Matchmaking for the volunteer fire chief

The successful fire chief will empower volunteer firefighters by matching their skills to the right role and allowing them to contribute fully


Capable volunteer fire chiefs make the critical difference in focusing volunteer firefighter time and energy on activities that have the greatest impact on the firefighter mission, services and life safety. Time is valuable and limited, and how we use a volunteer’s time in the fire department is a key component to retaining an active volunteer fire service.

A successful fire chief will allow for more people to engage in organizational management. Volunteers want to contribute, if leadership will just allow it. Contributing, satisfied and well-managed volunteer firefighters will remain active longer.

The fire chief’s role

Contributing, satisfied and well-managed volunteer firefighters will remain active longer. (Photo/USAF)
Contributing, satisfied and well-managed volunteer firefighters will remain active longer. (Photo/USAF)

The fire chief role (whether paid or not) requires increasingly advanced skills. Chiefs should read and share professional articles and create a professional development plan, making the time to develop their own skills, in addition to their crews’. Preparation – through enhancing credentials, certification and/or academic degrees – enhances the fire chief’s knowledge, skills and opportunities.

Fire chiefs working with their volunteers to clarify volunteer-related issues reduce confusion and resolve conflict. Most organizational problems are not solved by money, but rather by people. Experienced fire chiefs contribute their problem solving abilities, collaboration skills and flexible approaches to team building.

We must be thinking in new ways about what we do and why we do what we do. Fire chiefs’ general roles have more to do with people skills than with emergency response.

To be successful, the fire chief role includes being a:

  •  Leader.
  • Manager.
  • Coordinator.
  • Enabler.
  •  Change agent.
  •  Capacity builder.
  • Role model.
  • Human resource manager.
  • Facilitator.
  • Volunteer advocate.
  • Visionary.
  • Planner.

Firefighter training, guidance and counseling

The most significant assets in any organization, but especially a fire department staffed with volunteers, is the volunteers. Stations, equipment and apparatus are valuable, but are of no value without staff to operate them. Fire chiefs who manage volunteers must ensure a motivational, friendly and healthy climate exists within the department.

General praise is critical to team success. Fire chiefs should document the various ways the volunteers make in the quality of life in your community. We must tell their stories.

Today’s effective fire chief has more balls to juggle than ever before. Chiefs are responsible for delivering fiscal, physical and human resources to the citizens when they request those services. Specifically, today’s fire chief has to have one foot in the organization while at the same time having one foot in the community. To integrate the two ensures the needs of the community, department and volunteers are met. The fire chief’s role is to expand the quality and quantity of services to the citizens by integrating the community members and fire department staff.

Chiefs initiate projects and ideas with staff support, and must realize their ideas are likely to succeed only when the membership buys in. Chiefs should look for additional talent and skills the volunteers bring to the department that can help.

Leaders empower people into action on behalf of the department. Always focus on what is best for the community, the organization and the volunteers. It is leadership’s responsibility to integrate the needs of those components effectively. Chiefs become adept at matchmaking needs with available resources. Coach members by providing training, guiding and counseling volunteers. Chiefs must realize they are a cheerleader for the department and the volunteers by maintaining their own visible and positive enthusiasm for the volunteers’ efforts.

Set and respect volunteer firefighter priorities

When asked why they quit, volunteers cite reasons from lack of fun, not being appreciated, having their time wasted, unrealistic expectations, resistance to ideas, and being perceived as un important. These are more than likely only the symptoms of a larger problem within the department related to a lack of competent leadership.

Everyone has value. I do realize individuals have different levels of value based upon their personality, attitude and activity level. Effective leaders make volunteers high priority, valued members and show respect for their individuality. Never take volunteers for granted. Managing volunteers is a real job. It is not about being compensated, it is about the personal determination to accept the duties and responsibilities, and do the job. Compensation is not an excuse for success or failure.

Though the order may change from time to time or because of circumstances, overall, the priorities for a happy and prosperous fire chief are faith, family, work and the fire department

The organizational priorities for the members have to be the same. Should a volunteer come to the station for a function or be at their child’s ball game? Faith, family, work and fire department in priority order tells us the member should be at the ball game. I know fire chiefs who become resentful and, in some cases, angry because the member puts family priorities above the fire department. The leader who has that attitude is not creating a motivational environment for the volunteers. The leader will lose in the end and the investment made in the volunteer may be lost when they quit because they don’t want to, nor should they have to, pick the fire department above their family.

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