look for who is helping to improve the department and who is not, and I take action where it is needed.
Take good care yourself and try to make each day just a little bit better then the last one.
Brad Patton is fire chief for the Centre Wellington Volunteer Fire Rescue Department in Ontario, one of the largest volunteer departments in the province, with stations in Fergus and Elora.
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