Volunteer Vision: May 2014

An astronaut’s view of . . . the fire service
April 24, 2014
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. As firefighters in our respective communities, we are exposed to almost every imaginable scenario of adversity or crisis that can befall our populations. The incidents we respond to vary from the very tragic to the heartwarming, and, in some cases, the downright hilarious with very happy endings. Never knowing what the next call will bring adds to the thrill, the excitement, and the challenge of being a firefighter; this also motivates us to continue to train and stay up to date, even though doing so can be overwhelming at times.

Every once in a while, I come across an experience, a lecture, a presentation, or some writing that sheds a little light on what makes us continue to soldier on. Those tidbits sometimes create a better understanding of what drives and motivates us in those moments of fear or despair at those not-so-fun calls. We steadily learn and train to be ready for the ever-increasing difficult tasks we are called to deal with, all while juggling family life and our regular jobs.

I had another perspective-enhancing experience a few months ago when I read and thoroughly enjoyed Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. I initially read the book because I have always taken an interest in space exploration. The only time I ever played hooky from high school was to stay home and watch the very first space shuttle launch and then the safe return to Earth in 1981. I have followed Commander Hadfield’s career; he is an outstanding Canadian and has certainly become one of my mentors.

As I read the musings of our famous astronaut, the storyline started to transform in my mind from a book about astronauts to a book about firefighters and the missions we execute. While reading Hadfield’s thoughts and advice about different challenges, I couldn’t help but constantly think that even the volunteer firefighter’s life is similar to that of a NASA astronaut.

I was struck by the experiences Hadfield narrated about training, motivation, and wanting to excel and to fit into the team. Not only is the amount of training involved to prepare for a mission incredible, but also, astronauts must prepare for every conceivable emergency; this parallels what we do in the fire service.

I was particularly struck by Hadfield’s explanation of the three ways crew members are perceived in the eyes of their colleagues.

So, translating Hadfield’s system to the fire service, there are three types of individuals ranked by their perceived contributions to their departments. First, are the Minus 1s – people who are seen as constantly creating problems and being harmful to an organization; this behaviour can be deliberate or it can exist simply because these people do not engage or have the internal resources to perform to the level required.

Next are those classified as Zeros – those who are perceived as doing their part and giving effort to the normal course of duty; neutral players who do not impact the organization either positively or negatively. Hadfield says we all should strive to be at least a Zero.

Finally, there are those who are considered Plus 1s by peers, individuals who actively and consistently add value to the profession. We all want to be perceived as Plus 1s, but if you proclaim yourself to be a Plus 1, you will almost certainly be perceived as a Minus 1.  

Classifying, and understanding, how you view others and how you are viewed by those around you, can simplify and improve how we all interact and get along.

So, are you viewed as a Minus 1, a Zero, or a Plus 1? I think all firefighters should reflect at times and ask themselves if they are doing all they can to be perceived as the Plus 1s in the eyes of their peers. Imagine the strength we all could have if everyone put a little more energy into solving the challenges that we face in today’s volunteer fire service. Our service needs more Plus 1s.

I think Hadfield’s book is a good read for all firefighters, career or volunteer. Comparing firefighters with astronauts is not my normal musing, but every now and then it is important to view our profession from a different perspective.


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 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince

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