Thursday, November 1, 2012

Does Your Community Shine in Bad Times?


I've built several communities and been a part of many others during the course of my career, including some that have nothing to do with software and technology.

Unfortunately, two communities I've been a part of have recently suffered devastating losses.  Not long ago, I wrote about my friend Greg Junell, and what he meant to a community of college kids who've now grown up and gone on to do many amazing things.  Just this past Saturday, my Cal Fire community lost an amazing member in the line of duty, Chief Rob Van Wormer.  He was the head of the fire prevention battalion at the Cal Fire Santa Clara Unit, which includes the group I volunteer with - the Volunteers in Prevention (VIPs).  The chief was a vocal and strong supporter of our volunteer team, and the many functions we perform for the department, including emergency radio communications, fire lookout staffing, public education programs, and media center operations (fielding calls during a major fire).

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My Badge Shrouded for Chief Van Wormer's Passing

He was a man we all respected and admired (and truth be told, feared just a little bit, in a good way). I'm sure the chief would never have characterized himself as a community catalyst - fire departments are paramilitary organizations by necessity - you have firefighters (privates), engineers (lieutenants), captains, and various levels of chiefs working in a command & control fashion.  Chief Van Wormer ascended these ranks through 24 years serving the citizens of California, and I know that he was very proud of his department and his entire unit.

However, his leadership style, while firm, provided for flexibility, and that allowed a community to form within his unit - one that I'm extremely proud to be a part of. The interesting thing about the fire service however is that there is a bond (some call it brotherhood, but I think community is a more all-encompassing term) that binds not just individual units and departments together, but brings together everyone involved in the fire service.  The sad part is, most people don't get to see that put on display until there is a tragedy such as Chief Van Wormer's passing.

The amount of support that Cal Fire has received, and the incredible way our department has come together to help the Van Wormer family through this, is the highest form of community engagement I've ever seen.  While this is no surprise to those of us who've been a part of this community, it should serve as an inspiration for community managers in other disciplines as well.

While you may not ever have to go through something like our community is going through now, it never hurts to consider how your community reacts in bad times.  It's easy to show strength when things are going well, but it takes a special kind of community to pull together when the chips are down and showcase its caring, understanding and strength.

As for me, I'll be attending Chief Van Wormer's memorial this Saturday, in a hockey arena - because that's how large and supportive our community is.  Despite how much this hurts all of us who've lost a friend, colleague, and leader, I know we'll all be much stronger from the collective support of our fellow community members.

Rest in peace Chief Rob Van Wormer - we've got the next watch.