4 suggestions for leading today’s volunteer fire service

Focus on service, ownership, unity and progressiveness to help your organization grow the department

The numbers don’t lie. According to the NFPA, over the last 40 years, the number of volunteer firefighters serving their communities has dropped by over 100,000, and the average age of volunteer fire fighters has increased significantly. To put that in perspective, the decline in volunteers over the last 40 years is greater than any one city in the state of Wyoming.


There are many reasons for the decline in volunteer service across America, ranging from the time requirement to the risk associated with the job. However, I believe the greatest decline in volunteerism in the fire service comes from the lack of leadership. For many organizations, the lack of progressive leaders and the strong hold of “dinosaur managers” are key factors in the decline of volunteers.

Bottom line: There is a need for leadership vs. managers in today’s volunteer fire departments.

For decades many departments had a core nucleolus of mangers that knew everything, controlled everything from who drove and pumped the engine to who received the new gear. Those managers believe that they are the department’s saving grace and without them, the department will become extinct.

To the contrary, those managers are the dinosaurs, holding back the department by limiting participation of new members and, like the late Chief Alan Brunacini said, “The simple fact that how we have always done it is enough reason to change it.”

To overcome our current leadership challenges in volunteer fire departments, I suggest focusing on these four keys components: service, ownership, unity and progressiveness.

1. Service

The first component for building a stronger volunteer department is to redefine service. To many, service centers on what we do for our community by responding to calls or doing that little extra for our citizens. We throw the concept of customer service around in the fire service without understanding what it takes to provide service or without defining it for our community or organization.

For starters, we cannot serve our community to the highest standards if organizationally we are not serving our members. I call this internal vs. external customers. As true leaders, we must address the needs of our members and learn how to serve them. Redefining service in your organization is critical. What do your members expect to receive in value by their participation in the organization? Value is not just in the form of monetary exchange but can be found in pride, emotion and happiness.

Leaders must understand the difference between transactional leadership vs. transformational leadership. I hear around the country that the fire service is not a business but rather a family. I agree but believe we should look at the fire service as a family business. Family businesses provide a greater and deeper service than most corporate business. There is a transaction that takes place between the organization and the volunteer. Identifying what is involved in that transaction for the volunteer will provide an immediate increase your membership. However, this is a fleeting moment if, as a leader, you do not understand the need for transformational leadership. If you only focus on the “transaction, volunteer and you get the cool T-shirt” component, then you will burn through volunteers until there are no more members left. Through transformational leadership, you provide the member the opportunity to grow in the organization so they do not see themselves as an outsider but rather a valued part of the organization.

Recognize that service to both your members and the community will help you recruit new members through the transaction but retain members by being a transformational leader.

2. Ownership

“The family business.” What sets apart the family busines from the corporate box store is very simple – ownership. For most family businesses, the staff has ownership in the success or failure of the business and thus they are passionate about providing their customers the best service and, in many cases, consider their regular costumers friends.

The volunteer fire department is no different. If we provide our members the opportunity to have ownership in the organization, their passion for both the department and the community will drive the health of the organization.

Some suggestions for providing and developing ownership:

  • Form committees;
  • Assign responsibility for projects to all levels of the organization, not just the officers;
  • Ask questions instead of telling the answer; and
  • Create incentives.

Your organization will be stronger with all your members having ownership with one common vision. Leaders must provide and reinforce the vision to ensure that your members are all moving in one direction.

3. Unity

Unity would seem to be commonsense in for the fire service, with our commitment to family and the brotherhood and sisterhood. However, if unity is not intentional, it will not truly be a value of the organization. Unity needs to be a value that is reinforced throughout all layers of the organization. In addition, unity extends past the colors of your organization to include other emergency response partners in your community. As many of you have experienced, the fire service can at times protect our turf with a little too much vigor. Being intentional with unity of all emergency responders allows your members to break down barriers with law enforcement, EMS and neighboring fire departments. Breaking down those barriers provides better service to the customer and opens doors and growth for your members and the organization as a whole.

4. Progressiveness

“We have always done it this way” and “traditional fire service” are phrases that you will hear in fire stations throughout America. Traditions are valuable and important but should be honored, not anchoring, to an organization. The fire service’s deep heritage and tradition provides us perspective in that the generations before us pushed to continue to grow and progress in our fireground tactics and skills. For example, just look at the history of our fire engines over the last 200 years. Technology has influenced the growth of the fire service, and today, instead of resisting change, we need to be embracing it so that we can meet the needs of our members.

A progressive organization is focused on how to advance the value to both the internal and external customer. Progressive organizations are focused on utilizing science, research and technology to better prepare and perform as an organization. Being progressive includes honoring our traditions but seeking new approaches that match our current members’ needs. For recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters, progressive thinking provides new avenues to recruit members, such as the use of QR codes on flyers, business cards and signs.

As a progressive leader, you recognize that it is OK to break the mold and be different in how you provide value to your members and community. Honor our traditions but lead for the future, not the past.

Intentional growth

Today’s volunteer and combinations fire departments are seeing a frightening reduction in new volunteers and an ever-aging membership. For many communities, the local volunteer fire department is on a path of extinction. Retooling how we provide service to our current members and attract future members by focusing on service, ownership, unity and progressiveness will help organizations to be intentional in growing their department.

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