The Art of Making it Mandatory

By Jason Zigmont

Anytime a volunteer department makes something 'mandatory' there is usually an outcry from the members along the lines of, "I joined the volunteer department, not the mandatory department." Unfortunately, with tough times and changing regulatory requirements, sometimes there is no choice to make certain drills, events, calls, or time mandatory. We have all gone through these battles before and many of us remember the nightmares of making people shave their beards due to OSHA mandates, and it is always painful but necessary. Mandating anything to a volunteer department is an art, but there are things you can do to make it easier.

It is easiest to mandate any requirements before a member joins. If a member knows in advance what is expected of them, they can then make an educated decision whether they have enough time to volunteer or not. While it is true that this may scare away some potential members, it is better that they know up front rather than have you springing the requirements on them after they have already committed a fixed amount of time to the department. One department I visited assigns each new member one Bingo night a month. The member then knows that they are responsible for the Bingo on the second Tuesday of the month and can plan accordingly. They also know that they are only responsible for the second Tuesday Bingo, and can choose to help on the other Bingos or not.

Mandating anything for existing members is going to be difficult but does not have to divide your department if it is fair for everyone and agreed upon. I know how hard it is to get agreement in a volunteer department and I know we have all beaten our own proverbial dead horses but if someone in power arbitrarily makes something mandatory then there is guaranteed to be trouble. There will be members who think everything should be mandatory and those who think nothing should be mandatory, but compromise is key. Neither group will be 100 percent happy, but a compromise may be the best chance you have of keeping the department from fighting non-stop about what is mandatory and what is not.

Only mission critical operations should be mandatory, and even then members' time must to be taken into account. In the previous example, if Bingo events are the department's primary source of income and pay for the building and fire apparatus, then they are definitely mission critical in addition to core firefighting duties. OSHA and other State or Federal agencies will most likely decide for you which drills are mandatory but the total number may be up for discussion. Responding to calls is at the core of why volunteer fire departments exist but it is not reasonable to expect your members to respond to every call. An alternative is setting a minimum percentage of calls during time when members are available. For example, if they work days, they may have to respond to 35 percent of all calls from 1800 to 0600 hours.

Once your department has decided what is mandatory, the next task is to decide what the members receive for meeting the minimum and what they lose for not meeting their requirements. Members should have to meet all of the mandatory requirements to qualify for any LOSAP or other incentive programs. If a member does not meet the mandatory requirements, they may have to be placed on probation or administrative leave until they meet the minimums. The key there is that the member has to have a chance to improve rather than just being summarily excommunicated from the department whenever they miss a drill or other mandatory event.

In order to be fair, everyone has to be held to exactly the same standards, no matter who they are. That means if the Chief's daughter does not meet the minimums then she is put on probation the same as the guy no one likes. Favoritism has destroyed many departments and when mandatory requirements are involved the effects of favoritism are multiplied. Mandatory programs have to be designed for the entire department and every member, not just to make members quit or get rid of 'problem' members. The first time someone is treated differently the entire program is destroyed.

In the end modern volunteer fire departments may have no choice but to make components mandatory. The challenge is making them fair for everyone and only requiring the absolute minimum. With a bit of planning and negotiating the needs of your department can be balanced with those of your members for a better department overall.

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