Here we are, well into a new year, but not just any new year: it’s one of those years that every volunteer firefighter may come to dread, the one time every four years when you are on call for that one extra day. Twenty-four seven, three hundred and sixty . . . six. Take a breath: you’ll need it for that one extra day of standing by to protect your community from harm. Frankly, I’m surprised this hasn’t become a trending topic. Somebody produce a T-shirt – quickly, please!
All kidding aside, there has been a lot of discussion lately about volunteer firefighter availability. First off, I was happy to hear of the inclusion of on-call hours as part of the volunteer tax credit and, as you read this, those of you who pack a pager all day, every day, have likely well surpassed the 200-hour quota and then some – even sooner this year with the extra day, I might add.
Beyond that issue, I recently read with interest an article that begged the question, “What happens when no one shows up?” How about those days when you can’t leave your job at that moment or when you are out of town for the day? Have you ever sat at home caring for your small child and listened to a working structure fire on the radio?
Personally, that was 20 years ago, and I soon learned to turn off the pager in those cases. But it’s true; as a chief officer, it’s the worst feeling in the world to hear a page and not get a response. The opposite is also true – when the call comes and the airways are full of responding units it’s music to my ears. Thus is the life of the volunteer fire service, something that, frankly, we’ve been used to for years, but do our customers realize this?
Well, for some it’s a shocking reality that they’re just not used to. Sadly, this was brought to light this past January as I joined more than 1,100 uniforms in attendance at a line of duty service in Enderby, B.C.
Out of that tragic event, I not only got a huge feeling of pride in the respect and support from our brothers and sisters in the fire family, but there was a realization of how we, in the volunteer/paid-on-call world, are perceived by, dare I say, the outside world.
For this event, I was called upon to assist the Enderby Volunteer Fire Department as its media liaison and, as such, did numerous interviews on radio and television. Prior to one live radio interview, I was asked how it became like this – how did we “arrive at this state”, with volunteer firefighters protecting our communities?
My first reaction to that was simple: How did we arrive here? Wait a second; this is the way it has always been. We didn’t just arrive; we’ve been around for a long time and have been serving our communities better than in the early days of riding the tailboards of fire engines, thanks to vast improvements in training and equipment. Welcome to 80 per cent of Canada’s fire service.
Actually, a comment like this only serves as a reminder of the perception of emergency services, in that, if you live in a larger centre, it’s a paid occupation. Obviously, for some, the concept of such an essential service being done by people who may not always be available is foreign and, frankly, a little bit surprising.
Add to that surprise the realization that fire protection is not universal, and the fact that there are areas in Canada where there is no coverage. I noted to the interviewer that a community can choose to provide whatever fire protection it wishes for its taxpayers. It can pave the streets with gold if it so chooses. We all know that’s not going to happen, but do the math: have a fully paid or volunteer fire department or none at all. It’s a local decision, plain and simple, and obviously it’s one that is often taken for granted.
So, what is the solution? Or is there a problem? The only problem I see is one I’ve written about before: communication. Does your community know what your department does and what your members sacrifice? I’m sure that in communities where the fire officers are regular followers of Fire Fighting in Canada, the citizens understand the system (because countless columnists have written about the importance of ensuring that taxpayers get it), but maybe it’s time we expand that horizon and tell everyone else.
That’s exactly the message I tried to convey in Enderby. While the job description for a volunteer firefighter is no different than that of a career firefighter, it is often more difficult, simply because volunteers don’t do the job all the time.
To those of us who pack a pager 24/7, and 366 days this year, hats off to you. Rest assured you’ll get a break, next year.
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. DeSorcy is married with two children, aged 27 and 19, and enjoys curling and golf. He is also very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C., and chairs the communications and conference committees. E-mail Tom at
Volunteer Vision: May 2012
Communicating our mission, 366 days a year
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IAFC VCOS Symposium in the West
May 2-4, 2019
OAFC Annual Conference and Trade Show
May 3-4, 2019
B.C. Fire Training Officers’ Association Conference
May 25-30, 2019
Fire Chiefs’ Association of BC and BC Fire Expo
June 2-3, 2019