Up front, here’s the bottom line; volunteer fire departments across America have incredible marketing problems. In today’s world, we’re constantly flooded with information. We get it from our phones, our computers, TV’s, tablets, poster’s, flyers and more. At present time and continuing into the future, the volunteer fire service will need to lean heavily into marketing plans. Marketing your department provides incredible benefits for improving the department’s image, generating positive morale, and enabling a greater ability to recruit new volunteers. Creating a marketing plan for your department takes forethought, creativity, motivation, scheduling, budgeting, and overall planning.
Today’s volunteer Fire Chief needs to be many things, an incident commander, a fire prevention inspector, an instructor and mentor, an administrator, a politician, a strategic planner, a communicator, a counselor, a customer service rep, and most importantly a marketing manager; add that to the long list of emergency service disciplines and it seems nearly impossible that these people can actually exist at all. The position of Fire Chief is likely one of the more dynamic careers in the modern world.
Why does my department need a marketing plan?
It’s rather important to take a holistic view of fire department management. When I say holistic, I mean to describe how all the little parts of the organization are intimately interconnected with other parts. These intimately interconnected parts help to form the overall health of the department as a whole. For example, a department with strong community risk reduction programs(CCRP) can be linked to having a greater ability to recruit new members because CCRP’s increase the amount of exposure department’s have within the community. Community risk reduction programs help to improve community relations forming a positive public perception. Possessing a positive public image also has a direct effect on morale within the department. If the public has a high degree of confidence in their fire department, the members will feel that… thus improving morale. Higher morale leads to greater member retention. So on and so forth. When I say holistic I mean that in a very real sense.
Marketing has the ability to increase/improve a laundry list of things including but not limited to: recruitment, retention, morale, building partnerships, budgets, public confidence, education, and create a more informed general public. From creating professional recruitment videos and holiday safety public service announcements to advertising a babysitter certification class, each little piece of marketing content helps to form a much larger picture of the organization in the public’s eye. BUT FIRST YOU MUST HAVE A PLAN!
Answer this one question: Does your department have a marketing plan?
A marketing plan is a comprehensive written document which outlines all of your advertising efforts and challenges throughout the year. Every community program your fire department operates should have an associated marketing effort or campaign. If your department provides community risk reduction programs such as fire extinguisher training, CPR, and/or babysitter certification classes, each of these programs should have a detailed plan illustrating:
- Who you are marketing to
- When you need to start and a schedule of recurring blitzes
- How you’re going to provide the marketing material (ie. Targeted Facebook Ads, Instagram, Youtube, mailers, local businesses, Explorers or Juniors disseminating pamphlets. etc)
- What the marketing material will be(ie. a video, flyers, posters, shareable image ads, newspaper ad and so forth.) and who will create it as well as an estimated cost
Each of these four should be broken down as specifically as possible.
Aside from community risk reduction programs, your department should be planning and be executing a deliberate, consistent, routine marketing strategy that improves the image of your department, showcases the responders who give everything of themselves to serve, and bolsters recruitment efforts. A few lines I often use to support these ideas are:
- If the community doesn’t see it happen, then it didn’t happen. You have to show them.(That means cameras)
- If the community doesn’t understand their role in supporting the fire department, then you will not be supported.
- If your needs are not communicated pragmatically and effectively then nobody will hear it.
- The public’s perception of their fire department is only as good as the information they are consistently provided; So flood the market.
Creating a marketing plan provides you with a road map and a schedule throughout the year and keeps your department running in a timely and deliberate manner. Planning will always provide you with the best possible chance of being successful with your marketing efforts. A greater emphasis should be given to electronic forms of marketing like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and so on. It’s very likely that most everyone in your response area has a Facebook page and scrolls their newsfeeds.
Quick Reality Check
It’s important to recognize that marketing is not a short sprint, it’s a very long, never ending hike. If you’re holding an expectation that posting a few videos and hanging a stack of posters in various locations is all that is required, then you’ve already submitted to failure. Marketing is a continuous effort to consistently provide the information and the image you want to project to the community. If the residents of your community are constantly coming across positive images, videos, and news stories showing happy firefighters serving the community, you will slowly begin to win the hearts and minds. Again, if the public doesn’t see it happen, then it never happened. Realistically, it could take up to a year before you start seeing the benefits of your marketing efforts. If you start seeing no return at all, it might be prudent to take a finer look at your marketing content and methods, perhaps doubling down with a more focused effort will yield the results you’re looking for.
Ensure that you establish some quality control standards when it comes to posting videos, images, and the like. You want to ensure the content being released reflects the values your department holds and represents your members in a positive light. Videos, with poor quality, loud or humming background noises, lack of proper editing and so forth can really detract from the overall message you’re trying to provide. You’ll want to use graphics, background music, and provide an animated logo at the beginning of your video. Likewise, posters and flyers should be designed and printed with proper quality utilizing clear images. Here is a great example of where the video marketing bar has been set.
Volunteer fire departments are no different than any other non-profit out there. This means that a professional marketing strategy and approach is paramount to running a very successful organization. Utilizing a business marketing template will definitely help you get started. Here is a resource that can be repurposed for your fire department. http://www.sbdc.umb.edu/pdfs/marketing_plan.pdf
When it comes to the marketing of a non-profit, I always like to throw some credit to Team Rubicon. While not a fire department, Team Rubicon’s marketing plan has been unmatched in recent years and it has yielded them incredible success both financially and in volunteer workforce recruitment numbers.
With regard to marketing for the purpose of recruitment, one barrier that exists resides in peoples minds. At times, people have a hard time seeing themselves as a volunteer firefighter, or they just assume they’re not capable. Breaking that barrier requires communications. Handing out flyers and hanging posters is a very passive form of recruitment, it relies solely on the courage of the prospective member to step forward on his/her own. It’s important for current members to recognize that each of them is an ambassador of the fire department and each of them has a role to play in recruitment. Members should recognize that their behaviors both on and off duty create a positive or negative image of the department. As a group, we either display the values of an organization anyone can be a part of, or we display the opposite. Some posters that help soften the image include the following. All of these recruitment posters have the ability to be targeted Facebook and Instagram ads.
Producing ad images and videos highlighting all of the good things your organization does is a surefire way to gain the support you seek in many different areas. When the public sees marketed content from your department advertising community risk reduction programs, informing them of emergency responses, highlighting firefighter training, recruitment efforts, showcasing fire department meetings, spotlighting community partnerships, and showing happy firefighters serving their community, a much larger sense of the overall state of the fire department begins to emerge.
I want to be careful not to suggest that this is easy. It’s not. It takes planning, creativity, ambition, vision, some hard work, and execution. As fire service leaders we’re not professionally trained marketing managers. HOWEVER, It’s likely that there is someone in your community that you could reach out to for some support. If you’re a 501c3 non-profit fire department, any marketing assistance provided by a licensed agency would be tax deductible. Any support given to your fire department should be answered in the form of a certificate or plaque which that business could hang on their office wall. My point here is if you are unable to create your own marketing content or struggle to build a plan, FIND the resources within your community to make it happen. It’s likely there is someone in your response area that could volunteer as a marketing manager.
Disclaimer: This articles intent was to highlight the importance of having a marketing strategy and to start the discussion of building a marketing plan for your fire department. Any resources highlighted in this article were intended to provide you with a vision and an example of a path forward and in no way are affiliated with the author or Station Pride.
Building the future fire officer and re-enforcing the capabilities of current ones.
Professional development in any career field is an important process for the stability and growth of the organization. The fire service tends to lean internally when it comes to promoting officers; this makes the practice of professional development a critical one. Our firefighters absorb specific operational knowledge about their response area over time, that knowledge becomes a brain trust which is invaluable to a department. The local operational knowledge required to be a fire officer in any given jurisdiction
is nearly a necessity. For that reason, it’s important for a fire department to develop the people they have as opposed to bringing in new officers from the outside. With clear expectations of your officers and a comprehensive development program, fire departments set the stage for their members to be successful while creating the foundation for a well-tuned and morale-rich fire department.
Professional development in the fire service can encompass many facets of leadership and management. As with everything, the scope of a professional development training program should be defined in writing. This definition could include educational requirements and address or defined a wide range of topics and resources for study such as:
- customer service
- conflict resolution
- communication (radio & routine)
- disciplinary action
- role playing sessions
- public relations
- ethics and holding a position of public trust
- personal life conduct
- social media conduct
- local incident command
- health & wellness
- applicable state and federal laws
- recognizing the signs of suicide and when to reach out
- creative problem solving
- diversity and cultural sensitivity
- handling customer complaints and much much more.
The list could be nearly endless. The core idea behind professional development is to identify the knowledge and skills your department finds desirable in an officer and create functional training around those topics. Training on each topic could be in the form of custom online multi media courses using a Learning Management System (LMS) (see Revolutionize Your Volunteer Training) combined with in-person training sessions. Building multi media classes around each topic allow the members to complete the assigned training on their own time, in their homes, at the ball game or in the air. No LMS? Classroom works just as well. Knowledge gained through LMS multi media courses should always be re-enforced with practical or even a role-playing session in the classroom. Some fire officers are unsure how they will react given a specific situation. Role playing puts the officer in that uncomfortable position allowing him to use his communication skills to resolve the problem. Coaching and mentoring during the role playing session helps to develop the officer’s skills in managing personnel.
Professional development training resources should be readily available to everyone within the department. The program you develop should be assigned to officers and used to refresh current skills as well as providing firefighters with the opportunity to learn and later promote. If utilizing a multi media LMS platform, a department could theoretically link course completion with potential for promotion when positions become available.
I’ve always held the belief that achieving certifications and/or education is just the beginning. It’s what you do with that education once you’ve completed it that makes all the difference. You can complete a driver operator course certifying that you understand the basics of driving and pumping a fire apparatus but does that necessarily make you qualified? Practicing the craft of being a good driver operator is essential to successful fire ground operation as the incident typically pivots on the pump operator. (See here) Similar to the driver operator analogy, simply learning about the aspects, principles, and processes of leadership and personnel management isn’t enough. The information and the knowledge you learn in classes require development and practice because that is the essence of being a professional.
It’s important to recognize that professional development is a process and it’s ongoing. There is mentoring and coaching that takes place throughout the officer’s tenure. As officers and future officers encounter situations and scenarios they aren’t quite equipped to handle, the act of walking someone through the steps to achieve the desired result will often help to form and develop a functionally more intelligent officer.
Every step of the way officers should be encouraged to own their role and not be afraid of making mistakes. There should be a mild expectation that we’ll all make mistakes at some point. We’re all human. Mistakes and missteps should be viewed as learning moments and an opportunity to develop skills and proper behaviors. As leaders, we should look at ourselves objectively and recognize that we’re all just practicing. Similar to how physicians practice medicine, we, as fire officer’s practice the art of leadership and our craft.
Without question, building a professional development program for your fire department will have a long lasting effect on the health and morale of the organization. If you or the members of your department do not possess the skills to create a professional development program or are not well versed in the topics requiring development, reach out to members or leaders within the community. It’s likely someone in your response area has the ability to help re-enforce customer service skills, conflict resolution skills and the like.
If you have any specific questions regarding anything in this article, please feel free to comment, and I’ll do everything I can to point you to some helpful topic resources.
Good Luck and Be Kind.
Other articles in the Thoughtful Leadership series include:
The effectiveness of any first response organization hinges on the efficiency of its training. Without training, we fail to properly and safely execute our mission of protecting life, property, and the environment. Clearly, training is a necessity. For career firefighters, training is a part of daily duty. For volunteers, training is typically accomplished one evening per week and a weekend day or something similar to that arrangement. Volunteer fire chiefs are never really able to anticipate who will show up for training and aren’t really presented with many options in the way of continuity or 100% compliance.
Let’s face some hard truths for volunteer firefighter training; at times, training needs to be mandatory and this can cause hardships for some volunteers who work during the scheduled training hours. In the Volunteer Solution Part 1 our volunteer survey revealed how the cumbersome training requirements were a barrier that prevented people from volunteering. We can all agree that training is not only necessary but it’s paramount to the function and safety of any emergency response organization. If we understand the problem than we’re able to brainstorm thoughtful solutions to redesign the way our firefighters accomplish their training and ultimately create a better educated, uniformly trained, and competent fire department.
How do you consistently train your volunteer firefighters so they’re all educated with the same information, the same way, with little gaps? It’s time to move your non-practical, non-manipulative training to an online learning management system.
Imagine if your fire department had its own custom online university. Anytown Fire Department University. Sounds a bit crazy, a little expensive, and a tad unrealistic; But it’s NOT let me show you how.
Almost every fire department has mandatory classes that need to be accomplished for either legal(OSHA) or insurance reasons. It’s not always easy to physically get the entire department in for these classes even when they’re labeled as mandatory. Moving the learning process to an online format allows the member to accomplish the classroom portion of the training at their own pace whether at home or out-and-about on their smart devices. Moving all of your powerpoint training onto an interaction multi-media training course is and will be the logical future of the volunteer fire service. Custom online courses allow your members the freedom of accomplishing their training on their own time from home. This sentiment alone is worth its weight in gold. It’s a win-win. As a Fire Chief, you’re able to educate your membership with the same information across the department without requiring the physical presence of the member. This means everyone is receiving the same information in the same format.
Of course, this does not and will never replace manipulative practical training. However, what it does do is free up more time for the hands-on training necessary to keep everyone’s skills on par.
HOW DO WE DO THIS?
There are several ways. Some solutions become a line item on your budget, others are free and exercise a little creativity.
First, you’ll need a subscription to a learning management system. If you are familiar with online learning then you’ve heard of Blackboard or other web services like it. A learning management system(LMS) is a web platform that allows you to create user login accounts, gives you the ability to upload your multimedia courses and administer testing so you can be certain that your members are retaining the critical information you need them to know.
The LMS allows your members to log into their own learning environment and accomplish courses that have been assigned to them. The LMS is a customizable interface so your department logo and or your own department image and/or custom URL make the experience unique to your department and feels organic for your membership.
There are several learning management systems (LMS) companies that exist online including Litmos and Talent LMS. Many more cloud-based LMS are available for you to choose from. As I write this article, Talent LMS appears to be the easiest to use and the most cost-effective for volunteer departments. You can watch the overview of Litmos here and the overview for Talent LMS here. Pricing for Li
tmos LMS runs $3 per user for organizations under 500 people. HOWEVER, if you are a 501(c)3 non-profit y
ou can call Litmos for special pricing. Pricing for Talent LMS appears to be more cost effective at about $100 per month up to 100 users.
Ok, so you’ve got your LMS, now it’s time to build your courses. For that, you’ll need a 3rd party multimedia creation tool. For this, I recommend Articulate 360 Rise. This is a web-based storyline multimedia course development tool. It will allow you to create custom courses with your own content, images, videos, linked content, and much more. Articulate 360 Rise also provides you with the ability to create quizzes in order to measure the knowledge retention of your training. Watch the overview of Articulate 360 here. The Price for this will run about $600 per year.
The effectiveness and the vast potential of your course content largely resides in your own creative potential. Your courses and the knowledge it provides are solely based on your own ability to develop training. If you currently utilize Powerpoint or Keynote for your classroom training, it will be easy to transfer that content and training information into Articulate 360’s Rise development tool. There are many useful guides that can help you develop your online multimedia course.
Some techie stuff really quick: The Articulate 360 courses are developed using SCORM which is a language compatible with Litmos and Talent LMS. In summation, The LMS is the platform or the environment all of your members will log into so they can complete the courses you assigned them. Articulate 360 Rise is a web-based course creation tool. Once courses are developed with Articulate 360 you are able to load those courses into your LMS. Once loaded they can be assigned to members for completion.
Off the cuff, you can use your LMS to administer indoctrination training for new members, truck/engine specific training, policy update training, driver training, pump training, annual bloodborne pathogens training, local strategy and tactics information, and any other training you can think of. The idea here is to remove the burden of requiring the member’s presence in the station by allowing that person to complete the training on their own time and even on their mobile devices.
This is a system that is already widely used in the corporate environment. With a little ambition and creativity, online training is a thoughtful reality and the next step for volunteer fire departments to help keep their members informed and active! At a cost of less than $2000 annually, building an online university for your department is definitely within reach.
Disclaimer: I do not endorse nor am I affiliated with the companies listed in this article. The information presented is based on my own research and experience with LMS and Articulate 360 Rise. There was no transaction with any of the companies highlighted in this article. Nor are they even likely aware that I’ve inadvertently plugged their services. Either way, we like to stay on the up-and-up. Good luck!
Building a community network to support your volunteer fire department.
For the career fire employees out there, it’s likely your fire department provides some level of personnel support with regard to smoking cessation, physical fitness, dietary, psychological support, marriage counseling, stress management, financial planning etc. from an employee assistance program(EAP).
For the volunteer departments reading this, it’s likely you have little or no support at all in the areas serviced by a professional EAP program, nor can you likely afford to pay for the services for one like it. Alas, there is always a solution to the most complex problems but it might take a little idea tweaking, politicking, handshaking, and community organizing to pull it off.
Every community has services that can be drafted or harnessed to provide support for your fire departments’ volunteers. For the 501(c) fire departments, your job may be a little bit easier, as donations to your organization are likely tax-deductible.
When broken down in numbers, volunteer fire departments save their communities millions in labor costs. In fact, a recent study by the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York determined that volunteer firefighter’s save the citizens of New York State $3.1 billion in taxes to support wages and associated employment benefits of a statewide career department. Equating the dollar equivalent of a volunteer firefighter doesn’t exactly fill one with pride, but it’s a valuable number to calculate for your area because it can be used as a selling point to garner support from the community and it’s business power.
Volunteerism is down all over the country, it’s a common headline these days. Every volunteer fire chief struggles to keep active volunteers on their roster, and there is a slew of reasons why. (See The Volunteer Solution) It’s imperative to find creative ways to sweeten the pot for your volunteers. Wouldn’t it be great if you were able to offer a welcome package to a new full member of your department? A welcome package that comes from the community as a ‘thank you’ for serving them? Hint: the answer is yes! If you’re a fire chief reading this, you already know you have more tasks than not, but two very important primary tasks are to find the balances between serving the needs of your membership as well as the needs of your community, each serving each other.
What I’m describing looks a little like the businesses of your community offering small discounts to the volunteers of your organization. For example, volunteer firefighters receive 5% off a particular gas station, 10% off at a local chain restaurant, a rebate at the car dealership, one free oil change per year at the quick lube, a free consultation with a nutritionist, chiropractic services, discounts on gym memberships and so on. The list is endless and it’s all unique to what your community has to offer. Where possible, always make attempts to include services found in a typical EAP. The idea here is to engage the services of your community to support the selfless services provided by your volunteers. Small discounts may not seem like a big deal, but when added up over the course of a year it could mean hundreds or even thousands of dollars saved by the members of your organization and as we learned in the Volunteer Solution, every little bit counts.
Where do we start?
As with any large task, you break the situation down into logical, manageable chunks of work.
The central idea here is that the volunteer problem is not a fire department problem, it’s a community problem. We’re all in this together. The solution is a community one.
Develop your pitch. In the Volunteer Solution Part 3, we discussed communicating your needs as an o
rganization to your community. If you fail to communicate the type of support you need, you will certainly NOT receive it. You’ll want to write all of these things down and package this as a fire department program. Give it a name, for example, “Community volunteer firefighter assistance.” Start with drafting a statement of your intentions, highlight your volunteer numbers, national trends, the number of hours these individuals provide the community and the disruption it causes to their lives. Express your needs openly and honestly. It may even be useful to communicate how volunteer firefighters save their businesses thousands of tax dollars but at a cost to very few among us. Create an understanding with business owners by describing your plan to harness the collective power of the community to support volunteerism and ask them if they’d be willing to help. No threats need to be made, but the bottom line reality for every volunteer department is if people stop showing up, the cost of replacing a volunteer can be astronomical.
Identify the services, businesses, and organizations in your community you’d be interested in forming partnerships with. These services could include, nutritionists, physical fitness (local gym), gas stations, restaurants, box stores, car dealerships, barbershops, chiropractic services, massage therapy, car maintenance businesses, grocery stores, hotels, and any type of entity within your reach. There is literally no limit to the participants of your developing program. It could take a year to build fully, however, meeting with each business owner or proprietor to communicate your needs takes time, thoughtful effort, and a little bit of politicking. Arrange a one-on-one meeting, or host a group meeting with local business leaders, each choice will help to get your message across.
Marketing, marketing, marketing. The services your fire station provides IS your product and
products need to be sold. As a fire department, we don’t produce anything. In fact, our very nature is to consume more than we produce. We’re more of a last resort insurance policy for when people need help, with anything. Market all the good thinks your volunteers are doing, market EVERYTHING, create edited videos with your logo, post images to your website and social media frequently.
During the workshops I provide, I hear department leaders complain about not receiving enough facebook followers or website traffic. Their message is going unheard and nobody seem
s to be paying attention. Here’s a simple trick, provide information people in your community NEED and they will continue to check back. They don’t need to know about your fire prevention program, but they might need to know what traffic conditions are, the weather, tides, storm information, community hazards, road closures, construction and so forth. People will follow you for necessary information and while they’re there, market the things you want them to know and see. My hard point here is that if nobody sees it happen, it didn’t happen. It’s human nature to be absorbed in our own lives, most people do not give much attention to the fire department because it is not relevant to their daily lives. Make yourselves relevant. It takes some thoughtful planning and process building, but once that’s nailed down, it’s a field of dreams.
Volunteer fire departments really need to get back into the business of community organizing. Find ways to make yourselves a more active presence in your community. Consider offering babysitting certification classes, community CPR classes, and child car seat installation. Join nationally funded initiatives like Safe Place. Instead of passively providing a service when those are in need, find creative ways and attempt to be relevant in the daily lives of your community.
Last but not least, when you’ve garnered the support you need from the community, create a membership card whether magnetic swipe or barcode that businesses can swipe or scan for member discounts. Members can carry the cards in their wallet and scan them when used. There are many websites where you can make custom membership card. Such as this one, click (here). Likewise, when/where possible, set your program participants up with your tax exempt number so their contributions to your program can be written off on their taxes, if possible.
Here are some examples of how you can market and recruit for your department.
Before we get started on the meat of this 3rd leg… A fair amount of discussion occurred at the end of Part 1 and Part 2 which led me to an unplanned Part 3 discussing expectations. Expectations can be tricky to navigate. There are moments when expectations run parallel and other times when they meet. When and where they meet is when the engine that drives this paradigm begins firing on all cylinders.
The following are a list of expectations within the relative circle of our discussion.
- The community’s expectation of the Fire Department
- The Fire Department’s expectation of the community
- The Fire Chiefs’ expectation of his volunteers
- The Volunteer’s expectation of their Fire Chief
- The fire department’s expectation of ourselves.
The most important expectation is that of the community.
What does the Community Expect of its’ Fire Department?
The answer is a fairly simple one. They expect that when they dial 911 for an emergency that someone will show up to help. In most cases, when it’s an emergency, whether routine or life & death, it doesn’t matter to them, at the moment, who shows up, as long as someone who can help mitigate or has a relative sense to handle the situation and/or means to communicate the problem to a higher echelon of mitigation.
The inner-workings of the fire service are largely foreign to the average citizen. I’ve responded as a volunteer where homeowners assumed their fire department consisted of paid staff and likewise, I’ve responded to calls as an EMT-Basic and the family couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t start a line and administer medication. The general public isn’t likely aware of the numerous certifications required, the engine company/truck company rivalries, the turf wars, and the politics between career, combination, or volunteers. The public doesn’t care about the logo’s painted on the trucks, whether or not you are properly equipped or adequately funded or any of the trivial things we seem to focus on. They don’t know the difference between TFT’s and smooth bore nozzles or even what that means for how we attack fires. They don’t understand 2 in, 2 out, or that most ladder trucks don’t have water, the list is endless. The general public, by and large, has no idea about the world we (firefighters) live in.
The hard point here is that, in a time of dire crisis, the citizens of your community care about none of our internal politics, as long as someone capable and/or anyone with flashing lights and a radio arrives to help them. What they do EXPECT, is that WE as professionals have all the backend issues figured out in order to provide a functional service. When it’s not functional, the residents of your community can pick up on that right away. It’s important to set aside the focus on our piety internal situations and realize all decisions made during the course of managing our fire department point directly to the product you provide the citizens of your community. Fire Departments don’t produce much as an organization, if anything, fire department’s naturally consume more than they produce, but in our consumption, there is value and a product we provide. Ensuring we’re providing the best possible product for the funding we’re given is our ultimate responsibility and it doesn’t go unnoticed.
The Fire Department’s Expectation of the Community.
First and foremost, the communities role with/for/in the fire department must be defined. If the community does not understand its role in supporting their fire department, then you will not be supported, plain and simple. Volunteer fire stations MUST act with calculated communication to
convey their needs, their challenges, and their situations to the residents they protect. Information and marketing campaigns are an important tool. There is power in social media, and it’s free. A community should know that without THEM there is no emergency response. Every community must provide its fire department with willing, able, and capable responders, as well as, financial backing. Without the community, there is no fire department. Understanding the role they play allows your community to better serve the needs of their fire department. Don’t be afraid to make your financial documents and spending public. For most of you this is a legal requirement, for others it’s optional. Bottom-line, transparency is critical, information is power, and it should be shared with the public.
The Fire Chief’s Expectations of his/her Volunteers’
The Fire Chief of a volunteer fire department does not have the luxury of hand-picking his/her volunteers. The Chief has to work with and develop the volunteers the community provides. Active recruiting can help bolster your roster but overall, a fire chief MUST manage the individuals who step forward. Expectations for firefighters must be defined clearly. A great place to begin in defining expectations is to create a signed agreement of the U.S. Fire Administrations Code of Ethics (here). You can alter or add to the code of ethics to fit your organization’s needs. A poster-sized code of ethics should be clearly posted in your firehouse as a reminder to the agreement. Likewise, new probationary firefighters must be provided with a roadmap establishing clear, realistic benchmarks for achieving full member status. Likewise, a set of policies and procedures that clearly defines the parameters for membership, expectations, and requirements. No member of your organization should be unsure of his/her role within the department. Another expectation that should be sharply communicated is an overall culture of inclusion. Officers must actively participate in overcoming internal clicks and camps, it’s one team one fight all the way. Problem individuals or members who have difficulty fitting in will require more time and energy, it’s critical for leaders to lean into these individuals instead of shunning them. We all have to work together and the sentiment of the department’s culture is set by a combined leadership. If your leaders are inciting division amongst the ranks, that leader should be professionally developed and provided a path to successful leadership within the organization.
The Volunteer’s Expectation of their Fire Chief
The volunteer’s of your organization will have very simple expectations of the fire department and the fire chief. First, they’ll expect that you will provide them with the proper personal protective equipment and adequate training in order to keep them safe. Firefighting is risky a business and the safety of your members is paramount. They all have a living to make elsewhere. injuries while volunteering will likely affect their livelihoods. Second, volunteer firefighters expect that their time will be respected. Running calls, attending meetings, training, classes, and the like add up to an enormous amount of time. It rivals a part-time job, if not more. Volunteer firefighters aren’t fairweather, it’s a lifestyle we’re asking them to live. As a fire chief, we have to ensure that meetings follow strict agendas and topics of discussion. Training must be planned well, be useful, and informative. Emergency calls must be emergencies. The amount of effort you give to meetings and training will be noticeable and it all amounts to having respect for the time they are giving you. The more respect you give, the more you’ll get in return. After all, time is the most precious thing a volunteer has to give, as they can never get it back.
The Fire Department’s Expectation of Ourselves
This one is really for each organization to decide for themselves. We should all expect that we’ll be part of an honorable and thoughtful organization. With its focus on developing its membership as well as the product that is provided to the citizens of the community. Every interaction with a member of the public is an opportunity to leave a lasting impression, whether routine or emergent. The most important aspect of this is to ensure you have a vision and a mission statement that actually means something and provides a beacon for your members to follow.
Be mindful, and be prideful.
Part 4 we’ll discuss clicks, camps, and divisiveness within the fire department.
We’re pleased to introduce The Station Pride Journal of Firefighter Research & Wellness. We will be publishing journal articles reporting our findings and conclusions drawn from data collected with the Station Pride Firefighter Survey that took place between September of 2016 and January of 2017. Ten Thousand Firefighters took the voluntary survey. An image preview is provided below, or you can download the PDF file under “Download”
As the Editor-in-Chief of Station Pride, I’ve gained an interesting perspective on the American Fire Service. From our follower’s, there have been numerous debates, discussions, arguments, inappropriate comments, judgments, learning moments, and praise. I’ll be forever grateful for the experience Station Pride followers provide and additionally grateful for the support of our movement. Processing, and sometimes engaging in, discussions has been a far-reaching educational experience for all of us here. We all come from some place different and we’ve each learned a special nugget of information unique to our firefighting environment.
As a fire service, we collectively live the same values; the preservation of life, property, and the environment. From that basic statement evolves an entire mission taken on by men and women who believe that cause to be a righteous one. The execution of that mission happens in every which-way possible. Effectively meaning that 27,198 fire departments in the United States, are all executing the same mission just a little bit differently than each other.
There is a myriad of valid reasons for the oddities between departments. One obvious difference among fire departments is geography, California tackles its fire problem different than New Jersey because each geographic location has a different fire problem with different fire needs.
What’s less obvious is the nuances. The small things that make us all different even if we are the same.
Have you ever experienced that moment, while visiting a different fire department, that causes you to cock your head to one side? You think to yourself, why are they doing things this way? It’s awfully archaic, or progressive, or bizarre, you might even think what you’re seeing is stupid. That hose load looks weird, I’ve never seen a tool like this before, why is there a homemade such and such. When you find yourself in those moments of noticing a strange difference between what you know and what you’re seeing, you’re actually witnessing the process of individual fire service evolution.
Every fire department starts off somewhere small. They’re born from one station, perhaps growing to two and even many as time passes and the population grows. Like children, each department grows up becoming who it was meant to be. All the guidance, helping hands, tough lessons, discipline, and difficult choices along the way, help to shape and mold what that department has become today. Every fire department is the hero of its own story.
As part of this evolution we end up with different rank structures, some fire departments have sergeants, crew chiefs, lieutenants, engineers, chauffeurs, and driver operators. We call vehicles Engines, Pumpers, Wagons, Ladder’s, Trucks, Rescues, Ambulances, cars, command vehicles, buggy’s. Rhode island calls Ambulances “Rescues” and they call a Rescue Truck a “Heavy Rescue.” On the Westcoast it’s flys in and on the Eastcoast, it’s flys out. Once again, every decision, whether thoughtfully made or culturally driven, is a small piece of each department’s evolution.
Fire service evolution has spawned new tools like the Boston rake, the San Francisco hook, the New York Roof hook, the Cleveland load, the Denver hose pack, triple load, and much more. Each tool, hose load, process, strategy, tactic, and norm was solidified by decisions and solutions found and executed for individual challenges by individual departments. Some departments are aggressive with tactics, others are more reserved and cautious which is a direct cause of fire department cultural evolution.
As a fire service, we have a few guiding lights of standardization. We have standard training materials provided by IFSTA, and an industry standard provided by the tireless efforts of the NFPA. Handfuls of national efforts to further standardize response efforts include First Net, Presidential Directive #5, NIMS, and FEMA’s EMI. But none of these have had much effect on individual fire service evolution. The way we do things is all different, yet the same.
Fire service evolution can’t exist without fire service leaders steering the ship. With every cultural norm, equipment purchase, solution based decision, strategic plan there is a firefighter, fire officer, or fire chief right there directing the evolution of the department. Evolution can be reactionary or intentional.
What is your department evolving into? Is it a premeditated evolution or a reactionary evolution. One of them you are in control of, the other one controls you.Are you even paying attention to it? Do you have a 5-year, 10-year, or even 20-year plan? With that plan, do you have a path laid out for achievement? Envisioning a long term plan is sometimes overwhelming. It’s imperative that you piece it out into manageable chunks.
A great example of controlling a fire department’s evolution is Boston, Kansas City, and St. Paul Fire taking the reigns on cancer prevention. Cancer prevention measures have wide-reaching affects on the quality of life for their firefighters. Not today, but tomorrow and for the rest of their lives. Is it perfect? No, but it’s an effort to swing the pendulum and control the evolutionary and cultural process. By developing processes and operational procedures, leaders are steering the evolution of their fire departments.
All specifics aside, it’s important we refrain from judgment when we see fire departments doing things we don’t quite understand from our own experience. Each department has evolved to solve the same problems in a way which works for them. It may not be what you’re familiar with but if it works for them, than what’s the big deal right? That old adage, “there are more ways than one to skin a cat” comes to mind. (Even though I’m not certain why anyone would, apparently our ancestors had an aversion for cats.)
We watched a heated discussion take place on the LeatherheadMafia (LHM) Facebook page a few days ago (See here) regarding recent legislation proposed in Texas that would allow firefighters, EMT’s, and paramedics to conceal carry firearms. See story here. See legislation proposal here.
Before everyone gets worked up, hear me out. We’ll comb over both sides of the argument.
The fire service is one of the last quasi-government agencies which still holds the public’s trust. Most other government entities are surrounded with skepticism and or stained with operational follies. What the public knows for sure is when they call us, we’ll show up and do everything we can do help them. Our fathers and grandfathers gave their lives, their lungs, and their blood earning that public trust.
Let’s look at some statistics
- NIOSH reports four (4) firefighter LODD’s relating to fatal assault since 1994. You can view and filter the NIOSH LODD map to your liking here.
- NFPA reported one (1) LODD in 2016 related to Gunshot as well as one in 2015. You can view and filter that information here as you please.
That equates to one percent (1%) of Firefighter deaths per year for the last 2 years due to assault or violence.
The NIOSH and NFPA statistics also show that nearly 60 percent (60%) of firefighters are dying in the line of duty from sudden cardiac arrest and stroke, which indicates a need to conceal carry a treadmill before we’d ever need to conceal carry a firearm.
Liabilities and Legalities.
With all fifty states providing their own spin on firearms permitting, it has created an uneven patchwork of legal issues, almost a jungle really. Every state reserves the right to execute and legislate requirements for firearm ownership. It appears the legislation in Texas would exempt emergency workers from legal liability should they use their firearm to protect themselves. It seems obvious that few municipalities would ever want to engage in fielding the possibility of arming all of their emergency responders, even allowing a 2nd Amendment right while on duty is an incredible thick gray area. This has nothing to do with whether or not firefighters should be able to recieve conceal carry permits, ONLY whether they should be carrying a firearm during the execution of their duties.
Allowing Firefighters to conceal carry opens an entire legal liability nightmare nobody has yet fully realized. Imagine if an on-duty firefighter, paid by the taxpayers, were to shoot and kill a person after stepping off of a fire truck? That person is not a sworn officer of the law but has responded to an emergency representing the municipality. I’m not a lawyer, nor am I a firehouse lawyer, but the stick couldn’t be long enough for most jurisdictions to even touch that can of worms. In my professional circle of fire officer’s this topic is nearly absurd. Even if the legislation in Texas passes, I would venture to say that most career municipalities would create a gun-free policy. It appears there is also a distinct contrast between career and volunteer. Volunteer firefighters may be presented with more latitude as they typically respond in their own vehicles. As a career firefighter, I would be fired the moment I brought my pistol to work.
Inserting a firearm into a scene where there otherwise might not be one. Escalation of force instead of de-escalation of the incident. As well as the idea that firefighters might feel embolden to intervene in a situation they would normally stage for, putting themselves at further risk. As firefighters, we often rely on our street smarts, and in rare times, our tools and brawn to bring troublesome incidents to a close. We’ve always made an emphasis on scene safety. Approaching when the scene is cleared by law enforcement. It’s been the gold standard and it works more often than not. When law enforcement is not available, entering the scene is a decision for the incident commander to make sometimes it makes sense other times it doesn’t. Those decisions should not be changed by the fact that you are armed. There are several adverse scenarios that could play out by inserting a firearm into an emergency incident, incidents from accidental discharge to someone attempting to wrestle the firearm away from you.
Just the idea of firefighters being armed dilutes the trust the public will have in us. Our strength comes from our neutrality. We’re responding the public’s crisis’ not to judge, or harm them. Our sole purpose is providing assistance, help, or saving their lives. NOT taking their lives. The guys in my firehouse discussed this topic over the kitchen table and one firefighter said “Carrying guns would just make us cowards.” I found that to be an interesting perspective.
Another item to contemplate is the firearms actual use. We’re all different, what appears to be a threat to one firefighter may not be to another. Many things affect that perception such as our world view and the lens with which we comprehend situations. If half of the 1.3 million firefighters are carrying concealed weapons, they’re all going to be making decisions based on their own experiences. One firefighter might be a body builder and a green belt in Jiu-Jitsu, he may have a less lethal resolution than the guy who makes sure nobody steals the recliners. Within that difference resides whether a person continues to live or dies. Are we willing to respond to an emergency and then put ourselves into a situation where we might take a life because we are scared?
Here are some arguments (comments) from the LHM Facebook discussion FOR the legislation:
- “No employer should be allowed to deprive employees of their Constitutional rights, including the right to bear arms.”
- “I’d rather have it and not need it then need it and not have it”
- “As previously said I think concealed carry is great! If someone is going to shoot at us I’d like to be able to better defend myself and the others around me. It’s not something you’d be able to tell unless the situation arose that it was needed.”
- “It’s not about carrying as a form of enforcement. It’s about having the right to protect ourselves as United States citizens. How many times have firefighters and medics been victims of attacks and were defenseless.”
- “They are already shooting at firemen. As a cop and fireman, I don’t think being able to carry is a bad thing at the FD. It makes the best sense when you start talking about active shooter scenarios.”
Here are some arguments (comments) from the LHM Facebook discussion AGAINST the legislation:
- “There are idiots out there with “I fight what you fear” t-shirts that you wouldn’t want in a fire with you or anyone you know…And we will let those guys carry a firearm. Good Grief”
- “We are not cops. We are loved because of what we’ve always done. This will be the BIGGEST mistake in the history of the fire service.”
- “Police officers have much more training when dealing with using lethal force. They are also the ones when on scene watching for a threat to happen and can maintain constant awareness and control of their firearm.”
- “I’m pro-gun all day and conceal carry every day while not on duty, but there’s not many cases in the Fire/EMS world where a firearm makes the scenarios any better or safer.”
- “No, we do not need to be armed, more gear to deal with if we have to go interior, what are we supposed to do with a sidearm?”
This is one of those defining fire service issues. It’s a decision that alters the posture and the perception of our service to the general public. Over the last decade or more there has been a huge push for safety within the fire service. The initiatives appear to be working as injury rates continue to fall nationwide. I can definitely see both sides of this argument, and they both have merit. It’s a situation where the individual firefighter might FEEL safer carrying a gun, while not physically being safer and in that distinction lies the difference. When you are armed, your decisions will change because you have the perception of being more powerful. However, it appears that adding firearms to the mix will only complicate matters rather than compliment. Firefighter civil action with wrongful death suits will become common place. Our role on an emergency scene is not changing, but it appears the perception of ourselves is. By arming Firefighters are we putting ourselves first in the pecking order?
What are your thoughts?
You’re on scene of a large, type 3 structure, moderately involved in fire. You have no water supply established, and only 5 volunteers have arrived at the call. Clearly, you need back-up. The incident commander makes a call for mutual aid, but the call doesn’t go out to the closest fire department. Instead, the mutual aid is requested from a fire department much farther away with a much longer response time.
This selective mutual aid scenario plays out way more often than it should all across the fire service. Somehow, the practice is justified internally within the concerned department requesting the mutual aid, but is it really justifiable? The hard answer is NO, of course. From the outside looking in, this practice is incredibly dangerous. From the inside looking out, things probably appear more complex.
Let’s take a look at why this happens, where the ethics reside, and what we can do to minimize the TRUE victims of Turf Wars, the residents, and taxpayers of your community.
To dig into the meat of this situation, we have to look at the moments that lead incident commanders to make such a, seemingly, irresponsible decision. Typically, there is some type of tension that has festered between two departments. Even more likely, it’s mutual tension that has been inadequately addressed and communicated between parties. It’s likely that the majority of the moments that cause turf wars are situational misunderstandings or a member from either department acted inappropriately at one point causing a rift.
One specific scenario I’m familiar with involved one fire department with an explorer (junior) program and another neighboring department without an explorer program. The Fire Chief of the department without juniors believed that children didn’t belong on their fire scenes. Instead of having a conversation Fire Chief to Fire Chief a cold shoulder was bred and a Turf War was born. Mutual aid was never requested for years even though they shared a tight border in a business district. After several years, the two Chief’s finally had a conversation over a simple cup of coffee and a muffin. The two chiefs were able to iron out the situation by finding a compromise. No explorers allowed on mutual aid runs to this one district. The departments have been good with each other ever since.
A very simple fix to a long-running Turf War and all it took was a cup of coffee, a muffin, and conversation.
It’s important to recognize that working together and supporting each other will always be more beneficial than cold-shouldering your neighbors. In MOST circumstances simple communication will resolve the majority of misunderstandings. But you have to arrange the opportunities for communication to occur. If you’re a Chief Officer or Captain of a volunteer fire department and you aren’t friends or at least on friendly terms with your neighboring fire department and their members, you’re doing something wrong, and a change of behavior is needed.
Set up a monthly or quarterly coffee chats, or meet-ups over breakfast with neighboring Chiefs and officers. Strangers are more likely to ignore each other than friends. On scene, people are more apt to understand each other when they believe that friendships are at stake.
Take every opportunity you can to get-to-know your neighbors. Most departments are reaching out farther and more often for simple house fires they should be able to handle themselves. Making friends will always be more beneficial than making enemies. Bottom-line, Talk it out. Find some common ground. Chances are, you’ll end up finding you had more in common than you originally thought. In a perfect world, you should be training together, at least, quarterly.
Would you work for you?
This is a great question for all fire service leaders and future leaders. For a moment though, really think about this. Could you work for you? Try to envision being your own leader. Would you respond well to your communication style? Would you react favorably to your own leadership?
Don’t think these are important questions? Think again.
Forbes magazine recently identified that people don’t leave their jobs, they leave their managers. And that sentiment couldn’t be more true. We’ve all had terrible officers. It’s a touchy subject from the bottom up, which is exactly why fire service leaders should regularly audit themselves. There is no better indicator of how you are doing as a leader than a view from the bottom up.
Successful leadership is not always something you can teach; it’s mostly a social finesse that originates in your character as a human being and your ability to communicate with others. Some people have the ability and execute leadership effortlessly, while others struggle to maintain positive leadership behaviors and relationships with their subordinates. Even successful leaders will sometimes have at least one individual they have difficulty meshing with.
It’s important to reflect on a few questions: Do you jump immediately to negative conclusions or are you constructively supportive? Do you look for someone to blame or do you correct the system so that mistakes don’t reoccur? Do you punish the entire shift for the mistakes of one person or do you mentor individuals? Do you show favoritism without realizing it?
Profession development should be an important part of being a leader. Successful leaders need to be diligent in passing along positive professional skills and likewise, junior level officers should always be eager to absorb the leadership nuggets provided by their superiors.
Feedback Tools: Utilizing a system similar to the annual performance appraisal only reversing the flow of information. Have your firefighters appraise your performance as their leader. It’s important for this
process to remain as anonymous as possible. It’d be an awful position for a firefighter, knowing he needs to communicate something constructive, if he knows it’s not anonymous. One resource that works well is creating a Survey Monkey or Google Survey. They’re free. Giving your firefighters the opportunity to provide you with valuable information about how you can lead them better is feedback gold. As long as everyone takes it seriously. We’ve all been in a position where we WISH we could professionally develop our leaders to be better bosses, the survey gives everyone that opportunity. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Record your communications. I know it sounds too far, but honestly. Record your counseling sessions, mentoring moments, training moments. Watch or listen to them later. Try being completely objective. Pay attention to the tone of your voice, how your sentences are formed, and the manner in which you communicate with others. You might discover things such as passive aggressiveness, cussing, a judging tone, not allowing the other person to communicate their side, positive and or negative trajectories. By positive and negative trajectories I mean, are you yelling at someone who made a mistake and then kicked them out of your office vs. using the mistake as a learning moment to further develop the firefighter. Obviously, one trajectory is negative and the other is positive.
Aside from personal audits and feedback tools it’s incredibly important to exercise regular self-reflection as well as developing a healthy sense of self-awareness. Creating a sense of self-awareness and an awareness of how you are communicating with others takes a measurable amount of emotional intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence is the passcode to both personal and professional success. We all have different personalities, differing expectations, and different ways of communicating. It’s nearly impossible for different individuals to provide the same set of leadership abilities. But we can all learn to develop our emotional intelligence to become less reactionary, more calculated, even tempered, and thought-provoking. Emotional intelligence is a measurable trait. Individuals with a lesser amount of emotional intelligence tend to use anger as a go-to emotion when something doesn’t go right and they also tend to be happy for the wrong reasons. In the next part of this series we’ll dive into emotional intelligence.
In the meantime, we’re attempting to collect data addressing a whole host of firefighter related challenges. Please consider completing short survey so we can conduct one of the largest firefighter studies of it’s kind in the United States. Please share with your crews.
Read more in the Thoughtful Leadership Series