Volunteer Vision: November 2018

Volunteer departments need to think ahead
October 23, 2018
Written by Vince MacKenzie
I want to write about “vision.” It’s a word that appears in the title of this column every edition. But do we really stop to think what vision means in our volunteer and composite firefighting world?

The fire departments that we are members of were born out of necessity and need. Somewhere in the early life of your community, probably after a tragic or catastrophic fire, a group of individuals formed a fire department in your community. Was that visionary?

Your fire department’s beginning may have been a well-thought-out and planned project by a government body like a community council. On the other hand, it may have been some small group of folks who started a primitive organization with basic equipment and it grew from there after experiencing a fire in a community.

The role that your own fire department evolved into has surely met the constant ebb and flow of change over the years of its existence. Those evolutionary changes took place for a multitude of reasons, stemming from recovery from a tragedy, municipal responsibility, all the way up to a sudden windfall of funding allowing a department to grow and take on more services for its community.

All positive changes have certainly been applauded and praised, but in some cases the more unpopular ones have been lamented. Just sit around the fire station table some day and listen to the stories from your older colleagues. Hear the tone in their voices as they speak to your history as a department. Nevertheless, your fire department grew to where it is today.

Returning to my main point, the one word that never seemed to be deliberately used is vison. It seems like all our growth has somehow found its way without a plan by some visionary person or group.  

In the fire service, it seems we’ve always been reactive in our formative years to meet a need within a community, fulfill it, and stay status quo until something happens to change it.

I remember as a young firefighter I was always full of vigor to train and get the job done. I was a firefighter first, answering the calls and enjoying it all. I still do. I was never called a visionary. Nor, did I consider myself as one.

I have been writing these columns for nearly a decade, and even then I’ve never considered myself a visionary person.   

Recently, I was introduced by a respected colleague at a speaking function and he called me a visionary person for today’s fire service. I was very uncomfortable with the label. I did not feel worthy of it. But, it got me thinking as to why such a label was used. It was almost as if someone called me a derogatory word - and I didn’t deserve that term either.

The statement caused me to look back over my fire service career and I started to realise that some of the tasks I was doing as part of the volunteer job were somewhat visionary. I started to think of the team of firefighters I have worked with over the years, in my own department and around my province and country, and realized that all firefighters are most certainly visionary people. It’s not just a label for a select few.  

Vision is something that, I think, is a trait of everyone who steps into a fire station. While some folks are more future-thinking than others, everyone has a vision for themselves, their fire department and their community. We just don’t formally think about it at the time we enroll in a fire department.

In studying formal leadership, you learn that vision is a prime quality of a good leader. It was only at that point that I started to pay attention to the word and process. As you start formal leadership training, vision emerges as one of the traits that all good leaders must possess, and I think we all do.

The process then leads us to collaborate and compare one person’s vision to another. This is where we see motives and aspirations come from within our membership.

Volunteer and composite fire departments are usually much less structured, in that ideas from the membership are usually collaborative because when you are not paying someone to do a job, dictating to volunteer professionals takes a lot of buy-in to the vision of an organization.

So, what is your vision for your fire service? First of all, I encourage you to try a simple test. Ask yourself if your vision is positive, or if it’s a vision where, down the road, you and your department will be a threatened one or negative in nature.

What truly keeps volunteer fire departments strong and healthy is strong, positive vision by all. Sure, we will have many challenges to face in the future, but if our vision becomes clouded we will not be able to see a bright future. Work on, and continually improve, your forward-thinking vision. It is crucial to our fire service.


Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services. Email Vince 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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