Volunteers
Written by Tom DeSorcy
When you’re a broadcaster, whether on radio or television, you’re constantly reaching out to an audience that you presume is there. For the most part, you’re talking into a microphone or camera in a one-way conversation without any feedback from those to whom you’re speaking. How’s that for motivation? In broadcasting school we were taught to treat our audience as just one person, therefore giving listeners the impression that we were talking directly to them and them alone. This experience was enhanced when broadcasters opened the phones and took calls, thus allowing a direct connection with the audience.  

Magazine columnists are in a similar situation: we know the readers are there and we get reaction to what we say via emails and personal contact, but the feedback comes only after the column is published – weeks (sometimes months) after it has been written. Which is why the summer of 2014 was special for me; along with my Volunteer Vision co-author and good friend Vince MacKenzie, we took our opinions and columns off the pages of this magazine and to the people.   

Over the summer, we presented what we called Volunteer Vision LIVE – three sessions in two provinces at opposite ends of the country. Thanks to Fire Fighting in Canada editor Laura King, who moderated two of our sessions in British Columbia, and Tim Pley, president of the Fire Chiefs Association of BC, who moderated in Gander, N.L., we took readers deeper into our columns, explaining where the ideas came from, the inspiration behind our stories and expanding on the issues we had written about,

The beauty of our column is that Vince and I seem to touch on the same themes – not necessarily on purpose. It’s just the way we connect with the issues that face the fire service from coast to coast to coast. During the presentations, we brought forward several columns from the past few years; what struck me was that while the issues weren’t new, they are still relevant today, albeit with some new ideas and opinions. To say we all learned something from this exercise would be an understatement. The questions and comments in the rooms as we explored issues from recruitment and retention to retirement opened my eyes to the number of people who read what we have to say; there was a lot of acknowledgment and there were lots of heads nodding in silent recognition – or agreement – in each session.   

While we maintained the same format and storyline, each of the three sessions was completely different. We were unscripted and unplugged, so to speak, and if it wasn’t for the moderators, all of our sessions would have run way over. In fact, all of them spilled into the foyers during the subsequent networking sessions.

What I took away from those sessions goes far beyond meeting the readers; the experience reinforced to me that what I have to say is relevant to my peers. The fact that I have a hard time recruiting new members and staying ahead of the calendar resonates in other departments. My concerns over the future of the fire service is shared by many more; in fact, I’ve come to realize that while we tend to focus on recruitment on the front lines, we aren’t doing enough to address the need for leaders in our volunteer world. Seriously, it’s one thing to encourage new members to take on the daunting task of becoming a well-trained firefighter, but the need to step up and take on a leadership role adds a whole new wrinkle. Succession planning is vital to the health of any organization, and coming from a world that always has one foot firmly planted in the past, we need to be aware of this. We’re all not getting any younger, which is one thing I see as our biggest challenge in the future. Touching on one of Vince’s topics – the millennials in our ranks – can you actually see some of these people carrying your torch (and yes, I did say “your”)? As we grow older it may seem harder to realize, but it will and it has to happen.  

There are times when we exist within our own little worlds, our small departments, without realizing that what’s happening in the next town – or province for that matter – has an impact on what we are doing locally. I guess we just need to be reminded of this; and, hopefully, through a column written by a couple of small-town fire chiefs, those messages are realized.

Train as if your life depends on it, because it does, and understand that you are part of a great big family. I’ve been to Newfoundland and Labrador on three occasions and when asked recently if I have family back there, my answer was yes, yes I do have family back there – a fire family that gets bigger all the time thanks in a large part to my written words and those who read them.


Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. Email Tom at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept


Written by Vince MacKenzie
It is common in smaller communities that the volunteer fire department is the only available emergency agency. Most of Canada’s smaller communities have fire stations, but they don’t always have police stations or medical centres. Therefore, when a major emergency incident or disaster strikes these communities, it is the volunteer fire departments that respond.

Unlike in larger cities with emergency-management offices and full-time staff, rural, large-scale disasters are usually dealt with by the members of the volunteer department. The rural fire chief or senior fire officer is thrust into the role of disaster operations commander, or, in times of non-emergency, the role of emergency operations co-ordinators and planners. This can certainly be a challenging role to be thrust into without preparation.

I would like to focus on one element of emergency planning: communication. When the emergency is over and evaluation and inquiry begins, communication is commonly identified as a key factor in the success or failure of disaster operations.  

Emergency management communication includes directing emergency responders, sharing public information, and gathering data about the emergency. Therefore, the fire chief needs to know how to receive credible information and how to communicate to the public effectively.

I think we can all agree that forms of communication have changed dramatically in the last five years with the growth of social media. In order to effectively communicate in today’s world, emergency planners now have to consider a social-media component to the emergency-operations plan.

Credible information now comes in many forms from the public. It used to be that everyone phoned into the emergency services to report issues, but today, many people who witness the incidents use social media to inform everyone. While most social media information is credible, some is tainted with opinion and rumors that will quickly spread to the public. The deluge of tweets and posts lends itself to misinformation because the public can receive information as quickly as the officials handling the situation. Unfortunately, the constant monitoring of crucial information can rapidly overload a conventional public information officer or media centre.

Reports from the public also generally come with photos that cannot be ignored by emergency operations centres. The challenge for local emergency managers is to capture that information to assist in a manner that is credible and timely.

I learned a new term during a recent session on media training: the digital volunteer. It’s a relatively new concept as applied to emergency management, but I believe it will soon become a familiar term.

The digital volunteer is a person who emergency managers identify to help monitor social media platforms for relevant information and data during emergencies. Digital volunteers are not actively engaged in the emergency operations centre, but are engaged with the public information officer to alert those in charge when significant messaging is trending. Digital volunteers are, in essence, social-media savvy spectators recruited to help filter the barrage of information. If you spend any time on social media, you can probably think of a few of those people now. During almost every emergency, people emerge online to provide information to the public through posts on social media, as though they were officials themselves.  

We all know someone who is tuned into the event for whatever reason. Many times these people are actively engaged in the situation and can be a valuable resource to assist with analyzing the volume of information. Enlisting these digital volunteers to filter and inform the emergency operations centre of trending issues or damaging rumors will be very helpful to overall communication. We should not turn away from these opportunities that can help us navigate the changing world of emergency management. So why not write this concept into our emergency planning?

This fall, I will participate in an exercise on the concept of the digital volunteer at an emergency management conference in Nova Scotia. I am excited to find out what the organizers have in store for us. While the concept of the digital volunteer is relatively new, I see great value in it as a tool to help fire departments keep on top of today’s busy communication world.


Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Service and an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. Email him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince


Written by Tom DeSorcy
There are many tools synonymous with the professions they serve. Think of firefighters and we think of everything from helmets and trucks to ladders and hoses.
Written by Vince MacKenzie
Fire departments all have jurisdictions – areas that we cover and in which we provide protective services.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
Firefighters strive to provide good customer service: that means treating others the way we would like to be treated – going above and beyond whenever possible and surprising people who don’t expect our do-onto-others attitude.
Written by Vince MacKenzie
Volunteer firefighters who last a long time in the fire service can certainly gain a vast perspective on many aspects of life.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
Social media can be our best friend or our worst enemy. Say the wrong thing, post the wrong picture and you have more than egg on your face.
Written by Vince MacKenzie
I have a couple of pet peeves when it comes to the designation of Canadian fire services as professional or volunteer.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
As one generation gives way to the next, so does the makeup of our fire departments.
Written by Vince MacKenzie
The past summer seems to have been rife with disaster and conflagrations. Newscasts and social media sites were filled with details of events and suffering, with floods in Alberta, forest fires in every province from British Columbia to Newfoundland, and the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Que.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
I have written before about the benefits of involvement in the fire service beyond our own departments. As I expand my affiliations, both provincially and nationally, I continue to be amazed at the dedication and passion that those in the fire service hold for what we do, and just how that passion and pride fuels my positive attitude toward life.
Written by Vince MacKenzie
Canada’s fire service is a network of firefighters, officers and departments of all types. Training opportunities are growing.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
My colleagues will understand when I say that there are some real characters out there.
Written by Vince MacKenzie
In the United States, Americans refer to fire houses, but here in Canada the words fire hall are more common for buildings in which it all happens for us.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
All this talk about recruitment and retention has made me think long and hard about how and why we do what we do. It’s something that I’ve thought about for a while, but as I networked with colleagues in St. John’s, N.L., at Fire-Rescue Canada in September, the light came on.
Written by Vince MacKenzie
As I wrote this in November, it was budget time for many fire departments. Fire chiefs – full-time and volunteer – struggle with a host of challenges, among them keeping municipal councils informed about service levels, standards and growing fire-service needs, and meeting local needs and circumstances while adhering to parameters set by elected officials.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
Conferences always seem to bring out the best in me and I’m sure that’s the case for others.
Written by Vince MacKenzie
As a fire officer of a volunteer fire department, I maintain an interest in the issues and incidents in the rest of the country.
Written by Tom DeSorcy
Recently I was invited to attend a volunteer fair in our community.
Written by Vince MacKenzie
I have had an opportunity to attend, present, and be a delegate at various firefighting seminars and conferences across the country over the last 24 months, and it is quite apparent that change is taking place in the volunteer fire service. 
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