Where does the ‘T-shirt firefighter’ come from?

It’s up to leadership to provide the direction and all firefighters to share the expectations that volunteers need to thrive in their role


I was teaching an EMS class at my volunteer fire department, and I asked the room if they had heard of the “T-shirt firefighter.” Everyone had. I then asked them to list what a T-shirt firefighter meant to them. We listed several characteristics, including “seeking glory” and “wanting lights on their vehicle.”

It was the last two qualities that really stood out to me: “does not care” and “not effective.” To me, the entire list began and ended with these two characteristics. Any employee who does not care will ultimately be an ineffective member of the team.

The characteristic “does not care” may be translated as “does not care to do more.” Many who donate their time may have met expectations and become comfortable with their level of commitment. Others may want to do more, but the training opportunities are not there or are simply unrealized.

Positive public perception is essential, and T-shirt firefighters may sully the image of those who work to prevent and respond to emergencies – paid or volunteer.
Positive public perception is essential, and T-shirt firefighters may sully the image of those who work to prevent and respond to emergencies – paid or volunteer. (Photo/Getty Images)

Positive public perception is essential, and T-shirt firefighters may sully the image of those who work to prevent and respond to emergencies – paid or volunteer. We do not want these individuals in our department or our profession.

The problem: Some volunteers are deemed to be T-shirt firefighters simply because they are volunteers. In truth, many volunteers are extremely dedicated and professional firefighters.

Where does this perception come from? Have we created it or just allowed it to happen?

All about expectations

I’ve always maintained that any program with a lack of support from the administration will never accomplish its mission or will fail so completely that the program ends. Similarly, a lack of appropriate expectations for a program or an individual is a lack of support that may ultimately end in failure.

As a volunteer firefighter, I understand the importance of commitment to the position, the amount of time that a second job can require, and that the logistics of adequate training and continuing education can be difficult. That being said, having safe, capable firefighters is essential so we must establish and maintain standards for volunteers.

When I started my career in fire and EMS, I was in an all-volunteer fire department where every volunteer was held to the same minimum standard as far as capability on a fire scene. Over the years, I’ve witnessed career and combination departments with volunteer programs that provide little emphasis on training or preparation for their volunteers to become capable, contributing members. It was up to the individual to seek out training. For someone coming in from the outside, they do not know what they need, and without clear direction, neither do those who would help them. While these programs may help address some staffing issues, they are a missed opportunity for increased operational efficacy, and they breed a culture that not only invites but also creates a T-shirt firefighter.

As a career firefighter, I’ve witnessed negative attitudes toward volunteers. Not surprisingly, this occurs most often in areas where volunteer expectations were low. These volunteers garnered little respect and were sometimes criticized for a lack of knowledge or skill. But how can you criticize a subordinate for lack of knowledge or skill if you have not trained them? It is incumbent upon officers and firefighters to perpetually mentor the personnel below them.

I assume that most who seek out a volunteer firefighter position are looking to give back to the community. Remember, the rookie volunteer had some kind of expectation when they began their search for a volunteer position. Like many rookie career firefighters, new volunteers are often eager to learn and are excited about what lies ahead. But the rookie’s enthusiasm may quickly be curbed if they believe the expectation of volunteers is to be a “go-fer.”

Unfortunately, when expectations from the department and members are low and effort is not made to develop the individual, it’s very likely that their potential will never be realized – and they may become a T-shirt firefighter. This ‘T-shirt firefighter’ is a blackhole of negativity inside fire service culture. We need to raise awareness of historical, cultural, and organizational faults and limitations, and inspire positive cultural and individual changes.

It begins with leadership

So, what is the solution? The solution begins with initiating adequate expectations from administration and developing a curriculum. The standards must come from the top of the organization, but company officer and peer expectations and recognition are invaluable for the volunteer to feel and perform like part of the team.

What may be more difficult is the culture change – obtaining buy-in from the entire organization is not easy. Encouraging input from all levels of the organization may assist in acceptance of changes and provide invaluable perspective.

Having engaged, capable volunteers makes for safer and more effective organizations, inspires positive cultural prejudice inside the fire service, and increases professional perceptions from the public.

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