You’ve heard the traditionalists talk about the three Rs in education – reading, writing and ’rithmatic (although I’ve never understood this, as the three words start with an R, a W and an A, but that’s another argument).
Borrowing from that stance, may I present the three Rs in the volunteer fire service (and ones that actually start with R, I might add). Two of these are a given and one may qualify as an elephant in the room, but it has to be said.
The first is recruitment. When I began in the fire service in 1983, joining the fire department was more like joining an exclusive social club – your name was brought forward and voted upon by the members.
Once approved, I was given a pager and a key to the hall and sent home – on call, on my first night. In those days, it was the same for many: gear was scarce, air packs were rare, and if you had BA in the hall, they were packed away in case somewhere.
In a nearby department (which is now part of our amalgamated department), a sign on the hall asked for volunteers – come one, come all, no matter who you were. Shortly after I began, things improved and, very quickly, it wasn’t my father’s department anymore.
Recruitment today can be a mix of both scenarios. We accept applications and, as in a job interview, candidates are scrutinized for positions. Fire fighting may not be for everyone and there are numerous considerations that come into play when bringing in recruits. For example, how well they play with others.
In a small town this can be a huge issue. You can’t bring someone into the family who may conflict with those already there. Did I say something controversial? Try to introduce a recruit who happens to live with the ex-wife of one of your current officers. This is real life in a dangerous game and quality trumps quantity every time.
Once the recruits are on board they leave probation and become quality members – they’re there when you need them and are always willing to go that extra mile. Why wouldn’t they? You hand picked them, didn’t you? This brings into play the obvious and second R, and that’s retention. Keeping the troops motivated is really tough. I’ve written before about call volume – too much can burn out the recruits and too little can cause them to lose interest. Everyone has different ideas for member retention and I honestly think that’s where the family and tradition come in. Training firefighters takes many forms. Yes, there are the fundamentals and certifications, but what about the traditions – those lessons that come without certificates: the camaraderie, the sense of family and a caring support group? Does this help to retain members? Could this actually fall under recruitment? I think it supports both, and with good recruitment you have good retention.
What about the third R – the one that many in small-town departments don’t want to talk about, or maybe don’t even think about, and that’s retirement? I’m not talking about those members who say enough is enough, and the way you celebrate and commemorate their years of service. I’m talking about those members whose time has come. Yes, there are rules, regulations and bylaws that support people leaving at a certain age, but in smaller communities, you’ve likely got those members who drove the first truck you ever had. I’m not going to get into a discussion about age and what is or what isn’t safe, because individuals vary in their abilities. Older members have their places, and while they may not be going in, per se, they still play a role. In a lot of cases, that role assists the previous two Rs in maintaining history and tradition and showing the new people the ropes, as it were. But how do you handle those members who have put in the time and become somewhat of a liability? Can you fire a volunteer? Sure, but not one who has been a stellar member for the community but just can’t do the job anymore. It’s a delicate balance and it’s important to appreciate what these members have done and the fact that they have helped to bring the department to where it is today. Maybe what’s needed is the creation of a new position or a simple heart-to-heart talk to ensure these members are welcome, just not as active members.
No matter how you slice it, it’s a tough issue and, for most, a non-issue, but there are times when you take a serious look around the hall and realize that recruitment doesn’t necessarily mean young, just new, and that the age of the department is climbing. If you choose to recruit younger, thus putting more pressure on retention, hopefully retirement takes care of itself.
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: Feburary 2012
The three Rs of the fire service
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