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Marketing your Volunteer Fire Department

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:

  1. Who you are marketing to
  2. When you need to start and a schedule of recurring blitzes
  3. How you’re going to provide the marketing material (ie. Targeted Facebook Ads, Instagram, Youtube, mailers, local businesses, Explorers or Juniors disseminating pamphlets. etc)
  4. 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.

Quality

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. 

 

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Service

As firefighters, we are asked to provide many types of services. Firefighting, EMS, hazardous materials, rescue, and other tasks that are usually menial. We respond when someone needs help standing after a fall, getting cats out of trees, and removing storm debris for hours on end. We teach CPR to local organizations, fire safety to children, and assist elderly residents with installing smoke detectors and vitals checks. We commonly refer to this as “service” when in reality these are “services.”

Service is not the duties we perform on a daily basis. Service is the art of putting others before yourself. Service is not a cheap buzzword to be used in mission statements or administrative meetings. Service is at the heart of our obligations. It refers to our heritage and tradition. It encompasses the meaning behind our craft as a whole. We are the “fire service.” Service is defined as, “an act of help or assistance.” This is what we do. This is how we make our mark in the future.

We serve three distinct groups of people. First, the obvious, our community. To serve the community we protect, we must continually strive to improve. If we fail here, we provide a disservice to our department and the name of all those who gave their lives in service. If we take our position for granted, we fail to help those in need. Our lack of preparation leads to a failure to provide assistance to those in distress.

The second group of people we serve are our fellow firefighters. My biggest fear is allowing one of my men/women to perish, knowing I could have done more to prepare them. When we fail to ensure the safety of our crews, our citizens, and ourselves, we perform a disservice. This disservice has a butterfly effect on the daily life of everyone we come in contact with.

The next group we serve are our families. We serve our families by making sure we are using effective, functional knowledge to ensure our safety. When a firefighter dies in the line of duty, they feel no more pain. They are burdened no more. But the lives and actions of their family, friends, department, and community are changed forever. They bear the burden of the loss, they feel the hurt, and they reap what you have sown. All too often we act as if everyone owes us something. Before you react, remember that you signed the dotted line. We asked for this job. No judge sentenced us to time in the fire service. We chose this line of work for a reason, and if you have any sense at all, it’s not the benefits. We are the ones who owe something. We owe our families more than just making another 24. We owe our brothers more than watching how to save his life on YouTube. We owe our community more than learning search procedures from an IFSTA manual. We owe these people. We owe our children the right to have a father growing up, by embracing the facts……We can be called to meet our maker at any time. We must exceed the status quo. There are too many amongst us that are not prepared to face adversity. I cannot and will not allow myself to become complacent in my “service.” I will serve others with a tenacity that scares the mediocre. I will not allow the opinions of others to affect my service to my brethren, community, and most of all, family.

It’s an honor to serve. It’s an honor to respond in a time of need. Don’t let disservice be how you are remembered for your service.

Jason Hurley

Bremen Fire Rescue

Bremen, Ga.

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Thoughtful Leadership- Professional Development

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
  • safety
  • 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:

Thoughtful Leadership – Disciplinary Action

Thoughtful Leadership – Well-being

Would you work for you? – Thoughtful Leadership

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Get a Life! (outside of work)

Beer? Check.

Meat? Check.

Super Secret Squirrel BBQ rub? Check.

Smoker? Check.

Pager and/or radio? That’s a negative, Ghostrider.

I am about to hit the road for two days of meat-smoking bliss, free of any thoughts or concerns about the anything and everything spinning around in the universe of fire/EMS. Structure fire on Main Street? Totally sucks, bro. Overdoses? Probably happening right now. Meh. No, sirs (and assorted Ma’ams), it is my fullest intention to have my ass planted firmly in a well-worn lawn chair, Miller Lite in hand, without a care in the world aside from keeping my cook temp around 225F.

This is what we all need, in my humble opinion. Something, anything, to escape the surprisingly intrusive lifestyle that is emergency public service.

Finding a good hobby can go a long way in the efforts of mental stability because whether you ride the busiest ladder in your state or run on the smallest of volunteer departments, we all share a common enemy; Stress. I’m not strictly talking about the ugly calls or high-intensity situations. Which is more agitating; a tricky, albeit successful, fire response that doesn’t go your way, or receiving multiple phone calls on your night off about trivial (and, odds are, self-correcting) issues? Running eighteen medic calls in twenty-four hours, or having to find a creative way to keep volunteer, part-time and full-time staff content while ordering new equipment?

Stress and anxiety do not discriminate by call volume, and every region is both unique similar in their stressors. “If my mind could forget what my eyes have seen” is a powerful statement, undoubtedly, but it can also apply to the state the toilets were left in last day. For me, personally, the social aspect of the fire service has always been more stressful than the actual nature of the job. Firehouses are more like beauty salons and barber shops than the public cares to know about.

This is a particularly inescapable reality for those in officer or leadership positions. Just because you aren’t physically present in the dayroom doesn’t mean you aren’t stuck at the station on some level. You may be at home, comfortably curled up on the couch with your family, but your mind is still at the office because it’s always at the office. Your brain is, in fact, directing your eyes to orient themselves in the general direction of the tv. Your consciousness, on the other hand, is going haywire with a flight of scenarios- How are we going to afford new gear? I could totally see that guy’s brain… The engine is OOS again, and our budget is already running thin… We are so unprepared for a fire at that one place… 

Much to the swelling agitation of your spouse or significant other, the only thing you ever have to talk about is work stuff. Thought-provoking conversations over a long-overdue family supper? Let’s talk about the kids or the house, maybe our savings plan? Nope. “You’ll never guess what happened on A-Shift, honey” is where things will start off, in all likelihood. Per industry standards, this is also the topic that will cap the meal after dessert. I need to point out that it’s not all your fault; All of your friends are work friends, and all of their friends are work friends. When the department furnishes your financial livelihood and social circle, what else do you actually have to talk about?

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” There is no escape.

Unless you create one.

Sharing time! I am a world-class worrier. It may not be obvious on the outside, but those closest to me know that I can fret with the best of them, blessed with the ability to obsess over any minuscule concern like a true champion. The best I can do is to try and remind myself to be like the duck (calm on the surface, paddle like hell underneath), and it works for me. My therapy? I deal with my stress through exercise and cooking, though one would think them to be natural enemies.

Find what works for you; maybe you hate jogging, and culinary puzzles just piss you off, but you’ve secretly

always had a thing for model trains. Want to play guitar? eBay is chock full of pretty decent orphaned acoustics that college kids got bored with. Want to tinker with an old car? Ok, this one can get kinda expensive. The best way to approach this diversion is to remember that it’s not about reaching the finish line, it’s about zoning out to the sounds of your cheap garage radio on a classic rock station and the click-click-click of a well-worn 3/8 drive ratchet. Trust me, when replacing 50-year-old drum brakes, there is no room for outside distractions. Only swear words of escalating creativity and pure, unbridled rage are permitted to exist within the moment.

If the time lost to a hobby is unrealistic with your work schedule, you’re probably working too much. We can all relate. It’s just not a viable option to allow your children to endure unnecessary financial hardship so you can go play. Let’s look at it from another angle, get creative if you will; it could be beneficial to replace one of your (likely) multiple part-time department jobs with one that is completely unrelated to public service. It may not be a hobby, per se, but one less day a week in a blue uniform could do wonders for your lifespan. Like most of us, I don’t really have many other marketable skills, but I’m pretty good at sitting on a zero-turn lawnmower with my earbuds in. They hire people to do that, I’ve seen em’.

Bringing it home

I’ve heard it said that once you are a parent, your sole purpose is now to be a good memory for your children. To be a good memory, you have to first be present. By present, I mean at home, at the table, helping with homework, “having a catch.” The little things. Second, you have to be good. In short, be good roughly translates to don’t be a dick. Take care of yourselves, and leave work stressors where they belong; at work, away from your family. Whatever pastimes you can acquire to aid in this endeavor will be worth it. I hear golf is pretty nifty.

As some travel company once said, “find your island.” Or hobby. Whatever.

Anderson, out.

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Revolutionize your Volunteer Fire Training

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!
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What Do You Think?

When I was first promoted to the officer ranks, I inherited a much older crew (in both age and tenure). The jubilation of the promotion coupled with the sobering reality that I was now the fall-back guy for anything that went wrong was quite the manic experience. My ego unwittingly got the best of me. I lived for a time under the delusion that as the officer, I needed to have the answers to every problem we would encounter. Trial and error was the order of the day with little progress and low morale. When I lost my driver to a transfer, I was able to convince a friend of mine from a neighboring station to replace him. Following his arrival, we set the standard of expectations of my crew. His frankness, professionalism, and intelligence prompted me to openly ask his opinion in many tough situations. I knew he would shoot me straight and was looking out for the crew and me, rather than having his own motivations. Before long, he spoke freely if he had a concern with any operations, but would always remain respectful that the accountability ultimately laid with me. “Everyone has a say,” was the culture we cultivated within our crew and because of this, we operated with impeccable production. Our relationship enlightened me that the greatest tool at the company officer’s disposal does not reside in a compartment, nor is it strapped onto his back; it rides belted in each occupied seat inside the cab. One of the smartest things an officer of any tenure can do is pose a simple question to his crew: What do you think?

It can be used in any situation where a fork in the road is encountered. Behind these four simple words is a thesis that tells the members that their experience is valued and that they have a stake in the operations at hand. Equally as important, it subtly encourages the crew to speak up without reservation which enhances the officer’s situational awareness.

Something to keep in mind is that there is a time, a place and a frequency to this approach. The officer must not hesitate to make the tough, split-second decisions that many on-scene situations call for and must understand that this question is not a way to dodge their basic responsibilities and duties. Accountability for the crew and their actions always lies with the officer, but when the situation allows for a second opinion, ask them what they think. The guys on the rig with you are motivated and driven human beings. In fact, they are some of the best and most caring individuals I have ever met. They want to be treated as such and significant ground could be gained by simply asking their opinion and letting their voices be heard. Their collective experience is the officer’s greatest tool, but like any other tool in the toolbox, you need to know how to use it most effectively, or you’ll be trying to vent a roof with a hacksaw. So I ask you: What do you think?

– Jake Henderson is a 30-year-old Captain with the Fort Worth, Texas Fire Department. He is assigned to Station 24 on the city’s east side which houses an Engine, Quint, and Battalion 4 as well as being a satellite HazMat station. Jake holds an Associate’s Degree in Fire Protection Technology and is HazMat Tech and Fire Inspector certified.
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Harnessing the Power of your Community

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

By Paul Hellstern, The Oklahoman

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

By Paul Hellstern, The Oklahoman

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.

Cy-Fair Fire video

College Park, PGFD video

Upper Gwynedd Fire video

 

 

Blog Health and Wellness

FireFit!

What makes us fit for duty? Training.

What training are we referring to? Tasks used to perform our job. Whether it be a technical rescue, hazmat knowledge, ARFF, district familiarization or countless other avenues, as firefighters we are called upon to know an extremely wide range of skills to perform our duties and go home at the end of our shifts.

While this knowledge is part of the necessary tools needed to perform, almost half of our brothers and sisters who pay the ultimate price do so because of overexertion. When called upon to fight fires, it takes an enormous amount of physical exertion to do our job, yet we aren’t physically training for the arduous tasks we will probably encounter.

That’s where Firefit Firefighter Fitness Trainer comes in. This machine mimics the most strenuous of fireground activities in a compact unit that will fit in the corner of most fire station truck rooms. In some cases, departments are replacing the cumbersome entrance exam equipment with Firefit. It’s turn key, requires virtually no set up and is modeled after the CPAT, with a couple of exceptions of course. Just drag the machine from the truck room to the station apron, or use it inside if you have the space for it.

Firefit was created and tested by Randy Johnson, a 14 yr firefighter in the Texas Panhandle, 13 of those as a career firefighter. His personal results while doing a six-week testing program were nothing short of phenomenal. Starting with his heart rate, Day 1 resting heart rate was 66, working HR in the 180’s and recovery time to resting was 14 minutes. His body fat was 22%. Weight was 202. After six weeks using Firefit as his only training, and only on duty for a total usage of 15 times, his HR was in the 150’s during the workout; recovery time dropped to 4.5 minutes! Randy lost 7 lbs, gained back 2 (probably muscle), and lost 4% bodyfat.

While these results are amazing in themselves, the reason for the creation of Firefit, according to Randy, is to reduce the number of names we put on the wall in Colorado Springs and Emmitsburg every September and October, respectively. After all, isn’t that the goal and why we train to be the best at what we do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Blog

Junior Involvement in Senior Training

​I know of a few departments around me who don’t let their juniors do anything, and by anything I mean throwing ladders, stretching lines, hitting a hydrant…You know, the basic things every firefighter should be 100% efficient at.

Up at my company, we look at juniors as the future of our company. They are involved in meetings, drills, hall rentals, cleaning. Everything a senior member can do at the station, a junior member can also.

​I’m from a company in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, called Munhall Volunteer Fire Company #5. We run a Tower-Ladder, an Engine, and a Squad. In our borough, we have four different stations, one located at each end, and two in the middle. I can’t say we are a busy company, but every time we go to a call, we do it quick, proficient, and right. I really can’t stress enough about having a junior program in your stations. When I first started out, I was 14. I joined a company in the hometown I lived in, and it was called Whitaker. They ran two Engines, a Squad, and a Foam Unit. I fell in love with it the first day I joined. My dad was and still is the Assistant Chief there, and he helped me get through everything tremendously. If it weren’t for them having that junior program, I would’ve never had as much passion for the fire service as I do now.

 

​After two years, I moved on down the street to the station I’m currently at. I joined when I was 16, and right when I joined they only allowed members 16 and up. But a few months had passed, and we changed our by-laws and are now able to allow members to join at 14. That was by far the best decision our company has ever made. We currently have seven junior members. I was the 8th, but I just recently turned 18 and have become a fully active member. When I was a junior, we had a junior officer line. I was the Junior Chief, my buddy Jake was the Captain, and the Chief’s son was the Lieutenant. Being able to already hold an officer position at that age was like winning an Emmy.

You must be thinking, “Oh, okay, they just had a title…” No, we had duties and responsibilities to handle by ourselves.

Me being the Junior Chief, my duty was to train the juniors up to my level and make sure they know the ins and outs of the fire hall. I was a pretty educated kid at that age, and I had my brother and my two uncles help me out along the way. Several times at drill, they put me as the lead guy, the front man, the role model for the other juniors to look up too. When I first started this, I would always wonder why they put a 16-year-old up on stage to teach the SENIOR guys. It took me two long years to realize why. The only way you are going to better yourself is by trying to better other people. If it weren’t for this junior program, I wouldn’t be as smart or as trained as I am right now.

When I teach at our weekly drill, I look at it from a junior’s perspective. I can see what they do and don’t understand; I was in their shoes for 99% of my time so far. No matter what we do at drill, the juniors do the same. When we cut holes in our simulator, they are right there doing the same thing. They watch us, then they do it. When they do it, we go step-by-step with them, making sure they don’t mess up, but when they do, we reassure them it’s okay. When you’re training, that is the time to make those mistakes. You learn a lot more from the mistakes than doing it right.

Many people criticize and bash juniors for being untrained “whackers.” Well, start training them. Get them involved with EVERYTHING. Every single time you’re at the station with them, go over the trucks, throw ladders, pull some lines, learn what every tool does and their names, learn the role of the officers, learn the different truck and engine duties. Teach every single junior how you would want someone coming to your house at 3 in the morning for a working fire. After all, those juniors will fill your shoes one day.

If you don’t have a junior program or you don’t train your juniors because they aren’t certified, then step up. Make a difference in a young person’s life and be their role model. Be the one that when they say they first started out, you helped them. There is no better feeling in this world than making someone’s life better, if you don’t think that is true, you’re in the wrong line of work. Every time you go to a call and see an elderly woman standing in her doorway telling you guys that the fire alarm was an accident, you check to make sure, and you smile and say have a good night to her. You just made her feel safer and one of the happiest people in this world. She now knows that when trouble occurs, people that have never even met her will drop ANYTHING to save her and that my friends is one of the greatest feelings you can have. Do not take this job lightly. Train, stay fit and treat everyone fairly. Just remember, you were a junior at one point in time also. Make sure all your other juniors act in the same manner of courtesy to that elderly woman, as you did.

– ​​​​​​​Jonathan Scripp
Munhall VFC #5

Blog

Her First Day (Mother’s Day)

Mother’s Day is right around the corner, so it only seems fitting that I should write about women in today’s fire service. I don’t know about you, but I can’t advise messing with someone who can both endure childbirth and swing a halligan. Cheese, light-hearted humor, mild controversy, and hard truths are all present and accounted for in my bag of writing tricks this morning. Let’s begin…

You walk through the front door of your local fire department on your first day on the job. You’ve dreamt of this very moment since your dad took you to see ‘Ladder 49’ as a little girl. The bay smells like diesel exhaust and various cleaning products, and the dining area smells of coffee and fresh kitchen table BS. Yes, this is exactly what you had hoped it would be like. A crisp blue uniform and black boots with nary a scuff or blood borne pathogen to be found on them.

You went to fire school and raised ladders, humped hose, slayed simulated dragons and dragged rescue dummies (some dummies even had pulses). You attended EMT classes and had your Hollywood expectations of life-saving heroics demolished, just like all that came before you. You’ve waded through interviews, physicals, psych evals and polygraphs to earn a chance here.

Your dad gave you parting advice as you left this morning; “You’re the new guy. Be seen and not heard, always be the last to eat and the first to wash dishes. Pay attention to your LT. Love you.” Some of the guys seem distant this morning, others, jovial. The coffee must not have kicked in yet.

Your gear is issued, and you get to work.

Fast forward to one month in; You’re growing as a firefighter. The things you learned in class are finally starting to make more (or less) sense, but you still feel out-of-place. ‘Maybe it’s me,’ you’ve asked yourself once or twice. Most of your new coworkers are genuinely good guys, but a select few either treat you like a fragile porcelain doll or a hindrance that they must bear the weight of for 24 hours.

You’re becoming increasingly agitated by romantic advances from co-workers and have even heard rumors swirling about your involvement with several of the guys from other shifts. True or not, why is this news any of their concern?

There have been grumblings from out of shape firemen about your physical ability to do this job. Despite passing all of the physical requirements and being able to stretch an SCBA cylinder to its very limits, you still catch shit from a guy that perspires at the mere mention of physical exertion.

“I weigh 300lbs; there’s no way she can drag me out of a fire!”

‘So, don’t weigh 300lbs,’ you think to yourself. A lack of dietary self-control on his part has somehow morphed into a negative remark about you. Is this guy for real?

There are plenty of other whispered criticisms; she’s a distraction, some jobs are better left to the men, she only got hired to boost diversity numbers, etc.

What gives?

This isn’t what it was supposed to be like.

Why do you feel like an outsider, the constant third wheel of the firehouse?

You were told this would be the beginning of the best years of your life, working alongside people who will become like family to you. If any of this was indeed true, you are off to a slow start…

Sparing my dramatic liberties, this is what the fire service might look like to your female coworkers. Hopefully, the overwhelming majority of women reading this are scratching their heads, having never encountered this kind of issue at work. I sincerely wish for that, that all of this was simply make-believe. Unfortunately, we know that more than a few will relate quite well. On a more somber related note, a female firefighter recently committed suicide. Her actions are believed to have been sparked, at least in part, by workplace harassment. She was the topic of crude online comments, rumors, and stories. The information that was uncovered during the investigation will leave an ugly scar on the department forever, regardless of its role in her choice. Suicides rates are statistically higher in public service careers; this is not disputed. Did her “brothers” throw gasoline on a fire that was already burning hot enough on its own? Given this knowledge, any excuse you might have for the kind of treatment faced by our fictional firefighter described at the outset of this discussion is a bad one. Don’t be an ass.

How long has this gone on? I don’t know. Probably since the first woman picked up her first ax on her first horse-drawn, steam-powered fire engine.

The first known female firefighter in the United States was Molly Williams (per i-women.com Terese M. Floren 2007), a New York City slave who became a firefighter with Oceanus Engine Co. #11 in 1815. The first paid urban career female firefighter in the United States? Sarah Forcier in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1973. Women have been “Doin’ it” in the US of A for over 200 years, but it is still news when “insert name here,” Texas Fire Department hires their first female employee.

The reason is clear; this has been a boy’s club for generation after generation, and some opponents of change are being dragged into 2017 kicking and screaming. We all have worked with, met or know of one of these guys. Don’t play dumb. Hell, maybe you are that guy.

Ask yourself what your department looks like through the eyes of your female co-workers and their families. Why stop there? These same arguments can be made by anyone that feels disenfranchised by public service. The topic may be Mother’s Day-themed, but the message is about common decency.

So, is your department or shift one that makes them go home and tell their families about the great group of brothers they work with, or one that makes them go home and question their career choices? I have a wife. I claim sisters of the blood, marital and fire service variety. I have a mother, aunts, grandmothers. I have a daughter (love you, kid, if you’re reading this someday). If they were to follow me to work one day, would they approve of the way I treat my sisters in service? I like to think they would. Would yours?

There’s a fine line to be considered here. The line between making someone feel like a welcome member of the department, and treating someone differently in a way that makes them feel like an outsider. The line between innocent fun and downright bullying, between including them in questionable (see; fun) antics and being overprotective. If you must ask yourself if your department falls over the line, it’s probably time to change the culture of your department. The women I have met doing this job have no interest in special treatment or coddling. In fact, nearly all just want to be “one of the crew.” Nothing more, certainly nothing less. Many of them may not even like that I am writing this piece because in perhaps the very truest of firefighter fashions they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.

“I’m not changing the culture of my department, there’s no reason. They joined us, we didn’t join them.”

In the words of Maya Angelou; “if you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

Folks, the time has come to change some attitudes. To provide a pleasant nudge in the right direction, here are a few guidelines to aid in your future decision-making processes. These guidelines can apply to almost all of life’s situations, I have found.

-If it wouldn’t be funny to be said about (or to) your little brother or sister, it probably won’t be funny about (or to) most of your co-workers.

-If it would be embarrassing to have your family overhear you speak that way about someone, don’t speak it.

-If it feels wrong, it probably is.

-Always assume your mother is creeping just over your shoulder, ready to pounce and twist your ear while dragging you off-screen (using your FULL NAME, of course).

-It is possible to be both a brother and a gentleman.

-You don’t get to decide what should and should not be hurtful, offensive, or irritating to another. This is a tough concept for many to grasp.

To bring it all home, let’s talk about how this affects me because that’s what’s really important here, right?

It’s a hurdle I’ll never have to worry about jumping, so why even drag it out and open myself to (mostly) good-natured heat? What, if anything, do I stand to profit?

I have skin in the game. I’ll explain;

Someday, my daughter may decide to follow in my footsteps. I genuinely hope that she inherits her mother’s brains and grows up to become a rocket scientist, but I won’t stand in her way. I do worry about what kind of legacy we might be leaving behind for her and others; it doesn’t seem fair that she should have to inherit our messes. “Painful” might not be a strong enough word to describe how it would feel to watch one of my children struggle against antiquated typecasting that I had a hand in cultivating, whether by indifference or otherwise. Lastly, my daughter will inevitably run into coworkers of mine, both past and current, if she decides to enter public service. What might they have to share about me, what kinds of stories do I want to be told about me to my offspring? Will they reinforce her (hopefully) cherished memories of Firefighter Dad, protector, and friend, or will they tarnish them?

Will she be forced to question which man was the real me, “Work Dad” or “Home Dad?”

It’s up to me, I suppose.

Yours is up to you.

Happy Mother’s Day

– Randy Anderson