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How volunteer leaders can best serve their members during difficult times

Focusing on positivity, communication and connection can help members feel supported


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Leading volunteers is an extremely difficult skill. And these days, the need for skilled leadership is even more challenging.

The risk to our firefighters’ long-term health and welfare has increased exponentially in the era of COVID-19. The coronavirus contagion increases the threat to all public safety personnel, but it can be extremely concerning for volunteers.

Following is some advice for volunteer leaders who likely have many questions about how to manage these uneasy times while continuing to serve the community and instill confidence in their members.

Look for creative training opportunities

Particularly during difficult times, volunteer fire service leaders must establish realistic expectations of the volunteers’ duties, responsibilities and training:

  • What are the tasks that absolutely must be accomplished at the fire station this week?
  • What kind of training should be conducted?
  • Are there some online learning opportunities?

I encourage you to consider alternative training opportunities. For example, look at simulation training for incident commanders. There are several good simulation apps available to build a fire in structures within your own district.

Take a photo of your pump to use in pump training. Sometimes the pump operator gets confused because the operator can’t find a key valve or knob. When I was training on this, Assistant Chief Emil Seipert taught me to operate the pump blindfolded. I can still do that to this day, knowing the pump panel and the valve locations from that 1967 Universal Class A pumper.

Practice donning an SCBA at home in your garage. Physically perform the skill while at simultaneously talking through the steps. Produce an SCBA-donning checklist that members can use to evaluate their performance.

Review manufacturer guidance documents for training information on equipment carried on the apparatus. Visit the manufacturers’ websites. Many manufacturers have extensive training information on their equipment published online and accessible to all.

Increase communication during COVID-19

We may need to increase our communications with our members due to the pandemic. Make sure you are answering these questions for them:

  • What is going on with the virus in our community?
  • Has our community reached our peak?
  • Do we have the current information from local, state and national leadership?
  • Are we informed about the directives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)?
  • Who is monitoring the information?
  • Who is responsible for sharing the information with the membership?
  • How do you share the information?

There are several free conference call systems that can be used to communicate with members – and conduct training. You can schedule a conference call with your members to discuss current topics, review policies and procedures, and/or discuss strategic and tactical issues.

There are also systems for video conferencing with members so you can show graphics – and also see each other’s faces. Some of these systems struggle to show videos, but you can use YouTube to display videos on the call.

Minimize drama amid members

Drama around the fire station needs to be minimized, particularly during a national emergency. Rumors need to be quashed immediately. Members who can’t find something good to say about the other brothers and sisters need to be told politely to “close their mouth.” I have never understood why members of the brother/sisterhood would criticize others without having the courage to say it to someone’s face.

At this time in our careers, it may be a little late to address officer competency. But, as the leader of the organization, you could sit down with that officer who needs a little more skill development and give them some guidance about what you want them to do and what you don’t want them to do. Tread lightly, though. Now is not the time to create an emotional response to a situation, causing you to lose a valued volunteer.

Maintain emotional connections

The volunteer of today is extremely vulnerable. They are concerned about their life and wellness. They are concerned about the risk to their family’s long-term sustainability due to the potential exposure to the coronavirus from you bringing it home.

It doesn’t take much for volunteers to walk away. Society is changing, and leaders have to change as well. Leaders should never stop seeing the future possibilities and opportunities to find good in what we do.

With that in mind, it’s important that volunteer leaders show genuine and sincere appreciation, do some fun things that bring a smile to our members’ faces, and lastly, as Chief Alan Brunacini told us, “Be Nice.”

Focus on managing stress

Even with all the normal life stressors we face every day, the role of the fire service has changed dramatically over the last four weeks. Studies have indicated that normal work stress has increased nearly 300% in the last 25 years. And in today’s environment, the work stress has probably doubled that number. Today’s problems at work are more stressful than we have seen since 9/11. But this event keeps going and going, and subsequently, we keep going and going.

It’s hard today to imagine how to answer all the what-if questions we face. That question mark is causing a lot of heartburn all across America and the world. You spend all day taking care of others, and now many of us are left to wonder, “What if something happens to me?”

We are now daily, if not hourly, dealing with some part of the COVID-19 pandemic impacting our communities. And knowing that our decisions have very real impacts on our firefighters and our communities, the burden of being a leader can weigh heavily.

To manage this stress, take a deep breath and maybe even a break. Even if the break is only for one hour. You and your body need some positivity feed into it.

Build resilience

It’s important to build resilience during times of crisis. Resilience is the ability to not allow circumstances to produce the expected negative results in the presence of adversity. But how do we build resilience and flexibility into our daily and professional lives in the face of adversity?

As fire chiefs and leaders, we believe we are in control of our circumstances. Most fire service members are Type A personalities, which often works to our advantage when it comes to doing OUR job efficiently.

But right now, some character traits – status conscience, impatient, anxious and organized – can deter us from being as effective as we could be. People with Type A personalities are often high-achieving “workaholics.” I know about being a workaholic. I have learned the hard way. There is a time for all of us to take a step back and think about what is best for ourselves.

With this in mind, let’s consider the following actions that are necessary to build resilience: making realistic and achievable plans, following through on plans, and having positive self-awareness and personal confidence. Additionally, each of us needs to develop positive communication and problem-solving skills as well as the ability to control our emotions and manage those feelings.

American Psychological Association shares 10 ways to build resilience:

  1. Maintain good relationships with close family members, friends and others.
  2. Avoid seeing crises or stressful events as unbearable problems.
  3. Accept circumstances that cannot be changed.
  4. Develop realistic goals and move toward them.
  5. Take decisive actions in adverse situations.
  6. Look for opportunities of self-discovery after a struggle with loss.
  7. Develop self-confidence.
  8. Keep a long-term perspective and consider the stressful event in a broader context.
  9. Maintain a hopeful outlook, expecting good things and visualizing what is wished.
  10. Take care one’s mind and body, exercising regularly, paying attention to one’s own needs and feelings.

Find ways to smile and laugh

In his book “The Power of Laughter,” Gary K. Palmer says, on average, children laugh 400 times a day, while adults laugh about 15 times. That is a big difference. Smiling has myriad benefits. When you smile, happy changes begin to take place automatically, both internally and externally. Smiling can turn into laughter.

I encourage public safety leaders to laugh and smile more often. One way to remember to smile more is to plan to smile at specific times of the day. Here are a few examples of smiling cues: Smile when you greet your spouse, smile when you answer the telephone, smile as you step into the shower, smile every time you’re about to enter your home, smile every time you open the refrigerator. There are many other opportunities to create a smile. Make up your own. Try this: Imagine a situation of joy before a meeting that will bring a smile to your body.

When I am confronting issues or having a bad moment, I will think about my granddaughter Kait. She has an infectious laugh that brings joy to my body. Just thinking of her changes my mood. I carry pictures of the grandkids on my phone, and I can refer to those pictures to help take me out of negative situations.

One of the things I learned a long time ago from C.W. Metcalf, who wrote the book “Lighten Up,” is the importance of smiling even in the most difficult of situations. Metcalf also said “we feel better when we laugh, because endorphins actually diminish physical and psychological pain.”

Our smiles can enlighten a moment and lift an aching heart. Our smiles can extend graciousness and, indeed, godliness.

Fight off negativity

Of course, I don’t always feel like smiling. Sometimes I’m sad, anxious, defeated, annoyed, angry or just plain tired. I want to pull the covers over my head and hide for a while, stewing in darkness.

Sometimes I fall into that abyss of negativity and can’t crawl my way out. I will focus on negativity, cruel words, frustration, and other acts or thoughts that don’t do me any good. I am not perfect by any stretch of imagination – I am moody and become depressed. When that happens, I have to literally fight my way out of that bad mood.

Most of us know those triggers that set us racing off toward a bad mood. Overcoming those triggers requires work and persistence as well as constant attention to what is going into your brain.

Self-management is a critical component of protecting one’s behavioral and mental wellness. You have to manage the symptoms, treatment, physical and social consequences, and lifestyle changes.

Here are some steps that help with self-management:

  • Get adequate REST, not just sleep
  • Spend time with your spouse and kids
  • Eat regularly and healthy
  • Go for a walk
  • Talk to people about things besides work
  • Take a nap
  • Listen to your favorite music
  • Call a friend
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Read a book
  • Listen to an audiobook

Bring positivity forward

The mood in our circle, including ourselves and of coworkers, friends and family, can be turned around by you. Make time to take care of yourself before you take care of others. Show confidence that we can handle this situation. Bring positivity to each situation.

Chief John M. Buckman III served 35 years as fire chief for the German Township (Indiana) Volunteer Fire Department, and 15 years as director of the fire and public safety academy for the Indiana State Fire Marshal Office. He is the Director of Government and Regional Outreach for Buckman is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and a co-founder of the IAFC Volunteer and Combination Officers Section. In 1996, Fire Chief Magazine named Buckman Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year. Buckman is an accomplished photographer, a co-author of the Lesson Learned from Fire-Rescue Leaders, and the editor of the Chief Officers Desk Reference. He is also the owner of Wildfire Productions. Buckman is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Chief Buckman on LinkedIn or via email.