Volunteer Vision: June 2016
Embrace our changing fire-services culture
Change has taken over in our fire services, and I suspect we experience more of it today than we did in years past. While it’s not uncommon to learn new ways to fight fire with new techniques and equipment, the greater change is happening to personnel.
Many of you know my story: I was challenged in 1999 to bring together three existing fire departments, two of which I had been a member over the years. Now, was I going to be the bad guy and tell them how to do it better? On the contrary, I was fortunate enough to have the support of the members and officers and, as a team, we brought about the necessary changes through consultation and a demonstration of how we could do things better. We learned with each other.
Back then I thought change would happen and then it would be over, but boy was I ever wrong. Change is sometimes like renovating your kitchen – what starts as a weekend project turns into a year-long build and before you know it you’ve done the living room and bathroom.
The changes we see today are rarely limited to individual departments because they are the result of challenges faced by myriad fire services. More and more people are starting to realize what many of us have been saying for a while: the fire department you used to know is becoming very different and I fear that, for the first time, it’s the fire-service leaders who will be forced to change. We are losing people from the top, and not for reasons we’re used to such as retirement, but because of economics, mental-health concerns and other illnesses.
As a full-time chief of a volunteer fire department, I’ve learned to work with what I’ve been given. It’s hard to cut back when you’re already operating on a shoestring. As is the case with most volunteer fire departments, we have a snowfall budget: a lot of what we spend our money on – such as paid-on-call allowances, fuel, and equipment repair – is determined as a result of calls. If we don’t get the calls, our service doesn’t cost as much. The opposite is also true: if we do get a lot of calls or the calls we get are longer in duration, costs increase.
I have often heard that fire services must learn to do more with less. Budgets are being clawed back and the once coveted and seemingly untouchable fire department is no longer immune. Is this happening in your region? How do you cut back when you began with next to nothing? Let me relay a real-life story for a little perspective.
A year ago, my friend welcomed a grandchild into the world. Unfortunately this baby was born with a health issue. I, like most people, reacted by saying, “Oh the poor little guy.” But I soon realized that this life was all the baby had ever known – to him, living in the hospital was normal. As the baby’s health improved, his normal changed for the better and it occurred to me that people’s perceptions of normal differ greatly: while we veteran fire folks consider today’s fire services to have changed considerably, recruits know nothing else; this is their normal. I will thank my friend’s grandson one day for the lesson he gave me in perspective and embracing change.
The more people you meet, the more people you know, and the more people you know, the more you’re affected by what happens to them. In the past year, I’ve witnessed a somewhat disturbing trend of fire chiefs being replaced, restructured out of their jobs, or simply being forced to retire before their time.
When I first heard my Volunteer Vision colleague Vince MacKenzie speak about the millennial generation entering the fire service, I couldn’t help but think about the future. MacKenzie was absolutely right: the way we teach, the way we mentor and the way we recruit has changed.
Young volunteers come into fire services often with unrealistic expectations, but also without preconceived notions of the “old ways” of the fire service. What young people see when they walk in the door is their normal; they have no idea of the changes the department had to go through in the years prior to get to that point. There is no room for excuses from the fire service and there shouldn’t be; in my opinion, we’ve become better and better with time.
Change is good; embrace it, but don’t be like the iguana that almost died of exhaustion crossing a tartan rug. Chief officers can’t be everything to everyone. But when it comes to change, know that nothing stays the same except the quality service provided every day by a dedicated group of men and women across this country, and thank goodness for that.
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