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Volunteer Professionals
by Jason Zigmont

Fire officer voting: Yea vs. nay

The tradition of voting-in officers is fraught with problems, yet with adjustments may have a place in a professional volunteer service

By Jason J. Zigmont

As we get through the election season, I wonder if voting is the right thing for the fire service. I am not talking about voting in the federal elections, but voting for our own leadership. 

It is somewhat of a time-honored tradition in most volunteer departments to elect their leaders annually, resulting in a popularity contest and sometimes the wrong person is elected. Do we really want to choose the person who is leading us into some of the most dangerous situations we will ever face by popularity? 

One of the big differences between a paid department and a volunteer department is the way we choose our leaders. In a paid department, a competitive process that requires length of service in a grade, testing, oral boards and a selection committee, usually chooses officers. 

This process is often so competitive that it may take decades for someone to move up the ranks. Although it is not a perfect process, the rigor is admirable.

Bendable rules
On the other hand, requirements of volunteer departments vary greatly and may even vary year to year in one department. Some departments have worked on outlining minimum standards both in years in grade and certifications, but all too often these requirements are waived or changed at the whim of the department. 

Even worse, sometimes these requirements are changed just to get someone into office who is not qualified. This leads to the classic good ole boys network and huge department fights.

The voting system in a volunteer department is an honored tradition reaching back to the origination of the department. Often the first chiefs were chosen solely because they started the department, or were the ones who lead the first meeting. 

The chief then may have picked his officers or there may have been another vote. If you weren't liked, you were blackballed. In many departments this has gone beyond officers and every member is voted on when they join, get off probation or have any change in membership.

Consequences of voting
The problem with this historic voting system is that the wrong vote can lead to large liabilities, closed departments and public harm. Voting not to accept a member can lead to a discrimination lawsuit. Voting in the wrong officer has lead to departments closing their doors and even worse, members being hurt. 

Voting has divided departments and caused members to quit. With all of that said, voting gives members (or at least the majority group) control over their department.

Maybe there is a way to get the best of both worlds. In the best-case scenario you would have a rigorous selection process that determines that all candidates are qualified for the position and then a vote by the members. 

To do this, we need to have accepted standards of what determines a qualified officer and it needs to be upheld. We also need to have enough qualified individuals to make a choice possible. 

Maybe it is a pipe dream in the volunteer service, but to be a professional volunteer service we need to try to make it happen. 

About the author

Jason Zigmont, PhD, NREMT-P, currently serves as the Manager/Educator for the SYN:APSE Simulation center at Yale New Haven Health System. He was the founder of VolunteerFD.org, and has written extensively about Bylaws, Fundraising, Grants, Recruitment and Retention, SOGs and Training. He has been a member of the East Berlin Fire Department for more than 10 years, most recently acting as Training Officer. He holds a BS in Public Safety Administration and earned his PhD in Adult Learning at the University of Connecticut. He can be contacted at jason@volunteerfd.org.



Comments
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Craig Snowberger Craig Snowberger Friday, November 23, 2012 3:51:13 AM The truth is told.I bet this has been going on in certain parts of the country for 200 years.Some places it seems who buys the beer and has the biggest parties WINS THE ELECTON!
Dave Wheeler Dave Wheeler Friday, November 23, 2012 4:39:09 AM Maybe there needs to be a change?
Frank Svitak Frank Svitak Monday, November 26, 2012 8:42:04 AM Our Fire Co. already tackled this some years ago. First) you have to meet the min. requirements to be an officer as set down by the State of N.J., )second we have put in time in grade requirements, you have to serve a min of 2 years in your grade before moving up, ) third you must have additional training to be qualified to move up, i.e. I300, incident management 2, then I400, incident management 3. We made it so you have to be able to perform the actual duties of the rank, not just be the most popular.
Bud Korol Bud Korol Thursday, May 08, 2014 11:18:03 AM And once elected in the new chief is afraid to upset anyone because he may not get re-elected.
Tom Pacenza Sr. Tom Pacenza Sr. Thursday, May 08, 2014 12:08:34 PM The sad part is now days officers are voted in mainly on popular demand. An officer might be well trained and if you are not liked by the firefighters below you, you are done. If they like you you will win an election. I have seen this over 48 years being in the fire service.
Robert Van Etten Robert Van Etten Thursday, May 08, 2014 1:49:38 PM I vote NO. I have had over 37 years as a Battalion Chief & Volunteer Chief with The same County. Voting for a person for this position is not the route to go. There has to be some qualifications for a this position. The candidate should have at least 10 years in the Fire Service, the last 6 years as a Company Officer. And hold at least a 2 year degree in Fire Science. If this organization has a board of directors, they should interview all candidates for the position.
Thursday, May 08, 2014 2:18:39 PM It's nice to be a part of the election process, but these are responsible and serious positions where decisions made by officers can mean life or death. Because of that reality and liability, all officers should be promoted like any other profession. These are usually popularity contests which sometimes results in an officer who otherwise would not qualify. Experience, education, training, and responsible behavior. This should start wit Lieutenant, and not begin with Chief elections. So, the short answer is NO.
Carol Wilk Carol Wilk Thursday, May 08, 2014 2:51:41 PM I agree with you Bob....
Ed Woods Ed Woods Thursday, May 08, 2014 6:49:02 PM Well...... Here goes. First, and most important, our system is different. In Maryland, By Law, and except for 6 Cities, there is NO involvement in Fire/Rescue/EMS matters by any governmental body except Counties. We absolutely do not allow small town politics to interfere with public safety. My County is one of the Busiest Fire Departments in the nation that use Volunteers, and our Volunteers are among the best trained in the nation as well. We have County-wide requirements for training and experience for ALL positions, not just the Chief. In my case, I hold 11 National Pro Board Certifications along with my 56 years experience. We elect our Chiefs and Captains, and the Chiefs select the Lieutenants.... Although the Officers mentioned are elected, they must have the credentials required for that position. Another thing that we do is restrict the Training system so that it is focused on training Firefighters to a Standard (NFPA) To take training here you must be a member of a Fire Department First. Unaffiliated people can not access any type of training, and places like Community Colleges can not teach Firefighting. All Firefighter Training is FREE, provided by the State and/or the individual Counties........
John Dragotta John Dragotta Friday, May 09, 2014 7:32:31 AM I am the chief of a very small FireCompany In New Jersey. We average About 100 to 120 calls In the last few years all I seen was popularity vote People that didn't meet qualifications or had seen any fire were elected officers I have 34 years of fire service also a volunteer in the neighboring town that runs about 1000 calls a year It's a little scary sometimes I hope and pray nobody ever gets hurt We must get rid of the popularity vote and put the best qualified people in the position

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