The Volunteer Solution
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 definite 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 let’s 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 is 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 rawest 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 workforce, 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 used 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 an 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 afterward.
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.
Very good read, we are learning a lot of this in fire officer training. Cant wait for the 2nd part of this
Explain more on, Taking care of your people? I hear it from my members, but dont know how? Its people asking for more,but what are we getting in return? I buy gear,pay for training and yet they dont come around for calls or just the REAL calls! I can go on, but way to much.
This issue may be site specific as every department has it’s challenges to overcome. The most common problem for most departments is finding someone to show up for an automatic fire alarm at 10am on a Tuesday. From my experience volunteer firefighters have a psychological desire to not feel as if their time is being wasted. If someone is going to leave their place of employment to respond to an emergency, than it needs to be an actual emergency.
One idea I like to push is to take a 40,000 foot view of the problem looking down. Lets say you have a call at an apartment complex for a nuisance fire alarm that cry’s wolf, caller states “no smoke or fire showing” at 11am on Wednesday morning. What is your minimum expectation for this incident? Four members leaving their places of employment to staff a Tower ladder? 8 members for an engine and a tower? The majority of the time everyone rushes to the station screams out lights and sirens to a call they already have information that tells them it’s not an emergency.
Yes we should respond to all calls the same way until the investigation is completed but with some volunteer jurisdictions the fire department is just as responsible for respecting the valuable time of their volunteers and likewise respecting the generosity of local employers that allow their workers to leave for emergencies. If your expectation is that local employers allow their volunteer firefighter employees to bail for automatic fire alarms then you have to create a face to face understanding with the employer. The volunteer is having to the decide whether the information in the initial dispatch warrants placing the burden on his or her employer. It’s how the volunteer feeds himself and his family. It’s difficult for an employee to justify bailing out of work for a nothing call. But if it’s a car accident with injuries or a structure fire, it’s easy for him/her to justify the absence to the employer.
Again, it’s all about creating an understanding as well as stating a reasonable expectation of your volunteers with respect to their time. It’d be great to have a full response with every call but is that realistic or in the best interest of your people? The Really Big calls is where you want all of the people showing up. The size of the response should always match the need of the incident. We all have a desire to give the very best to our community and we all have an idea of what that should be.
You have to ride a fine line between the service you want to provide and the service you can reasonably provide. I have more to say but this is getting rather lengthy… I hope this helps.
Also don’t forget the small stuff. The member that sweeps the station, the guy making coffee, all these little things that get over looked in the big picture. Just a little acknowledgement of these actions will have huge benefits from the membership. It’s really hard to motivate and keep paid employees happy and enthusiastic, it’s even more of a challenge when it’s volunteer.
I think you hit on some good points. As a 20 year veteran of the fire service, I watch two or three complainers set the agenda for the service, and it ends up being detrimental. This seems to happen every 5 years or so. The focus always should be on the excellent members who are there for the community, not themselves. Ignore the complainers, or get to the root of their issue.
Also, the Government. The Federal Government has basically taken over volunteer Fire Departments. Required classes, W2’s now for all incentives, now you have to have pay taxes, or not give T-shirts, awards, etc. Ridiculous. 220 hours for interior certificate, plus all the recertification, who has time with a 40 hour work week and a family? Its pushing members out.
Nothing turns away members more than a poorly run and planned drill. It’s been my experience that most members want to get out and train if they are learning something. Most people drift away when the leaders are wasting their members time with poorly executed, uinformative and planned training.
I am an 18 year veteran in the fire service. Being a volunteer is hard with the way people work now a days but it’s not impossible. As said in this article, having a good leader will help keep the vfd going in the right direction. With that said, that good leader needs to change the way the rank and file think. Instead of harping on the firefighter who isn’t around much, make it a point to complement the ones who go the extra mile. I’m not saying do that publicly or in a meeting as that may cause other issues. Instead pull them aside and say thank you for all that you do to keep things rolling here. It is members like you that will keep this dept around for years to come. It has been my experience that saying thank you or giving a that a boy encourages others to step up. As for that firefighter who isn’t around a whole lot, think to yourself, has this member ever showed up when we had something big and only one or two other guys were available to respond? If that answer is yes, you now realize how important any time given by a volunteer is and what an asset EVERY member can be because one day they may make a big difference.
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You are absolutely correct. Your points are perfect. You have to appreciate the time, however little, your volunteers give. Some volunteers will be in a better position to give more time than others. It’s difficult to hold everyone to the same standard. One volunteer may have three jobs supporting 4 kids while another works part time with no other engagements. In a way, you have to tailor your expectations slightly given everyone’s life situation. Sure there should be minimum participation requirements but if you are going to set a minimum, then you have to be satisfied with members that meet just the minimum.
It’s poor judgement to criticize their lack of involvement. Positive re-enforcement is always the answer. Showing respect and appreciation while proving you have an understanding of that individuals constraints is the best way to manage volunteers. Just be thankful they are there at all.
Volunteer agencies should always be inclusive, welcoming, and supportive of their members.
The problem is the Culture within that needs to change with the times.Different demographics, different population. If they want to make it very attractive, attract college students as well.
One major problem I have seen is the lack of comrodery now. There are little clicks. Our department is paid and volunteer and there is a huge divide. For me it sucks cause I would do anything for my brothers but I can’t say they would for me.
Some very good points Cap.
I would like to comment on training issues. I hear all too many times, complaints in regard to the amount of training that is required. My question to those FF’s, would you feel comfortable in a hazardous situation with a partner who didn’t train much and had a a poor outlook on ongoing training? I’ve been in the volunteer fire service for close to fifty years. During that time I’ve held a full time job and at least two part time jobs while helping raise a family. I’ve always found time to take additional Firefighting and other emergency response courses several times a year. This along with response and fire department activities. Training is more than learning new techniques, it is also working on the fundamentals. Just like in sports, fundimentals are what really gets the job done.
Chief your comments support the research and writings of others. Much of this information is well documented by Jenaway, Carter, Schmittendorf & others over the lst 30 years. Several well researched documents have been written on this topic. The problems that impede the effectiveness of volunteer FDs will continue until professional (volunteer & career) administrative & leadership practices are put in place. Having been a leader of volunteers both, as a volunteer & career Chief Executive; my experience has been the lack of professional development for volunteer FD’s personnel as major contributor to the issues of a volunteer FD. Of course lack of is usually cited as the issue. However, until consistent organizational leadership, management & administration is carried out year after year, these type of articles will be written over and over. The are many solutions to this problem. The #1 problem found in the above noted research was poor leadership. Until all leaders are vetted out as competent with an effective assessment process and not just putting in the guy who is the best firefighter or has the time; leadership will continue to be the #1 problem. Another high ranking problem is lack of direction. No vision, no strategic plan. How many volunteer departments have a vision for the future or just live day to day? another key area of concern is indoctrination new members.Volunteer FD’s would be well suited to develop formal mentoring programs. I’m not talking about a field training officer for tactics, talking about someone who understands people and knows how to nurture and grow a new member that will become self sustaining over time. Way up in the top of the issues list is fire department politics. When we have a good strategic plan and competent leaders in places that shouldn’t be a major problem. Have you noticed training and not enough time to volunteer aren’t even at the top of the list? It’s cause they aren’t as much issue and many make them out to be. Dedicated volunteers will do both when given support in a empowering environment. I’ll agree to some degree fund raising is can be a problem if it takes up too much time. However I have found that fundrasing to buy hard earned equipment, or funds to do things for the members increases esprit de corps. It also increases pride and ownership. The same for parades. Again, not too many and not too much emphasis on them, but taking pride in equipment leads to more pride in the organization. I have found out volunteer FDs that just give their members everything have a substantial morale problem as they didn’t develop pride and ownership in things they didn’t have to work for for or earn through their participation to fund these items or services.
Finally. volunteer FD’s should be looking out side the box for ways to carry out all the functions of the fire department. i will wait to see the 2nd part of this article to provide my insight om what they might be andhow they can help.
Thank you for taking an interest in the problem and working toward postive difference
Thanks for reading. Your comment sounds like a college paper I wrote a few years back. On the rawest level, you are absolutely correct. The problem is completely surrounded by under-educated leadership. Likewise, most volunteer leaders only see the problems in front of them instead of viewing things from 40,000 feet looking down. A fire chief who can draft a 1 year plan 5 year plan and 10 year plan with mechanisms for completion have a better chance of success. If you can’t take an overall comprehensive look at the cultural and systemic attributes of your organization and how the smallest details of your programs function and what the end product is, you’ll never get ahead of it.
As you’ve stated, it takes thought provoking analysis, data collection and the ability to interpret that data. The comments you provided are the overall answers to the greater challenge and you couldn’t be more accurate in most cases. But I think it’s hard for people to execute the ideas you’ve provided.
With that said, there will continue to be articles like these because we are expecting farmers, mechanics, plumbers, truck drivers and warehouse workers to function as a fire chief and run effective fire service programs as an Executive Fire Officer would, while providing career level leadership. I’m not saying it’s impossible or there aren’t amazing volunteer chiefs out there, I know there is. I’m saying the deck is stacked against them. And the true fact is, right now, until a better national solution is presented, we need these folks out their caring for they’re communities. At it’s core, it’s neighbors helping neighbors. Whether they’re NFPA compliant, properly funded or even highly trained. The point is that someone is showing up to help those in need and at the end of the day, that’s all anyone could ask considering the situation some of these fire departments are in.
I didn’t want to present the information as you did (even though you are right) I think the best we can do is to provide ideas and guidance on a level that can be accomplished readily. If you notice a lot of my focus is on leadership.
I enjoyed reading your thoughts here. It was refreshing.
Thanks for Following Our Movement
Part II is already completed and in the Que. it’ll be up soon, stay tuned.
I am a 20 year vet of the volunteer fire service. I have help a lot of positions in my department. But lately the “good ole boy system” has taken control. We have a chief that nobody will run against cause of family ties inside the department. We are getting ready to install a assistant chief that has 3 years experience and no certifications at all. Same with a new training officer.
Its to personal with this department. If you are not in the click you are a outsider. I must say I have more training and certifications then all our officers combined. but I am on the outside looking in.
We don’t pump test, hose test, ladder test or anything like we should. I so enjoy being part of the firefighter brother hood, but its not good here anymore. What would it take to change? How can it be changed? What can the taxpayers do? can they vote for the officers. should they decide who is best fit for the jobs. I think so since they are paying.
Thanks for reading. Ah yes, the good ‘ole boy system is a sad reality of most organizations. Again, this all comes down to leadership. If your Leadership rejects the idea of a good ‘ole boy system and adopts a firehouse code of conduct then all could live harmoniously. That’s a pretty big IF though. It’s in our nature as human beings to clan together and form tribes. It’s how we survived in the early days of humanity. It’s a biological instinct and most people don’t quite realize they’re doing it.
To answer your question directly I’m going to throw a few seemingly cheesy quotes at you. I say “seemingly” because if you sit and thoughtfully ponder they are a call to action.
“Be the change you want to see in the world” – Ghandi
“You don’t need rank to be a leader” – Riley Amoriello
“If you do not step forward, you will always be in the same place.”
You recognize the change that needs to happen. You are not in the position to change it from the top down so you have to change it from the bottom up. The best kind of change comes from those who are closest to the problem. Be the change. If you aren’t doing hose testing, ladder testing or pump testing then start doing those things on your own. Take the lead. These thing require effort from someone, why not you?
Furthermore, I don’t know the municipal aspect of where you live. Depending on your location the fire department organization itself usually has some sort of budgetary oversight mayor, town manager, council, board of directors and so forth. It’s a little shady but I’ve seen change come from frank newspaper articles regarding the situation. Sometimes you need to shed a little light on the issue if it’s that bad. In general, its usually best not to throw your own department under the bus. Being a whistle blower doesn’t usually tend to work out for the blower, even if protected by law. I’d like to discuss this further with you… Please email me a FireCaptainJonMarr@Gmail.com or Find me on Facebook “Fire Captain Jon Marr” and we can chat.
I agree who heatedly with this. This is the exact thing that ultimately drove me out of the station where I volunteered. A new chief officer was elected who had quite a few “friends” in the department, I wasn’t among them. I was at the time also an officer who learned to lead from prior military service and didn’t tend to let “friends” get away with murder and lead by example where ever possible. At the time I ran the great majority of our EMS calls (combined department) and was admittedly suffering (looking back) at pretty severe burnout. Finally the chief came to me and “ordered” me to stop running so many of our calls as the other EMS attendants, when asked, told him that they felt I was too aggressive on calls (admittedly, I was, but in the sense that if something wasn’t getting done that needed done, I would jump in and do it instead of asking someone else (I’m not a physically or verbally aggressive person). So when I took the break he asked for our response times and scratch rate for the following month plummeted (where were all of his “buddies” who said they didn’t run because of me?) So, he comes to me at the next monthly meeting and berates me for “allowing” us to scratch on so many calls. At this point I had had enough of the whole thing and turned in my gear and keys that night after the meeting. I haven’t stepped foot in a fire station since that night almost 15 years ago. I’ve always said that I miss the “work”, but my life (and blood pressure) are much better being without those kinds of people.
I still keep in contact with the guys who called me “brother”, some of whom are still there but all in all, the “good ole’ boy” network is alive and well, and it’s driving out otherwise perfectly willing and able people.
I use to Volunteer for both Fire and EMS groups. I left because it became the “good ole boy system” and didn’t have any sense of community and unity. On top of that, they were not receptive to minorities who volunteer and tried to push minorities like myself out. I still have my EMT license but I am hoping that I can get back when the Vol Fire and EMS community can get rid of the “good ole boy system”.
The bad part is most townships have set number of volunteers . Ours we had 8 trained equipt dedicated vfm and Ems. We had a new trustee take office locked us out took our gear . Saying we were unreliable. Me being a volunteer from 1986 to 2014 working full time kids . Our books showed our reliability but we couldn’t get to them filed complaints to statefire marshel and to the head of vfd in Indiana. What a joke that was i feel for the men that put there asses on the line .for what you be ignored and wrote off some intervention would have been something. Now its like a two man operation with another department bleeding our township . For what money
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All too often the membership elects a chief that will go in front of them while they wander where they want to go, versus a chief who can and will actually lead them where they need to go. In fact, such departments already have leaders – but those leaders don’t want the responsibility of being an officer – they just like to be leaders and receive the adulation therefrom.
Such departments are often social groups who fight fires, as opposed to functional fire departments which have the camaraderie that comes from doing the job as a team.
Being the greatest leader in the world doesn’t mean a thing unless there are people who are actually willing to follow.
The easy way to deal with the undue burden of federal requirements on the fire service is simply to stop complying with them. There are already some departments around the country who use non-fighters as drivers during the day despite federal agencies telling them they must stop the practice. Sure, they might withhold some federal funding, if the department was receiving any in the first place. But will the federal government fund the cost of a full-time paid daytime firefighter/driver for a department that complies?
As an Assistant Chief in a small department that is plagued with many of these exact problems. This is some of the best and most reassuring words I have read. I often throw my hands up in disgust when my department tends to do the quite opposite of many of these things, and reject ideas that a few of us often have. It is good to hear and to read that many of those ideas and thoughts that are often rejected are actually being used and working well in other areas. I can’t wait to read the next parts.
You hit on several good points here. There are many reasons the volunteer fire service is in deep trouble with recruitment and retention. There are no magic solutions to the problem but are a ton of things we can do to improve them. I also teach on this very subject.
We would welcome an article on the topic if you’re interested in having it published. Email: email@example.com
I have a core group of 8-10 members of active dedicated guys, the rest seem to complain or not even wear their pagers. Limited budget and a very small community that has no industry seem to make recruiting tough.
Enjoyed reading all the stories I think this will help with getting different information out there.Thank’s John.
I have run into two other problems with voted in Fire Chiefs.
1) The Fire Chief that should have retired the day they decided they know it all and refuse to continue to train not just in Fire Science but more importantly in Human Resource Management. I have seen some really great Fire Chiefs on the fire grounds who have no ethics, morals, or even basic concept employee law when it comes to managing the personal.
2) The two faced Fire Chief who says they want volunteers but really wants a Full-Time IAFF Fire Department. I have been locked out of three Fire Department as a volunteer over 30 years when the fire board/city make a backroom deal with the union to lockout the volunteers. From a tax payers prospective this is just bad business.
Great article and hits the nail on the head!