It’s 0905hrs on a Sunday morning.
The career firefighter is sleeping soundly in his favorite recliner, enjoying the freedom to nap indiscriminately on a weekend, but also ready to get to work when the tones drop. He is “living the dream.” You know, that dream, the one you always hear about: Insurance, benefits and steady pay to do something you would probably do for free.
The volunteer firefighter is sleeping equally soundly, enjoying the freedom to stay in bed on a weekend, children permitting. Just like our career firefighter, he is ready to go to work when the tones drop. He is exhausted after working overtime Monday through Friday, but he knows when he wakes up he will get to spend irreplaceable time with his family in the comfort of his own home.
What’s the difference?
There are differences, I can assure you of that. These differences, however, are not as glaring as the Facebook Fire Department would have you believe, and the positives and negatives on both sides mostly cancel each other out. In all of the infighting, backbiting and criticisms that often arise between career personnel and volunteers, we constantly forget about another class of firefighter. These men and women make up the oft-ignored third party of the fire service.
Our red-headed stepchildren; The part-time firefighter.
I have been a volunteer, a part-timer and a career firefighter, I am familiar with the struggles of all sides. I can tell you, without hesitation, that the hardest role to fill is that of the part-time firefighter. You can mistakenly be viewed as not as invested as the career guys, not as dedicated as the volunteers. Scab or hired gun are equally unsavory perceptions of your role.
Would you like to know what the part-time firefighter is doing while both the career and volunteer firefighters sleep? Probably commuting to any one of his or her three-plus jobs. Most of them work varying combinations of full-time and part-time positions, both Fire/EMS and otherwise, to make ends meet. How long has it been since their last day off? Who knows. Somewhere between a dog’s age and a really-freaking-long-time. Home? Nah. The part-time firefighter might as well just live in his car, for all the time he gets to spend at his mailing address.
But why be a part-time firefighter at all if it sucks so bad?
- Some don’t have a choice. Maybe they don’t have any seriously marketable skills outside of public service. I certainly fit that bill, myself.
- It can be hard getting a career position on a fire department, any number of life choices or events can extinguish your dream.
- Maybe life just got in the way. Sometimes the reality of your situation doesn’t necessarily mesh with your career aspirations. Timing is everything.
- Many are younger individuals, just getting their start. Not everybody walks onto a full-time job after class ends. The experience they are gaining makes them much more desirable volunteer and career employees.
- Lastly, some simply have no interest in pursuing a Fire/EMS career. They probably already have gainful employment in another field and just want to enjoy a living out a childhood dream (while being paid for their time, of course).
Arguments are frequently made that nobody forced them to be part-time firefighters, and that they can give up whenever they want and get a better job. Whatever their reasons, the public service community as a whole needs them more than they need us. Most of these guys and gals can certainly make more money elsewhere, but they chose a life of service instead. For now, at least.
Dragging themselves from department to department, sleep deprived and half-dead, but still ready to go; where I’m from, these are the people that keep both career and volunteer departments afloat.
Volunteer engine response constantly coming up light? It’s understandable. With increasingly demanding schedules, not many people have time to volunteer. Part-timers are here to save the day.
Department making the transition from all-volunteer to combination? Those part-timers are super handy when you need to fill out a schedule.
Need shift coverage for that big fishing trip? PT’s got your back.
If they seem grouchy, it’s probably because they haven’t seen their families for days on end. If they seem unhealthy, it’s likely because they don’t have the luxury of good insurance, or can’t afford to take sick days. Their schedules lead many of them to down energy drinks by the case. If they seem disinterested, I would venture to say that it’s because they work at three or four departments, each with their own sets of training, rules, tempo and drama. Burnout is real.
And finally, if they seem tired, it’s because THEY ARE.
Be thankful that they are here, and be nice to your part-timers.
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
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.
In apartment complexes and commercial strip malls across the country, we have issues with line placement through narrow or obstructed paths. These can be caused by parked cars, short setbacks, parking barriers, planters, shrubs, etc. With this in mind, one option available is to pass these obstacles before the deployment of the hose. This is what I like to call “The Delayed Triple Split.” This maneuver allows for the entire hose bundle (on a triple layer) to be deployed after passing through any obstructions or obstacles on the pathway to the building. A few considerations go into this deployment process; they are as follows:
– Placement for the aerial at buildings. The best practice is to have the first arriving aerial’s turntable at the center of the building to access the entire length of the building.
– Placement for the next engine company to bring water or supply a “booster back-up.”
– The width of the average car is approximately six to seven and a half (6′ – 7.5′) feet.
– The width of the average parking space is seven and a half to nine (7.5′ – 9′) feet.
– When spotting the hose cross-lays, use an object in the same area on the truck to act as a reference point, i.e. Piston Intake Valve, wheel well, strobe light, etc.
– The objective could be met with only two firefighters involved.
– Find the average length of bedded hose. The average car is about fourteen to eighteen (14′ – 18′) feet long. You need to find how many folds in the cross-lay are needed to reach the sidewalk, which is approximately twenty (20′) feet from the apparatus.
– The Nozzle Firefighter and Driver/Backup Firefighter go in opposite directions (Triple Split) with the loop and nozzle. This allows for short setback deployments.
– When choosing which way to separate the triple layer on the walkway, consider the need for the loop to advance with the building, not against.
– When Backup/Driver is pulling the loop section of the Triple Layer to the opposite side of the fire building, keep pulling it until the fifty (50’) foot coupling is at the entry to the breezeway/recessed area. This will allow the Nozzleman to walk in a straight path to the entry point and keep all remaining 100’ of hose in usable position in the yard.
– On the return trip to the pump panel or relocating to the front door for Doorman position, the last parts of the hose is placed onto the sidewalk/walk space to allow for clearance once the hose gets charged.
– The 50’ coupling is brought to the front door, with the accordion style layout in the open area between the stairs and building.
– If the 2nd-floor apartment is the apartment, take the nozzle and 50’ coupling to the top of the landing. This will further prove the need for the Backup/Driver to pull the looped section far enough to align the 50’ coupling with the base of the stairs.
With these steps, the training evolution was completed in approximately 1 minute from the time the parking brake was pulled. This is an easy way to allow for the needless pulling of the Triple Layer in a straight line, causing multiple steps to place in proper position.
The key to this process, as with any new training elements, is getting out and practicing. Finding those landmarks on the truck, the direction of the loop placement, and placement of the final layout in the yard or on the landing are the fundamentals to making this stretch successful. Unfortunately, many things in these types of properties will reach up and grab anything on the hose layout to hinder the progress. Couplings get caught on the edge of parking blocks, hoses get pulled under tires, etc. By moving the stretch to the fire building side of the obstructions, the layout will transition smoother with fewer locations for Murphy’s Law to apply.
– Joel Richardson
The volunteer firefighter problem in America may appear to be a massive one, but its entirety is made up of small issues that smoosh together creating the illusion of one large problem. It’s a cultural and systemic situation that is further complicated by industry regulation, standards, and state/local government laws. The system, as it’s currently designed, actually makes it difficult for people to be volunteers. There are definite actions that can be taken to ease the burden and bolster your numbers. The entire premise is to make volunteering easy and fun while still maintaining a respectable level of training, participation, and professionalism.
We polled our Facebook followers to see what kind of things would make it easier for them to be a volunteer. From the east coast to the west coast and everywhere in between all of the answers appeared to echo. Here is a short list of the issues we’ll tackle:
- The voted-in Fire Chief
- Training overload or willing to volunteer but no time for the required FF1 or 2 and other classes such as Hazmat, CPR, and extrication…
- Employers that don’t understand the
- If the need for fundraising weren’t so great there would be more time for training.
- Drama/Lack of Respect
- Gasoline expenses
- Lack of funding for necessities
- Lack of manpower/members
Perhaps this short list is a little longer than I had anticipated but that’s okay, I’m excited, so let’s get started.
The Voted-In Fire Chief
First and foremost, one common thing among most “Roberts Rules of Order” fire departments is the “voted-in” or elected Fire Chief. While this practice tends to be the standard among volunteer fire departments it can have dramatic and even dangerous outcomes. Volunteer Fire Department’s are like miniature parliament’s that run a democratic process and as such is imperfect. The voting outcomes always tend to fall on the side of the “popular candidate” and not always the most qualified one. This is the rawest form of democracy and with it comes inherent drama. The elected Fire Chief usually knows who voted for him or her and who didn’t. The vote itself is one place that can breed favoritism.
If you are a Volunteer Fire Chief it’s important to realize your job isn’t just “managing” the fire department and taking command on scene. You are in charge of fostering your volunteer workforce, the entire volunteer force, in a fair, consistent, calm and pragmatic way.
Finding solutions, keeping the peace, and creating an energy and atmosphere that volunteers WANT to be around, not just your favorite people, but all of your people. Every person, including those you consider undesirable, who continue to show up for work assignments, calls, administrative stuff, are you’re only people. You have to deal with the volunteers your community has to offer.
As an elected Fire Chief you cannot allow nepotism, favoritism, or a power trip to be your legacy. Create and enforce a code of ethics within the firehouse. A great one can be found here on the US Fire Administration website.
You can have the nicest trucks and equipment in the world but if you don’t have volunteers who are happy to show up then you’ve got nothing. Without firefighters, there is no fire department. You have to take care of them first. Spend more of your budget on your people rather than buying new stuff. (This could be a whole article in itself) If you’re doing it right, people will be knocking down your door to volunteer. If you are doing it wrong you’ll be raising your voice at members and creating rifts.
It’s unfortunate that fire department taxes or municipal funding isn’t enough to cover expenses but that’s the reality of almost every volunteer fire department. There have always been pancake breakfasts, spaghetti dinners, and special events; it’s almost the volunteer way of life. The burden of fundraising doesn’t have to be a heavy one. One solid solution to this problem is to give the responsibility to someone else. Create an auxiliary organization whose sole focus is fundraising. In the past these organizations were called a “Ladies Auxiliary” but I doubt that’s PC any longer. One organization I was privileged to be a part of had an auxiliary organization of mostly elderly folks coupled with high school kids and a few firefighter spouses. The fundraising events they were able to plan were amazing and the turnout was always high. From dirt bike races, marathons, a rodeo and even an antique car and airplane show, the possibilities are endless if you are creative and you can pull the resources of your jurisdiction together.
Another way of raising funds is less traditional and more business oriented. Billing. Yes, the dreaded “B” word. But it’s not as bad as it sounds. Motor vehicle accidents or traffic collisions (depending are where you live) offer a chance to recoup money spent responding to the call. The good thing here is that you are not billing the individual. All car insurance policies have a $5000 chunk set aside for emergency response. You can usually charge per truck, per person, and mileage, as well as any equipment needed to mitigate. Gather the car insurance info before the vehicles are towed. Hire a 3rd party biller to handle the paperwork, they’ll take 10-15% off the top and you get the rest. In a department I was an officer for, billing for accidents used to cover our entire years worth of fuel with extra left over for equipment purchases.
Less time spent fundraising means more time to train.
As mentioned earlier, if the Fire Chief has created an inviting atmosphere, people will be showing up from everywhere. It’s important not to turn people away. Not every volunteer has to be a firefighter with fire gear, hoses, and SCBA’s. Why not seek volunteers who can do ancillary work like creating or managing a website or Facebook page, seeking out just drivers or elderly residents who are willing to do administrative tasks, operate as traffic control also known as Fire Police in some areas. Everyone should be welcome to volunteer including special needs individuals, there is plenty of work to go around and not everyone needs to end up on a fire scene.
When it comes to recruitment social media is where it’s at. Maintain an active Facebook page that highlights all of the awesome things your volunteers are doing and post pictures of all the “fun” they’re having and the good deeds they’re doing. The people you want to recruit are probably on Facebook. Likewise, partner with the local high schools marketing teacher and inquire about the possibility of having students create a fire department marketing strategy for recruitment. The idea gives students practical experience in marketing while helping the community. Hang recruitment posters at gas stations, local restaurants, libraries and so forth.
Furthermore, the kids and young adults who are the perfect age to perform work are not out and about like we were. They’re likely sitting on their computer or playing video games. This generation of kids is not brought up with a sense of community and they are rarely seen swinging from trees. A robust explorer/junior program is a great way to get young adults off the couch and into the fire department. Replace the excitement of their virtual world with the excitement of firefighting reality as long as they feel encouraged they’ll keep coming back. When these explorers turn eighteen, you have a trained valuable member whom you were able to shape and mold over time.
Another way to bolster your roster is to link with a local community college that offers Fire Science. Offer to create an arrangement with the school to have the students gain practical knowledge and earn credit by spending 2 or 3 eight-hour days (shifts) at the fire station “on-duty” so to speak, you end up with staffed engines. Likewise, a live-in program can offer incredible value.
The Volunteer’s Employer
There are many things that can be done to raise understanding among employers of volunteer firefighters. Sometimes a visit from the Fire Chief and general conversation can solve the issue. This is where and why it’s important to elect a Fire Chief that can represent the Fire Dept. as a Diplomat. All you really need to do is get out there, smile, meet people, and shake hands.
A proactive Fire Chief has the ability to create a network of businesses that are willing to support the mission of the fire dept. A common line that can be used is, “If your business was on fire at 10am on a Tuesday, who would respond to your fire if every employer in town refused to allow the fire dept’s volunteers to leave work to extinguish the fire and potentially save someone’s life.” This line usually helps paint the gravity of the situation in terms that they are affected by.
Furthermore, a proactive fire chief could work with the municipal government or representatives to create an ordinance or legislation that mandates all businesses must support the community they are a part of by allowing firefighters to respond to emergencies as long as it doesn’t create an undue hardship. If you are the only employee working at a gas station, it’s not likely you’ll be able to close up shop and take a call. That wouldn’t be fair to the business.
Another way to engage businesses is to include them in emergency response plans. Sometimes emergencies can require the effort of a community to mitigate. A handshake or official agreement can be made for services should the fire dept. need a backhoe, food, water, a crane w/operator, dump-truck, sand, fuel, electrician, plumber and so on. The agreement should include a Claus where the services are provided forthwith and the money is worked out afterward.
This is getting rather lengthy so I’ll break here and we’ll address the remaining concerns in Part II. If you have any thoughts or ideas about providing solutions please address them here and share them with our followers.
Growing up, I got to see what the fire service is really like. I can remember my first ride in a fire truck with my dad when he was a Lieutenant. I remember the adrenaline rush that I felt as my dad would blast the Federal Q, and drive me around the block. The feeling that I can’t wait till I’m older, and I get to sit backwards and go to a fire one day. I will never forget that awesome feeling that I had inside of me that day.
As I grew older, I joined the Fire Explorers when I was 14. My love for the fire service grew tremendously. I always looked forward to going to every Thursday night meeting and getting to learn about the fire service, and how it began. I didn’t only learn how to operate the tools, flow water, do a search, or run EMS calls. I learned about the brotherhood. What an awesome feeling it was to know that I have a second family that is always there to support me. A family you can come talk to when there are problems at home. A family you can have fun with and spend time with each other’s families and kids. And most importantly, a family that will always have your back at your worst moment in life. Growing up with my father in the fire service and being an Explorer with the same department he was at, I was able to see how a brotherhood was really supposed to be.
As I graduated high school and moved onto fire school, I was able to establish a greater brotherhood with my classmates of Class 1102. Sharing memories together, constantly studying, and going through the toughest parts that fire school had to offer. After graduating fire school and getting hired on the job, I started noticing a change. The brotherhood didn’t seem to all be there. I noticed that some people only want this job for the money, and not for the love of the job and helping others in their community. I also noticed that some of our own brothers and sisters don’t even care about each other. It’s sad to think where the fire service started and where it’s at today, when it comes to the fraternity of the fire service. It’s like we are one giant soap opera, just one
issue after the other. People always complaining about policy and procedures, brothers and sisters talking about other brothers and sisters, and even going behind each other’s back’s and back-stabbing one another. I started to become sick to my stomach when I started seeing what was really going on and it saddens me to see that it has come this far.
Brothers and Sisters,
It’s time to wake up and realize what this career is really about. This isn’t just some job you come to because of the money and the benefits. This isn’t a job where you can come to work and cause mischief and turmoil amongst each other and tear each other down. This is a LIFESTYLE, a CAREER, that is much bigger than some “soap opera”, or some job that you think you’re getting great benefits from. When you choose this profession you better be all in, or nothing. This is a career, a lifestyle, that you live day-in and day-out and devote a third of your life too. Come into work and love to be where you’re at. Love this job and train to become the best at your profession. If professional athletes can train every day to become good at what they do and love their job at the same time, then so can we. We have to train like a professional athlete and become better every single day and not just sit around on a recliner and hope you’ll do it right when the public really needs you. Ignore the Soap Opera, ignore the negativity, ignore the ignorance that people have towards this career and become the 1% who will go out and make a difference in the fire service and show others how great this career really is. Join the movement and take pride back in your station and your career. Show the weak and broken that this is the best job in the WORLD!
– Christopher Intartaglio
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.
Mediocrity is a dangerous blight on the fire service. In volunteer and full-time departments alike, we accept mediocrity in our equipment, personnel and even in ourselves. Unfortunately, as a result, our brothers and sisters, families and community all suffer.
Low manpower is a large problem in a lot of rural volunteer departments. In some cases, they take what they can get, but is this always what’s best? In my opinion, a lack of firefighters is far better than a bad or dangerous one. Firefighters who don’t hold themselves to a standard, don’t train, or don’t think they should are far deadlier than the fires we are fighting.
The majority of our line of duty deaths in the fire service are result of this mediocrity at times. Our health not being a priority results in heart attack LODD’s. Not wearing our PPE as it was designed results in failures and deaths or injuries. Not wearing our seat belts on every call at all times can take a life on that one time it isn’t worn. Even a cultural attitude in your department can be detrimental. Having a “just deal with it/get over it” attitude can breed depression and other mental issues that can ultimately take over and even end a person’s life.
Holding ourselves and our brothers and sisters in the fire service accountable to the standards we should be at is key to ending the mediocrity.
Even at a low level in the department, you can create change by leading by example. It will take time, and it won’t be easy but it can be done. I myself am, by far, not the perfect firefighter, but as of today, I vow to better myself mentally and physically and hold myself to a standard that I should be at. I have a long ways to go, but it needs to be done. I will no longer accept myself in my current state as I am not in the best shape to help my community and support my brothers and sisters. Will you do the same?