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Walking the tightrope: Multi-generation management without driving away volunteers

Successful volunteer firefighter supervision is rooted in clear expectations, decisions rooted in policy, and interpersonal relationships

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In most cases, the age range in a volunteer department is far more expansive than in a career agency – perhaps as great as 70 years.

Photo/John M. Buckman III

Managing volunteer ranks presents its own peculiar set of entanglements and concerns. One factor that can prove to be either the most beneficial or most damaging is the multi-generational makeup of the volunteer fire department.

In most cases, the age range in a volunteer department is far more expansive than in a career agency – perhaps as great as 70 years. Chief officers could find themselves managing members from Gen Z to the Traditionalists and even Greatest Generation.

Volunteer culture challenges

Of note is the fact that volunteer chiefs come from within the ranks and, in most cases, are elected by the membership. Longstanding relationships may exist, and authority is often earned rather than assumed.

Just as with any fire department, the volunteer fire department exists to protect life and property of the community it serves. It is, however, a profoundly social and political organization. There are older members and ex-chiefs whose experience you can harness. But some may believe they are entitled to work outside of the chief’s authority. Ever hear a member claim that a piece of apparatus is “theirs” and no one touches it without going through them? I’m talking about that person.

Members may have long-term friendships, and when there are enough members who don’t support the chief, management and leadership can become a nightmare to navigate amid the competing interests of the membership. Further, without trusted leadership, a volunteer fire department can drive away members who don’t want to deal with what they perceive as subjective enforcement of rules, preferential treatment, unequal treatment, and conflicting orders.

Keys to successful leadership of a VFD

So, how does a chief officer work through cross-generational issues to create a well-supervised and disciplined department that members want to stick with and that attracts new members?

You’ve got two ways to go. Attempting to work purely by relationships, and manipulating those relationships, leads to a drama-filled time in office, loss of members and increased risk. The other path leads to a satisfied membership and recognition as a responsible leader.

The latter path involves three keys to cross-generational management. It’s important to note that these keys shouldn’t be initiated the day your term begins. You’ve got to start acting on these the day you join your first committee or are elected or appointed to your first line officer position. Better yet, it would help if you started practicing them with others the day you receive your badge and firehouse key. Indeed, seldom does a chief magically arrive in that position. They serve in lower-ranking line-officer positions and work up to the chief’s job. Members have this time to see how the chief officer handles the increased responsibilities and how they lead.

With that being said, follow these keys to success in cross-generational volunteer command – from Day 1 of your fire service supervisory career.

1. Set clear expectations

To set these expectations, the best place to start is the IAFC Volunteer and Combination Officers Section White Ribbon Report, “Managing the Business of the Fire Department.” Page one sets forth what officers should expect of themselves and others to expect from them. Regarding officers and members:

Personal values expected of you as a chief officer:

  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Dependability
  • Commitment
  • Knowledge and competence
  • Respect for authority, your peers, and your employees and volunteers

What volunteer members can reasonably expect from the chief officer:

  • Provide a safe and professional working environment
  • Treat members fairly (lead objectively)
  • Create an environment that encourages personal growth
  • Reinforce the importance of teamwork
  • Be receptive to their opinions on major decisions
  • Use their time effectively and efficiently
  • Appreciate their service
  • Always put the good of the department first

Chief officers should reasonably expect that volunteer members will:

  • Learn, observe, and practice department policies and procedures
  • Honor their commitment to train
  • Respond when required to do so
  • Be honest with you about your performance
  • Allow you to deal with internal issues before they become serious problems

When you make these expectations clear and follow them, you can expect members to live up to them, too. Most importantly, by relying on these pre-determined expectations, you significantly reduce the likelihood of issues presented by each generation’s style of communication and member relationships that may undermine your authority. Your emphasis shifts from trying to satisfy the individual member who brings their generational issues to the firehouse to that of meeting the expectations meant to guide all members. Therefore, members may feel differently, but the expectations are equal across the membership.

2. Base decisions on good policies and procedures

Just as with setting expectations, sound policies and procedures, objectively applied, allow chief officers to navigate successfully across generations. You’re probably familiar with some of these issues: erosion of leadership authority created by personal relationships, cliques, stubborn older members who think they own the firehouse; younger members raised with constant praise; and family members banding together. You can redirect all this toward the collective goal of reducing risk and acting in the best interests of the department and community. After all, it’s no longer about them; it’s about objectively working within the boundaries of good policy and procedure.

A typical example is the 20+-year member who always drives the same apparatus. The member consistently ignores updated radio procedures and arrival guidelines. So, during a response, they still call others on the radio by their first names and use outdated ten codes. Upon arrival to a natural gas call, they still pull right up to the front of the residence. Upon arrival to wire calls, they ignore the three-pole rule. Their response to your attempts to correct the behavior is, “We’ve always done it this way” or “I know what I’m doing.” From your experience using interpersonal skills, you surmise that, along with simply being stubborn, they’re challenging your authority and want other members to know they rule the roost.

Without sound policies in place that address communications and emergency response, any attempt to correct can be perceived as subjective or personal (“I’m being treated differently because ….”). Further, the challenge to your authority is harder to resolve. However, with these policies in place, the whole exercise becomes objective. You’re working to meet the member’s expectations that you will provide them a safe working environment. Likewise, you expect them to adhere to department policies and procedures. If a member is ignoring policy and creating unsafe conditions, you have to correct it. Otherwise, you’re both failing to meet expectations.

3. Emphasize interpersonal values and skills

Often referred to as emotional intelligence (EQ), interpersonal skills are critical to successful leadership. In addition to the values listed in the expectations above, here are the skills necessary to successful leadership as a chief fire officer:

Be transparent

  • Be honest and open with subordinate and superior officers in the chain of command and firefighters.
  • Encourage two-way communication.

Communicate clearly

  • During operations, practice direct, calm, clear, and firm communication of orders.
  • Make constructive feedback part of all conversations.
  • Discuss and deliver discipline directly and respectfully, emphasizing behaviors that need to change. The basis of discipline discussions should be specific to relevant policies and procedures.
  • Make giving credit to others a regular practice.
  • Practice self-evaluation and disclosure with members to encourage open discussion.
  • Ask for help from superiors, equals, and subordinates when you need it. Making verbal or written requests for assistance encourages trust and more open communication.

Understand non-verbal communication

  • Non-verbal communications include eye contact, facial expressions, posture, and body movements.
  • Knowing and controlling your non-verbal communications while interpreting the non-verbal communications of others will help gain the trust and confidence of those you lead.

Practice active listening

You show members that you are listening when you:

  • Pay attention.
  • Use constant eye contact.
  • Demonstrate listening through verbal and nonverbal recognition.
  • Give feedback. Be open, honest, and respectful.
  • Allow members to finish their thoughts.
  • Repeat back to the member important points that need clarification or to show full understanding.
  • Demonstrate empathy through the use of active listening techniques.

To ensure that members across generational lines understand the message you want to convey, you may find that you need to combine communications styles to satisfy any cross-generational listening and comprehension differences. For example, if there is a change in the recording and recordkeeping procedure for air bottle refills, consider:

  • Announcing the change at the next company meeting
  • Distributing and posting the updated procedure
  • Demonstrating the new procedure at the next drill night

As for active listening, you may find that you get more information by watching non-verbal cues from older members, who may not be as comfortable as younger generations in verbally voicing their concerns.

Practicing these skills builds trust and allows you to communicate established expectations, policies and procedures clearly. It also allows you to redirect any conflict back to those expectations and policies. If a member feels they are being treated unfairly, you can go back to the relevant policy together and review how it’s being enforced. If a subordinate line officer selectively enforces an expectation or policy, you can discuss it while emphasizing the policy rather than the personalities involved. All the while, effective use of these skills builds trust between you, line officers, and members.

Level-up your leadership

Concentrating on cross-generational concerns and various firehouse relationships may not solve your leadership issues. You are making the firehouse a more objective, expectation- and policy-driven space. This takes your leadership much further. It lets firehouse relationships continue and hopefully improve when everyone understands that they are working toward the same end. Most importantly, it makes your term of office a much better experience.

Scott Eskwitt is the former director of fire policy and training content for Lexipol. He previously served as chief of the Fair Haven (N.J.) Fire Department, and was a member of the Fair Haven First Aid Squad and the Red Bank (N.J.) Fire Department. Eskwitt is an attorney and has spent his legal career advising municipalities and fire departments on risk management, human resources and labor relations issues. His undergraduate degree in Industrial & Labor Relations was received from Cornell University and his law degree from SUNY Law at Buffalo.