How to lead a combo fire department

As the career-volunteer fire department model gains popularity, here are some of the leadership pitfalls and how to avoid them

Chief Kenneth Richards of Old Mystic (Conn.) Fire Department presented a workshop on overcoming leadership challenges in combination staffed departments. The workshop was part of the International Association of Fire Chief's Volunteer Combination Officers' conference held in November.

There is very little guidance or experience in managing the combination-staffed system. And that's a problem as this model is becoming more and more prevalent as communities grow and demand more services and with volunteers becoming harder to find and keep.

Chief Richards says that if the leader of a combination system fails to recognize the volunteers as vital and necessary, the volunteers will leave the organization and find something else to do. "If you expect a combination-staffing model to work, both sides must be treated as equals," he said.

Many combination departments have two sets of performance standards. One example often cited as an area of conflict is different training standards. The requirements to deliver a skill at an emergency scene are the same and leaders must develop valid criteria for career and volunteer staff.

Clear expectations
There needs to be a clearly defined expectation of minimum performance criteria. There can be different standards applied for personnel who are needed or requested to staff specialized teams. Those standards are applied in the same way as the minimum basic standards.

If a firefighter wants to be on the rope rescue team he must be certified at the rope rescue technician level. It does not matter whether he is career or volunteer, certification at the technician level is the minimum requirement.

In Chief Richards' department, volunteers are required to achieve certification at the EMT and Firefighter I, and hazardous materials operations level. Volunteers are allowed to respond to calls before being certified, but are limited in the functions they are allowed to perform.

Recruiting volunteers into a combination system is a critical component for long-term survival. A comprehensive and long-term plan should be developed to actively seek out community-minded residents willing to make the commitment to become a volunteer.

The American family has changed and Chief Richards recognizes this difference in his recruitment campaign. Many of our younger generation are not as tuned in to giving back to their community as in years past, he said.

Benefits of joining
This doesn't mean they don't care; they just don't understand why they should step up and become a volunteer firefighter. Today, many of our young people will ask what joining the volunteer fire department will do for them. Chiefs must have the answer to that question or the potential volunteer may reject the idea of joining.

The benefits of joining as a volunteer are numerous; many can't be truly measured or weighted. Tangible benefits must be explained as well. One of those tangible benefits is getting the basic training and experience needed to move from volunteer to career firefighter.

Do not sugar coat the time commitment in the recruiting process. Clearly state the expectations and the results will be positive for both the volunteer and departmental leadership.

Managing the time commitment so the volunteer and career staff are not spinning their wheels when working on a project requires a great deal of planning from organizational leadership. Being prepared for work activities, station duties, training and even emergency response will demonstrate an understanding and respect for both career and volunteer time.

Top salesperson
Chief Richards encourages fire chiefs to be involved in the recruiting process. The fire chief is the top salesperson. If the fire chief shows he or she cares about the person who is considering becoming a volunteer, there is a better chance the volunteer will be retained.

The way volunteer and career firefighters are treated in a combination system is critical to the success of a combination model. Respect for position, status, rank, individual differences is critical to managing the human resources. Word travels fast in the community about many things but especially how staff are treated.

Chief Richards encourages chiefs and officers to listen to the members both career and volunteer. Listening is a key leadership skill that requires patience. In some cases fire chiefs need to let go of their ego.

"Together, we are smarter than individually," Chief Richards said.

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