The volunteer firefighter problem in America may appear to be a massive one, but its entirety is made up of small issues that smoosh together creating the illusion of one large problem. It’s a cultural and systemic situation that is further complicated by industry regulation, standards, and state/local government laws. The system, as it’s currently designed, actually makes it difficult for people to be volunteers. There are definitely actions that can be taken to ease the burden and bolster your numbers. The entire premise is to make volunteering easy and fun while still maintaining a respectable level of training, participation and professionalism.
We polled our Facebook followers to see what kind of things would make it easier for them to be a volunteer. From the east coast to the west coast and everywhere in between all of the answers appeared to echo. Here is a short list of the issues we’ll tackle:
- The voted-in Fire Chief
- Training overload or willing to volunteer but no time for the required FF1 or 2 and other classes such as Hazmat, CPR, and extrication…
- Employers that don’t understand the
- If the need for fundraising weren’t so great there would be more time for training.
- Drama/Lack of Respect
- Gasoline expenses
- Lack of funding for necessities
- Lack of manpower/members
Perhaps this short list is a little longer than I had anticipated but that’s okay, I’m excited, so lets get started.
The Voted-In Fire Chief
First and foremost, one common thing among most “Roberts Rules of Order” fire departments is the “voted-in” or elected Fire Chief. While this practice tends to be the standard among volunteer fire departments it can have dramatic and even dangerous outcomes. Volunteer Fire Department’s are like miniature parliament’s that run a democratic process and as such are imperfect. The voting outcomes always tend to fall on the side of the “popular candidate” and not always the most qualified one. This is the most raw form of democracy and with it comes inherent drama. The elected Fire Chief usually knows who voted for him or her and who didn’t. The vote itself is one place that can breed favoritism.
If you are a Volunteer Fire Chief it’s important to realize your job isn’t just “managing” the fire department and taking command on scene. You are in charge of fostering your volunteer work force, the entire volunteer force, in a fair, consistent, calm and pragmatic way.
Finding solutions, keeping the peace, and creating an energy and atmosphere that volunteers WANT to be around, not just your favorite people, but all of your people. Every person, including those you consider undesirable, who continue to show up for work assignments, calls, administrative stuff, are you’re only people. You have to deal with the volunteers your community has to offer.
As an elected Fire Chief you cannot allow nepotism, favoritism, or a power trip to be your legacy. Create and enforce a code of ethics within the firehouse. A great one can be found here on the US Fire Administration website.
You can have the nicest trucks and equipment in the world but if you don’t have volunteers who are happy to show up then you’ve got nothing. Without firefighters there is no fire department. You have to take care of them first. Spend more of your budget on your people rather than buying new stuff. (This could be a whole article in itself) If you’re doing it right, people will be knocking down your door to volunteer. If you are doing it wrong you’ll be raising your voice at members and creating rifts.
It’s unfortunate that fire department taxes or municipal funding isn’t enough to cover expenses but that’s the reality of almost every volunteer fire department. There have always been pancake breakfasts, spaghetti dinners and special events; it’s almost the volunteer way of life. The burden of fundraising doesn’t have to be a heavy one. One solid solution to this problem is to give the responsibility to someone else. Create an auxiliary organization whose sole focus is fundraising. In the past these organizations were called a “Ladies Auxiliary” but I doubt that’s PC any longer. One organization I was privileged to be a part of had an auxiliary organization of mostly elderly folks coupled with high school kids and a few firefighter spouses. The fundraising events they were able to plan were amazing and the turnout was always high. From dirt bike races, marathons, a rodeo and even an antique car and airplane show, the possibilities are endless if you are creative and you can pull the resources of your jurisdiction together.
Another way of raising funds is less traditional and more business oriented. Billing. Yes, the dreaded “B” word. But it’s not as bad as it sounds. Motor vehicle accidents, or traffic collisions (depending are where you live) offer a chance to recoup money spent responding to the call. The good thing here is that you are not billing the individual. All car insurance policies have a $5000 chunk set aside for emergency response. You can usually charge per truck, per person, and mileage, as well as any equipment needed to mitigate. Gather the car insurance info before the vehicles are towed. Hire a 3rd party biller to handle the paperwork, they’ll take 10-15% off the top and you get the rest. In a department I was an officer for, billing for accidents used to cover our entire years worth of fuel with extra left over for equipment purchases.
Less time spent fundraising means more time to train.
As mentioned earlier, if the Fire Chief has created an inviting atmosphere, people will be showing up from everywhere. It’s important not to turn people away. Not every volunteer has to be a firefighter with fire gear, hoses, and SCBA’s. Why not seek volunteers who can do ancillary work like creating or managing a website or Facebook page, seeking out just drivers or elderly residents who are willing to do administrative tasks, operate as traffic control also known as Fire Police in some areas. Everyone should be welcome to volunteer including special needs individuals, there is plenty of work to go around and not everyone needs to end up on a fire scene.
When it comes to recruitment social media is where it’s at. Maintain an active Facebook page that highlights all of the awesome things your volunteers are doing and post pictures of all the “fun” they’re having and the good deeds they’re doing. The people you want to recruit are probably on Facebook. Likewise partner with the local high schools marketing teacher and inquire about the possibility of having students create a fire department marketing strategy for recruitment. The idea gives students practical experience in marketing while helping the community. Hang recruitment posters at gas stations, local restaurants, libraries and so forth.
Furthermore, the kids and young adults who are the perfect age to perform work are not out and about like we were. They’re likely sitting on their computer or playing video games. This generation of kids is not brought up with a sense of community and they are rarely seen swinging from trees. A robust explorer/junior program is a great way to get young adults off the couch and into the fire department. Replace the excitement of their virtual world with the excitement of firefighting reality as long as they feel encouraged they’ll keep coming back. When these explorers turn eighteen, you have a trained valuable member whom you were able to shape and mold over time.
Another way to bolster your roster is to link with a local community college that offers Fire Science. Offer to create an arrangement with the school to have the students gain practical knowledge and earn credit by spending 2 or 3 eight-hour days (shifts) at the fire station “on-duty” so to speak, you end up with staffed engines. Likewise a live-in program can offer incredible value.
The Volunteer’s Employer
There are many things that can be done to raise understanding among employers of volunteer firefighters. Sometimes a visit from the Fire Chief and general conversation can solve the issue. This is where and why it’s important to elect a Fire Chief that can represent the Fire Dept. as a Diplomat. All you really need to do is get out there, smile, meet people, and shake hands.
A proactive Fire Chief has the ability to create a network of businesses that are willing to support the mission of the fire dept. A common line that can be use is, “If your business was on fire at 10am on a Tuesday, who would respond to your fire if every employer in town refused to allow the fire dept’s volunteers to leave work to extinguish the fire and potentially save someone’s life.” This line usually helps paint the gravity of the situation in terms that they are affected by.
Furthermore, a proactive fire chief could work with the municipal government or representatives to create an ordinance or legislation that mandates all businesses must support the community they are a part of by allowing firefighters to respond to emergencies as long as it doesn’t create undue hardship. If you are the only employee working at a gas station, it’s not likely you’ll be able to close up shop and take a call. That wouldn’t be fair to the business.
Another way to engage businesses is to include them in emergency response plans. Sometimes emergencies can require the effort of a community to mitigate. A handshake or official agreement can be made for services should the fire dept. need a backhoe, food, water, a crane w/operator, dump-truck, sand, fuel, electrician, plumber and so on. The agreement should include a Claus where the services are provided forthwith and the money is worked out afterwards.
This is getting rather lengthy so I’ll break here and we’ll address the remaining concerns in Part II. If you have any thoughts or ideas about providing solutions please address them here and share them with our followers.