I have a couple of pet peeves when it comes to the designation of Canadian fire services as professional or volunteer. This country has great fire services – both career and volunteer – with larger cities and towns employing career services while the rural and suburban sections of Canada have volunteer departments or combinations of both.
I have been in seven provinces in the last 12 months to various fire-service functions. During those travels, my peeves were roused a few times, causing me to engage colleagues in some discussions.
One pet peeve surfaces when I hear firefighters refer to those in the career service as professional firefighters, as if volunteer fire departments are not professional. I am mystified by the way the professional-firefighter label gets thrown around. I guess it is a matter of context, but the professional label is often used in a somewhat condescending way toward volunteers.
One is professional, in my view, by virtue of dedicating oneself to a profession with training and good ethics. The dictionary defines professional as “Learning the skills and demonstrating proficiency in tasks; conforming to standards of a skill; being qualified and experienced in a work environment; performing a job to high standards.” There are references to jobs that are paid, but the majority of definitions don’t stop there or reference payment as the only qualifier to the term professional.
Just receiving a paycheque for a job does not make any person a professional. I believe that only when a person performs in a manner that is conducive to education, training and proficiency in a task does he or she earn the label professional. I have met many volunteer firefighters who are true professionals in their communities and they receive no compensation for the competent work for which they have extensively and diligently trained. Those firefighters do a professional service for their respective departments and communities. In my view, that is the major qualifier for being called a professional, and that designation is achievable for both career and volunteer firefighters.
My second pet peeve is volunteer firefighters who themselves say, “I am only a volunteer,” in an effort to lower the expectations placed on them. This phrase is usually spoken when the firefighter does not want to acknowledge the tasks and duties at hand. Nothing cuts me deeper than statements that reference volunteer firefighters as unprofessional. Often, the fires that volunteers fight are very tough, large-scale situations that would be difficult to control, even with the resources of large fire departments. Still, we never find ourselves in a position to say we can’t do a professional job because we are only volunteers. Doing a professional job requires training and experience in which all volunteers diligently and regularly engage.
Volunteer firefighters are professionals. We must all remember that the demands of a firefighter’s knowledge and training must be equivalent across any type of fire department. The severity or risk related to a fire doesn’t change because it occurs in a small town or a big city. The fire still requires the same amount of professional skill to tackle the job. There is no such thing as a volunteer or a career fire.
I am not looking to draw lines, or set boundaries or labels. I believe that we as a fire service have a collective responsibility to work professionally, hold ourselves to professional standards and put forth a professional effort for the people we serve – whether as career, composite or volunteer firefighters.
I was recently at a department in rural Alberta. The department responds to about 400 calls a year with only about 20 members – all of them volunteers, with no career staff and each doing a professional job. There are many departments across Canada doing the same.
I have also had discussions with career firefighters who have admitted that volunteer firefighters in larger towns actually respond to more calls in their careers than the career firefighters do, because volunteers are dispatched to every call in their communities whereas career firefighters on certain shifts or working at a certain stations may see little action.
Many volunteer firefighters in large communities train as hard and respond to as many calls as their career colleagues. Some people may not consider the volunteers professional, but to me they are as professional as they come. Citizens, in times of dire need, do not care if the firefighter is paid or volunteer; they just need a professional to help.
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 a director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. E-mail him at
and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince
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