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The critical role of the volunteer fire chief

How volunteer fire chiefs can effectively serve their communities and value their members


Chiefs should look for additional talent and skills that volunteer members bring to the department that can help.

Photo/John M. Buckman III

Potential volunteers have many choices as to where to spend their time. Time is valuable and limited, and how we as fire chiefs use a volunteer’s time in the fire department is key to retaining active volunteers.

Capable volunteer fire chiefs know how to focus volunteer firefighters’ time and energy on activities that have the greatest impact on the department’s mission, its service to the community, and the life safety of its members and citizens. Much of this comes down to understanding the volunteer chief’s role and how they can use their skills to support their members.

The volunteer fire chief’s responsibilities and skills

Today’s volunteer fire chief has one foot in the organization and one foot in the community. Chiefs must work to expand the quality and quantity of services to the citizens by integrating the community with fire department staff. Chiefs initiate projects and ideas with the support of volunteers, but must realize their ideas are likely to succeed only when the volunteers actually buy in.

Volunteer chiefs have several additional responsibilities:

  • Clarify volunteer-related issues in order to reduce confusion and resolve conflict.
  • Document the various ways the volunteers impact the quality of life in your community, telling their stories when necessary.
  • Think new ways about what we do and why we do what we do.
  • Coach volunteers by providing training, guiding and counseling.

A volunteer fire chief’s general role and responsibilities have more to do with people skills than with emergency response roles. The chief must serve as a leader, manager, coordinator, enabler, change agent, capacity-builder, role model, human resource manager, facilitator, volunteer advocate, visionary and planner.

Increasingly advanced skills will be required of fire chiefs, whether paid or not. Chiefs should create a professional development plan and make the time to develop their skills. They should read professional journals and share with their crew. Preparation through enhancing credentials, certification and/or academic degrees enhances the fire chief’s knowledge, skills and opportunities.

Valuing volunteers

The most significant asset in any organization, but especially a fire department staffed with volunteers, is the volunteers. Stations, equipment and apparatus are indeed valuable, but really serve no value without staff to operate them.

Fire chiefs who manage volunteers must ensure that a motivational climate within the department creates a friendly and healthy environment. General praise is critical to team success. Chiefs must realize that they are a cheerleader for the department and the volunteers by maintaining their own enthusiasm for the efforts of volunteers.

Further, chiefs should look for additional talent and skills that volunteer members bring to the department that can help.

Contributing, satisfied and well-managed volunteer firefighters will remain active longer. A successful fire chief will allow for more people to be engaged in the organizational management. Volunteers will want to make contributions if leadership will allow it.

Reasons most often heard why volunteers quit: It’s not fun, I’m not appreciated, it’s a waste of time, there were unrealistic expectations, there was organizational drama, people were resistant to my ideas, and I do not feel important. These are more than likely the symptoms of a larger problem within the department related to a lack of leadership.

Read more: 3 ways to recruit more volunteer firefighters

Everyone has value. I do realize that there are different levels of value based upon personality, attitude and activity level. Effective leaders make volunteers feel that they are 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.

Identify volunteer priorities – and follow them

I recommend the following priorities for the leader who cares about their members in whole: faith, family, work, friends and, lastly, the fire department. The order may change from time to time due to life circumstances, but overall this is a priority order that I value for a happy and prosperous life.

A volunteer fire chief must identify the organizational priorities and ensure that members are on the same page. Should a volunteer come to the station for a function or be at their child’s ball game? Following the list that I recommend – faith, family, work, friends and fire department – 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. But 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.

These are all important situations for a volunteer fire chief to consider when evaluating their role and how they are supporting their members.


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This article, originally posted June 25, 2019, has been updated.

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.

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