Perseverance Breeds Success and Community Safety

Sep 15, 2008

Is it possible for an unincorporated hamlet with a population of about 250 to establish and maintain a full-fledged volunteer fire department? In 1979, a group of forward thinking citizens in Fauquier, BC thought so, and the seed they planted 30 years ago has gone on to bear plentiful fruit.

From left: Dobby Bissell (finance & admin officer), Laurence Charles-Lundaahi, John Banta (chief), Gloria Scott, Leslie McDonald, Demise Douglas... and Maya the mascot. (Photo: Roland Bouten)

Who Cares about Fauquier?
Fauquier is a small (some would say tiny) community on the eastern shore of Lower Arrow Lake, a partly man-made reservoir on the Columbia River in south-central British Columbia. Vernon, in the Okanagan Valley, is two hours to the west on the other side of the Monashee Mountains, and Revelstoke, on the Trans Canada highway, is two hours upstream. By the standards of southern BC, it is certainly a fairly isolated community.

To obtain municipal sponsorship for a fire department, certain minimum standards regarding infrastructure and equipment must be met. In the case of our municipal government (the Regional District of Central Kootenay), the required standards were far beyond the reach of such a small tax base.

Not to be deterred, and pursuing the principle that whatever they obtained would be better than nothing at all, the people of Fauquier formed a registered society and, under its auspices, established their own, independent fire department. The word “independent,” of course, is a double- edged sword. As the chief of an independent fire department, I enjoy more autonomy than many chiefs of far larger municipal departments – on the other hand, there is no municipal council to go to when I need more money.

Archival material indicates that the early days were tough. Fundraising took the form of bake sales, pot luck suppers and door to door solicitation. BC Hydro donated a building to be used as a fire hall. Hoses, nozzles, pumps, etc were gradually acquired and a small group of dedicated volunteers got together once a week to maintain equipment and hone their skills. Then, in 1982, the big day arrived when they were able to purchase a 20 year old pumper from the neighbouring community of New Denver. That vehicle was replaced 14 years later with a larger, newer one that still forms the backbone of our firefighting arsenal.

My Road to Fire Chief  
In 1998, my wife and I decided to flee the growing urban crush of Calgary and seek a more sedate life in the Kootenays, a part of the world we had both come to love over the years. We ended up in Fauquier and, almost immediately, I joined the fire department. From the beginning, I was under some pressure to take over as chief. The fact of the matter was that many of the original members were anxious to pass the torch to younger hands. I, however, was in no hurry to jump into a situation of which I knew very little. On principle alone, I thought, it would be best if I spent some time in the “ranks” before taking the helm. This “breaking in period” lasted until our AGM in December 2006, when I accepted the nomination and was elected Fire Chief.

Of course, by that time, I was fully aware of some of the challenges I was going to face. We have always enjoyed solid public support, however, the prevailing views among the members and the general public, while positive, were somewhat casual. Our loose-knit group consisted of individuals who had more or less agreed to help fight a fire if the need should ever arise. Standard procedure, if it could be called that, was to show up at the scene of a fire and start doing whatever felt right. Some members had not attended a fire practice in years, if ever. The whole situation, while generally effective, was not very safe. I was determined to improve things, if I could.

Hose in Action: Gloria Scott (on nozzle) and Denise Douglas (on backup) during a summer demonstration. Laurence Charles-Lundaahl at the ready in background. (Photo: Roland Bouten)

My predecessors, in fact anyone who voluntarily takes over the leadership of a rural fire department, are worthy of more praise than they are ever likely to receive. The people who preceded me as chief did things as they saw fit, and the decisions they made were right for the time. The debt that I owe to “those who have gone before” is immense. They kept the flame burning through some lean times and, without their efforts, we wouldn’t even have a fire department. I saw that the time was ripe for adding more standards to our procedures, and directed my efforts toward achieving that goal.

On the Job
I’m fond of half-jokingly pointing out that the only thing that qualifies me to call myself a fire chief is my willingness to do so. In the beginning, at least, what I knew about fighting fires, beyond that which logic and common sense would tend to dictate, was limited indeed. However, in large part because of my military background, I like to think I know something about how to mold a group of individuals into an effective team. There’s the key word – TEAM. I had to convince a group of enthusiastic free spirits that by working together they could accomplish far more, and do it more safely than they ever could working separately. To an old soldier, this is a self-evident truth, but for some of my firefighters, well… they needed convincing. Keeping in mind that there is a huge and obvious difference between a rural volunteer fire department and the army, I set to work.

We practised drills in which everybody had to complete a task in order for an overall objective to be achieved. If somebody failed, we all failed. We became familiar with a wonderful thing called the Incident Command System and learned how the principles of the ICS could be applied to our own operations. Because the glue of any team is “esprit de corps,” I spent sparse money on matching coveralls, logoed t-shirts, ball caps and licence plates. I wanted to instil the pride of being a member of the team, and I didn’t want them to be shy about displaying that pride. Gradually, over the course of the past year, it has started to come together. I’m happy with the progress we’ve made.

Funding is always a major problem for a small fire department. In 1982, after intense lobbying, the Regional District passed a by-law establishing the Fauquier Fire Protection Area (FPA). This enabled them to collect taxes on behalf of the fire department (with the consent of the tax payers, of course) and turn the money over to the department on an annual basis. This was (and remains) a far cry from outright municipal sponsorship, but it did provide a source of stable funding and allowed some realistic budgeting. The actual amount, to begin with, was pretty small - $2000 a year – but it was better than nothing. It has gradually increased over the years to the point where our current annual operating budget stands at just over $16,000 – more than adequate. The latest increase, just this past year, came as a result of dramatically increased property values. First of all, though, we had to get approval from the community. Because time was short to meet the deadline for this year, the only practical way to obtain that approval was to collect signatures door to door – imagine trying to convince your friends and neighbours to sign up for a tax increase! We got it done though, and very few people even hesitated. “More money for the Fire Department? You bet!” seemed to be the prevailing sentiment. It was very gratifying.

Without question, the most important ongoing activity in any fire department is training. Until quite recently, our training was exclusively a home grown affair. We identified performance objectives, determined the skills required to attain them and put together a program to progress from individual training, through collective training to what we call a full evolution; in other words, putting it together in a ­realistic scenario. This worked well and we’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time.

None of it, however, was recognized by any outside agency. That changed this spring when I enrolled in a Train-the-Trainer workshop conducted by the Justice Institute of BC, a community college style institution that specializes in security and safety related programs. Successfully completing this workshop qualified me as an evaluator for the Basic Firefighter Certification program. This had the very useful effect of allowing us to move the training back to where it belongs – in the local fire hall, using local facilities, and conducted under the supervision of the local chief/training officer. No longer is it necessary to engage in the very expensive process of sending people away for several days to get them trained to a provincially recognized level. Much of the material is virtually the same as what we had in our own program, the main differences being that documentation and records management are more structured and easier to administer –and everyone gets a great looking certificate which, when prominently displayed on the wall of the fire hall, contributes materially to team spirit.

It is important that training be regarded as an on-going function. No one in the safety services should ever adopt the attitude that they know everything there is to know and therefore require no further training. This kind of thinking is more prevalent that one might suspect, particularly in smaller volunteer departments. Aggressively discouraging this attitude is a major function of my leadership role.

In addition to training, we felt it was necessary to establish guidelines that could be used to govern our actions at the scene of any conceivable incident to which we could be called. The challenge was to develop a system structured enough enable us to impose order on a chaotic situation – while still sufficiently flexible so as not to stifle individual initiative or inhibit our ability to react quickly to changing conditions.

The Incident Command System in Practice
This is where the principles of the Incident Command System became very useful. We built an organization around four separate but interdependent functions: attack crew(s), pump operation, water resupply, and staging/rehab – all under the overall direction of an Incident Commander. Recognizing that one person couldn’t possibly control all these functions simultaneously, we inserted an Attack Chief to supervise the actual fighting of the fire.

We had to deal with the reality that we did not have the luxury of arriving at the scene of a fire as a formed group. That meant that the first person on scene (which could be any of us) must be capable of assuming command and, perhaps more importantly, willing to do so. That person has to then quickly formulate an incident action plan and, as additional people arrive, plug them into the plan as required. The whole procedure has to be simple, straightforward and easy to understand. We practise it extensively and it’s looking better and better all the time. Progress is definitely being made.

Before I sum up, I would like to say a word or two about leadership. The style of leadership required in a small, volunteer fire department is quite different from that which I learned as a senior NCO in the Army. First of all, I can’t actually order anybody to do anything. People have to be convinced that it is in their best interest to respond to direction. This requires a high degree of trust and confidence in the leader. Trust and confidence cannot be demanded – it must be earned. Leading by example, soliciting and respecting input from everybody for all decisions and being satisfied with nothing short of excellence, especially from oneself, represent three big steps in the right direction. All of this has been said elsewhere many times, of course, but I don’t think it can be said too often.

Final Reflection
The story of the Fauquier Volunteer Fire Department is neither special nor unique. With minor modifications, the same story could have come from any one of hundreds of small communities across this great land. What is special, however, is the message of what can happen at the local level with people who are determined to make it happen. The message is as relevant as it is ageless – persevere!

A former Senior Non Commissioned Officer in our Armed Forces, John Banta retired in Fauquier and is currently its Fire Chief.
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