Monday, June 14, 2010

Duke's Lesson

There are very few old-time ranchers who, when facing St. Peter at the gates of the Holy Corral, won’t confess to ignoring the messages sent by a willing horse. I’m talking about the times when the rider ignores his horse’s signals regarding the operating environment.
Years ago, I ignored the warnings of my buckskin partner Duke and sent us down an ice-slicked slope in pursuit of a runaway cow. We wiped out halfway down, and Duke and I parted company as we slid down the slope. When he got to his feet, Duke was favoring his hind leg. The look he gave me spoke volumes.
Although Duke was soon as fleet and savvy as ever, I never again over-rode his judgment. I learned the consequences of ignoring the messages of the willing horse.
Alberta’s political leaders might consider this lesson as they ponder the message sent to them by the Wandering River Volunteer Fire Department. The Wandering River crew recently announced that they were taking a “time out” from providing highway emergency response service along Highway 63 on the way to Fort McMurray. Along with protecting the lives and property of the folks at Wandering River, the fire crew was making an overwhelming number of trips for serious vehicle collisions along the high-accident highway. Sheri Johnson, the department's acting fire chief, said on average, there is one serious accident on the stretch of Highway 63 every week — and most volunteers aren't capable of handling the often-bloody outcomes. "There are a lot of people who don't feel it's the volunteer's job to be scraping people up off the highway, which is what we've done a fair amount of," she said. "A lot of people just can't handle it."
Ms. Johnson’s comments are spot-on. Volunteers in rural Alberta should not be expected to carry out difficult and dangerous tasks performed in urban Alberta by paid professionals. Volunteering to fight fires within one’s own community is much different than serving as first responders to the carnage on Highway 63.
Why are local volunteers shouldering such a complex and difficult burden? Is it simply because they live alongside this under-sized and over-used ribbon of blacktop? If that’s the case, why aren’t those industries whose operations drive the traffic load assuming more of the burden? They don’t because governments coping with “bust cycles” download complex and risky responsibilities such as highway first response to the volunteer sector in rural areas.
There is a more than a whiff of arrogance and entitlement about government and industry’s approach to the volunteer sector. Both know that community volunteers save many, many millions of tax dollars otherwise paid for by industry and / or taxpayers. Yet they regard the volunteer horse as impervious to overwork and abuse.
The Wandering River Fire Department has just sent a very strong signal to government and industry. You can ride a willing horse too hard. Will government and industry listen and respond with the same courage shown every day by Alberta’s volunteer fire departments? Across Alberta, other community volunteers will be carefully watching. Like any old-time rancher knows- one should never ignore the message from a willing horse.