A long time ago I was given the advice of “Inc.” yourself. Sounds kind of strange, but let me explain.
You see, in order for a company to grow and survive in the economy they must continue to create and give value to customers and investors alike. Without offering them any value, they aren’t worth much to anyone.
Nowhere is this analogy more important than for the aspiring firefighter. There are thousands of potential candidates going for only a few spots at career fire departments. Among other things, you will have to articulate why a department should spend the time, money and effort on hiring you onto their department?
If you don’t have a good answer to that, then you’re really going to struggle in the interview, but more on that later.
A better, or perhaps easier, way to think of this is to think of what valuable skills or knowledge would you bring to a department. If you don’t have any skills or value, what can you begin doing to create value for yourself and a future department?
If you can’t think of any, here’s some to get you started…
- Become an EMT-B
- Become a Paramedic
- Get your Firefighter 1 & 2 and beyond
- Become extremely fit
- Make friends in the fire service
- Get a job working in an ER (where you’ll be exposed to a lot of firefighters)
- Pick up useful hobbies (being mechanical, building construction, diving, ropes, radios, etc.)
The best way to boost your perceived value is experience, and at this point, you should be doing everything you can to get on a volunteer/part-time department or at the very least somehow become involved with one.
The next best way to boost your value to a department is to get some kind of EMS certification. As with most things, the more you do, the more valuable you become.
In short, fire science degrees look great, but I’ve never seen a department that required one to get hired.
Unfortunately, if you go to any school counselor, they will put you on an educational track that takes a lot of time, and doesn’t necessarily get you the results you want.
If you are looking to stand out in a sea of average applicants the best way to do that is to be a Paramedic. A lot of departments don’t require you to have your Paramedic certification ahead of time, but like it or not, today’s fire service is moving more and more towards integrating Fire and EMS protection into one service.
Staying ahead of this curve not only makes you smart but allows you to stand out.
If you’re wondering where you can go in your area to get started on an EMS certification a quick google search of “EMT classes in ______” should point you in the right direction.
While a lot of the larger departments out there will send you to their own fire academy whether or not you have experience; I don’t recommend putting all your eggs in the one basket of getting hired at a large department and going through their fire academy.
A lot of smaller departments will require you to have some form of fire education.
This is where I highly recommend going to a Fire Academy. Fire Academies are usually a few months in length and will give you the necessary education and training (for your particular state) to be certified as a firefighter.
The main difference between this and a Fire Science program is that a Fire Academy is more direct. They give you all of the classroom and hands-on experience to be a firefighter in the shortest amount of time possible. Degrees in Fire Science usually take more time (at least 2 years) and may or may not give you the necessary certification to get hired (depends on the school and the program).
Other ways to separate yourself from the crowd is to acquire special knowledge or skills. This isn’t as important as your EMS certifications, but having excellent mechanical skills, knowledge of construction, plumbing (or any of the trades), ropes or really any sort of skills that would be used daily at a fire department can go a long way.
Regardless of your skills, knowledge, and experience, you must be able to articulate these in a way that is unique and memorable to a panel of interviewers. Mastering the Firefighter Interview will show you exactly what is necessary to stand out from the sea of other candidates and get hired. Click here to grab your free cheat sheet to get you on your way!
In The Volunteer Solution Part 1 we covered a fair amount of ground. If you were able to get through the article you would have found some extremely valuable information in solving the volunteer problem. The remaining Station-Pride user submitted issues of concern in this series include:
- Spare time to volunteer
- Gasoline expenses
- Lack of fire department funding for necessities
- Lack of manpower/members
- Training overload or willing to volunteer but no time for the required FF1 or 2 and other classes such as Hazmat, CPR, and extrication.
Time is an incredible issue facing volunteer firefighters. In life, time is the most precious gift we have to give, solely because we can never get it back. Once you give it up, it’s gone forever. Every volunteer Fire Chief and volunteer Fire Officer should be keen to the fact that their firefighters are giving the most valuable gift they possess.
Time can be a frustrating burden and it can be broken down two ways. There is the time you wish you could give and the time you can actually give. The time you wish you could give is at constant battle with the time you can actually give.
It’s imperative for you to think rationally with your time. Remove the entire wish and want you have for giving more time at the firehouse. You probably need to work in order to support you and/or your family. Work has to be the priority in your pecking order, second only to your family. That means the highest realistic priority for volunteering should be third in line. Family first, job second, volunteering third.
I know this sounds like one of those ridiculous cheesy back-flip lines but, you can only give what you can give. Your pride and dedication are going to push you to the breaking point on time. Fires have been burning for thousands of years and nearly all of them were extinguished somehow without you there. Try to maintain a bigger picture and not get caught up in making the fire dept. your number 1 priority.
A motivated and creative fire chief who read The Volunteer Solution Part 1 should be able to come up with a plan to help ease the financial burden of gas. Gas is expensive and it’ll never be under $2 a gallon ever again.
Some departments have set up gas incentive programs where each member is given a stipend based on the number of calls they ran that month. Likewise, I’m aware of another department that had a positive working relationship with the local gas station who would give 15% off gas bills for volunteers who showed their badge. It may not seem like much but 15% on a $40 gas bill is about 2 free gallons of gas.
In the end it’s really a community effort. Most of these funds will come from fundraising or should become a line item in the annual budget. Again, the first rule of running a successful volunteer fire department is to take care of your people first. You can have all the trucks and awesome tools in the world but you can’t have a fire department without people.
Lack of Funding for Necessities
As described in Part 1, Funding is an area that will require the most creativity and attention. As stated previously, fundraising should be left up to another entity such as an auxiliary. A motivated fire chief should be able to harness the power of the community to raise funds for the fire department. These aren’t just words on paper, this is very possible no matter where you live.
One creative way to get the things you need is to just ASK for them! Instead of asking for monetary donations; set up a system where citizens can purchase equipment directly. Publish a list of items you need. This outcome is sometimes better because the donor can actually take part in what their money is used for. It’s almost like creating a wedding registry. Team Rubicon USA and other non-profits have had great success with direct equipment donations. http://www.teamrubiconusa.org/join-the-team/the-giver/tr-wishlist/
Marketing your problem and gaining sympathy is paramount. Here again, Team Rubicon has perfected this with short videos that address the problem in a way that makes you want to throw your cash at them. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvYLUjf2v6M I’m not intending to plug Team Rubicon here but they do have an impressive marketing strategy for garnering donations and support.
My point here is that your department has a story. It’s probably one of struggle, hardship, and triumph. You need to tell that story. Show people working hard for their community, giving their time, show effort, find a way to show what it would be like if there were no volunteers or no fire department at all. Someone in your department is likely good with video editing and if not, try the local high school AV club. I bet you’d be able to find a willing participant to help you out for some extra credit. Tugging heartstrings and telling a story that astonishes people is one of the best ways to get people to care. It’s likely that most people don’t fully understand your struggle. Show them.
Lack of Manpower/Members
Here again, the atmosphere in the firehouse has to conducive to something people WANT to be around. The more open and inviting your fire department is, the more people will be showing up to volunteer.
I knew a chief once who locked everyone out of the fire station and gave a key to 10 people out 0f 60. During emergencies, groups of people would stand around outside the fire station waiting for someone with a key. One time, I recall someone making entry through a window to get a truck out the door. The Chief didn’t trust his volunteers and the volunteers didn’t trust their chief. If you don’t give trust, you won’t receive it.
Also, there are people in the community that don’t realize they CAN be a volunteer firefighter at all. I’ve witnessed numerous retirees join a volunteer fire department wishing they had known previously that it was possible for them. There has always been an unspoken barrier between the public and the guys on the fire truck. Break that barrier.
Volunteer fire departments are a community effort.
The dire reality is that almost every volunteer fire agency is reaching out more often, and a farther distance for mutual aid just to fulfill routine calls, than they probably did a decade or two ago. The need for manpower is a serious issue facing volunteers and the only way to resolve it is it to quell the in-house politics and enforce a code of conduct within the firehouse.
The Station Pride submitted concern of “Lack of manpower,” I assume relates to responding to incidents. It’s a common reality among all volunteer fire departments. “Who is going to show up at 10am on a Tuesday.” It’s probably a Fire Chief’s worst nightmare.
I’ve been “that guy” that’s shown up at 10am on a Tuesday. Called for the closest 5 departments, wrapped the hydrant and laid my own line in, crossing my fingers someone would connect it; geared up, pulled the line, set the pump, forced the door and started making an attack all before anyone else arrived. Its reality, but again… you can only do what you can do.
The only way to overcome the manpower issue is to increase the number of volunteers you have on your roster. This can be accomplished with aforementioned recruiting campaigns and literally accepting everyone that’s willing to walk through the door. Not everyone needs to be a line firefighter. The more people you have on your roster the greater the chances that someone will show up. Work with the local government to pass legislation that protects volunteer firefighters from losing their jobs in the event of a community emergency, structure fire and/or an incident of significance.
Long gone are the days when shop owners close their doors and rush off to a fire. But that doesn’t mean a level of understanding can’t occur and if the situation warrants it, a hand shake from the fire chief can make all the difference on whether that employee is able to bail out for an emergency.
I say it all the time, I’ve always believed it’s better to have old apparatus, old equipment and a full roster than a new truck and no people.
Training is necessary in order for every firefighter to be competent, effective and safe. There is no way of getting around it. The NIOSH reports, although they don’t necessarily place blame, they do highlight “contributing factors” to LODD’s and every bit of that firefighter’s life is under a microscope.
While the solution to this problem isn’t an easy one, getting the conversation started now for change to happen in the future can be. There is a company that currently exists called TrainingDivision.com they provide web-based certification classes. The classes are completed 75-90% online followed by a one-two week crash practical skills academy.
I bring this up not as an option (although it is), but as an idea. Create a relationship with your State’s fire academy and lobby for a web-based firefighter certification system. The Air Force uses Career Development Courses where Service members can accomplish academic work for their fire certification classes online. The system the military uses isn’t perfect, as it can allow pencil whipping during practical evaluations, but its useful and effective at providing the training necessary at the students pace.
My vision for the future of volunteer firefighter training is that we create a web-based fire certification solution. A web-based certification program brings the fire service classroom into the volunteer’s home. It also provides a solid platform for the state or local government to disseminated consistent information to all firefighters in training within their borders. Following completion of the academic portion of the class, firefighters could then attend practical training sessions and evaluations that accompany the academic training. I firmly believe this is the best hope for the volunteer fire service with regard to training.
As far as the National Incident Management System (NIMS) classes and FEMA classes are concerned; unfortunately, as they are typically attached to grant opportunities, the classes are a necessary evil. These classes also push a national agenda, which usually waves a flag of interoperability, common communication and emergency preparedness. They aren’t a bad thing,but in order for it to work, everyone has to be on board.
There is no one easy answer that fixes the volunteer problem. However, there are many creative and open-minded steps that can be taken in order to improve your fire department’s situation. The Volunteer Fire Chief absolutely has to be a positive force and a politician of sorts in order to garner the support of the entire community. I hate to say it rests on the Fire Chief shoulders but he/she sets the pace for everyone to follow. If the Fire Chief is bitter and vindictive everyone below him will follow suit.
Good Luck, show mutual respect for each other, and be safe.
The Volunteer Solution Part 3 will cover Expectations.
The purpose here is to dig deep into the tug-of-war between education and experience. In the last two decades there has been an explosion of fire service certification and degree programs sprinkled throughout the country. Brick-and-mortar schools, online colleges, accredited and even less-than-accredited distance learning courses, state, national, international certifications and the like. These programs exist to help us gain an edge within our careers. Some of us start off in Fire Science class before ever riding an engine while others matriculate later in their fire careers when it’s time to move up the ladder.
The argument here is an age-old military quandary. The crusty old Sergeant taking orders from the young, inexperienced, but educated Lieutenant. It’s likely an issue as old as education.
The real question is what is more valuable; years of experience OR a university degree backed with proper fire certifications?
The Fire Service has always been a bastion of process for promoting from within because on-the-job experience is extremely valuable to an organization. The wisdom a firefighter gains from running calls in their area-of-operation is incredibly valuable and irreplaceable. Running emergency calls and mitigating situations can’t be learned in books. Wisdom is so valuable in fact that whatever education you happen to achieve along the way is almost secondary or an added bonus to your experience and ability to execute that wisdom, in some departments.
Wisdom aside, education is paramount. Having the ability to learn the fine intricacies of your craft is an integral part of being a complete firefighter, in the “whole” sense of the term. Reading books, writing research papers, answering a thesis, combing through peer reviewed articles, learning legalities as well as philosophical aspects of the job will help you fully understand where we are and how we got here. It’s not enough to know what decision to make on scene, we have to understand why we’re making those decisions and what the consequences could be if we are wrong.
Core classes such as English, Math and Science will help round out a persons thought process and general knowledge. It helps to provide the ability to generate accurate reports and can also help create a base for proper personnel management. Every decision a leader makes has to stand the test of a court or inquiry.
Education also helps us hammer home the importance of having a legitimate incident commander. Well intentioned Volunteer Fire Chiefs who, sometimes, fall into the job title by way of popular vote may only be equipped with years of volunteer experience. If there happens to be a line-of-duty-death under that incident commander’s leadership, the NIOSH Firefighter death investigation team would most certainly point to that as a contributing factor. Training, certifications, and education is always a hard focus during LODD investigations.
Information is extremely powerful and education is vastly important. Legitimacy plays havoc at the core of the education issue. It’s hard to say you can do the job if you can’t prove that you’ve at least learned the job. It’s not enough to walk the walk, you have to talk to the talk.
Not to flip -flop but education isn’t even not enough. Digging into history, Vietnam was a great example of the brightest minds in the country consistently making the wrong decisions. Kennedy’s “Whiz Kids” had a wealth of education from some of the finest universities in the country. They had information and intelligence, but lacked the experience to pull it all together into an effective battle strategy. Decisions that were made by some of the most educated people in the country were not enough to win a war. They lacked experience and wisdom.
To ensure the title isn’t lost on anyone. The “best” refers to those with wisdom gained from on-the-job experience and the “brightest” refers to those with education. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a common expression such as: “What he lacks in education he makes up for in experience” or vise versa.
Experience and education are not interchangeable. There are many Fire Officer and Fire Chief job descriptions that will accept experience in-loo of education. One should not be allowed to mascaraed as the other. Yes there is a wealth of learning that takes place while gaining experience but it is a stark contrast from the learning that takes place in the classroom.
It’s seems to be good measure to increase your education level as you gain experience. It’s always best to achieve certifications according to your experience timeline. You should not be a 22 year old Fire Officer IV or a 24 year old Instructor II. There is a lack of legitimacy in those numbers. It’s difficult to lead and /or teach what you haven’t experienced
If you don’t think education is the future of the fire service, then you are already behind. It’s an unreasonable expectation for you to believe you can progress through the ranks without it. It’s time to put your brain where your mouth is.