Thursday, June 17, 2010

tip of the iceberg

Close your eyes and imagine the employer from hell. He or she can dial you up at will, no notice, and no regard for family or private time, no "sorry to interrupt your very important life" . . . and you must drop everything and go to work. Immediately. Don't bother looking back at your half-eaten dinner, or your warm bed, or your longsuffering family. Just go. And hurry, your boss needs you five minutes ago.

To add insult to injury, you receive no overtime pay for this intrusion into your daily affairs. In fact, you receive no pay at all. On top of this, your company's equipment is decrepit, and if you want better, you are told to fundraise. Sell cookies. Do a car wash.

Sounds bad, but it gets worse. Your work is gruelling and sometimes dangerous. You get a front seat at the theatre of human suffering. AND . . . you work shoulder to shoulder with people from other agencies who are loaded with state-of-the-art equipment, well paid, and who wouldn't dream of going to work off their shift.

I'm talking, of course, about volunteer firefighters. The strangest thing is that they like their "employers" (the public), for the most part. They volunteer because they want to help folks that are having a bad day.

While it's true that some volunteers are paid, and some have good equipment, and some work shifts and have time off, there are many, many that don't have any of these things.

Eventually, they toss in the towel. Some last long enough to retire at a ripe age (if you call a handshake and no pension "retirement"), but burnout is common. No one cares unless the whole crew gives notice at the same time, like the gals from Wandering River. Then all hell breaks loose. Thousands of people relied on them for years, without noticing when they responded at 2:00 AM, and without backing them when they asked for more resources. But when a bad piece of important highway suddenly became worse because the responders wouldn't go anymore, they received instant national attention. For a week at least.

The comment sections of the news stories intrigued me. While there was plenty of support, there were also plenty whose attitude was, "suck it up, this is what firefighters do." That may be, but fewer and fewer people are willing to "suck it up," and the ranks are growing thinner by the year.

It's funny, you don't hear about police departments or ambulance services packing it in for lack of support and new recruits. And no one tells them to suck it up and volunteer because that is what cops and paramedics do. Money isn't everything, but it sure does help.

Wandering River is on the even farther flung peripheral edge of the universe than Upsala is, but they are on a main artery that serves the very bullseye centre of the western world's universe - the oil industry - which may force the world to take notice. But they are just the tip of the iceberg. If I were a prophet, I would prophesy that the next generation living in the 80% of Canada's landmass served by volunteers will be even less willing to suck it up, and that their "employers" will be forced to reckon with that fact, or go without service.

But I'm not a prophet, so I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

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