Volunteer firefighters are expected to train for hundreds of hours and perform the same tasks as their career counterparts in their spare time after working a full 40-hour week elsewhere. Across the nation volunteer fire departments are struggling to keep their doors
open for one reason or another. For those of us that have been in the fire service for the last ten years, you have heard time and time again that volunteer firefighters are a ‘dying breed.’
According to a 2014 National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) profile, there were 1,134,400 career and volunteer firefighters across this great nation. Of those firefighters, 788,250 or 69% were volunteers. It is clear that emergency calls are up everywhere, but the number of volunteers has declined more than 10 percent over the last several decades.
This nation-wide obstacle is not an issue in a small southwest corner of Augusta County, Virginia where one fire company is beating the odds and winning. Swoope Volunteer Fire Company (SVFC), under the direction of Fire Chief Kevin L. Wilkes and President Linda Brooks, both of who will argue that volunteerism in their department is blooming like never before. SVFC is one of only four fire companies left in Augusta County that remain 100 percent volunteer, even though many volunteer stations have been assigned career personnel from the Augusta County Fire & Rescue Department to supplement staffing.
SVFC is a rural fire company just outside of the city limits of Staunton, Virginia located in the Shenandoah Valley at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Surprisingly SVFC does not have the problem most other volunteer companies have. Vice President Jessica Botkin stated, “We can barely keep up with new applications for membership.” Since
Wilkes moved to the area and joined SVFC, he has been directly responsible, along with few other key personnel, for the rise in membership from only 14 members in 2005 to over 56 active members today, 21 of whom are female. Wilkes has personally recruited over 25 members in the course of the last two years. Wilkes attributes a great deal of his success to his mentors in the fire service, a few of which are former Fire Chief Brian Butler who is currently assigned as a Fire Captain for the City of Staunton and Rick Lasky who is an emergency services consultant, motivational speaker, author of Pride and Ownership: A Firefighter’s Love of the Job and co-author of Five Alarm Leadership: From the Firehouse to the Fireground.
Many people want to know how Wilkes does it when so many other volunteer fire companies are losing members to second and third jobs, lack of good leadership, family commitments, divorce and other stressful situations.
Wilkes stated that it is simple and he has a secret weapon… “Treat ALL of your members like they are family, your family!” Wilkes goes on to say, “Never demand, always ask while leading by example.” Each new member is assigned two mentors during their probationary period to help guide them through the initial process of the fire service and to make good decisions. President Brooks stated, “We have a great opportunity here with our new members, not only to watch them transform into fire service professionals, but to mold them the way we desire, turning them into highly-motivated individuals with critical-thinking skills who save life, property and the environment.”
This kind of teamwork and coordination is paying off big for the company who is very proud of their annual ‘out-of-chute’ average time of 2 minutes and 42 seconds, only missing one call in the last two years, all while averaging nine volunteer members per call.
Wilkes admitted he has worked for a few ‘not-so-good’ leaders in past and knows what not to do, reminding his members to ensure they have fun when they come to the firehouse. “Our Company Core Values are P-R-I-D-E; Professional at all times, Respect Team Members and the Community, Innovation – Always Raise the Bar, Determination – Never Give Up and Everyone Goes Home – We’ve Got Your Six!” Wilkes stated proudly. “Little things make a BIG difference, my officers and I will be the first ones to take out the trash, mop the floors and wash dishes,” Wilkes explained. “All of our members have Pride and Ownership in their company, and it shows.” Wilkes mentioned that with a very modest budget for a rural department, leadership can’t afford NOT to consider rewarding and recognizing members.
SVFC has many programs to help their members relax and enjoy the ‘family’ environment, but also become successful and grow personally and professionally. With exciting programs like; regular family movie night, karaoke night, fitness sessions, family meals, study groups for fire service and high school classes, sessions that provide guidance for members looking to go college, cookouts, and mentorship programs, what is not to love? Members are encouraged to bring their family, neighbors and friends to events to watch a movie on the big screen or to help Santa Claus during the holiday season, who visits the community on a fire truck passing out candy canes to children or all ages. “People come to visit the firehouse and see our comradery and family spirit, and they want to be a part of this team,” stated Deputy Chief Chris Botkin.
According to Wilkes he has a second secret weapon, “We strive to make every member not only feel like this is their ‘home,’ but also to accomplish their goals, and never except failure.” Wilkes proudly boasts about his volunteers, “thirty percent of this rural fire company has earned or in the process of earning a college degree,” and “we currently have twenty-two certified firefighters and twenty certified EMTs.”
On August 16, 2016, Wilkes was presented with the Community Builders Award by the Grand Lodge of Ancient and Accepted Masons of Virginia, for Recognition of Outstanding Service to the Community.
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.