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How to hire new, ‘nontraditional’ volunteer firefighters

It’s time to reevaluate our SOPs, eliminate insular groups, and see traditions as an honor, not an anchor


Photo/Fairfax County Fire & Rescue

We all have a picture in our mind of a volunteer firefighter – what they look like, where they live, why they serve. During my childhood, the volunteer firefighters I saw serving our community in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota, were hard-working blue-collar older men who would leave their “primary” work to serve our community – and they had been doing this for decades. Many of the members had military experience, and they carried the honor and tradition of the fire service with dignity and pride. When I became a volunteer firefighter myself, I quickly recognized that their culture was not exactly welcoming to me and other new members. I expected that I had to earn my right into their club.

Fast forward to today, after serving 20 years as a fire chief in both volunteer and combination fire departments, I recognize that I am now the “old guy.” (It happens.) But now I ask myself, do the new young members feel the same way I did about our culture, rules and behaviors? Have we kept pace with cultural changes to be welcoming of the new members?

As I reflect on organizations and the need to continually evolve to meet the needs of both our members and community, I recognize that a new nontraditional volunteer firefighter is emerging to fill our ranks. With some reflection and surveying some of our members, I identified a few questions that organizational leaders should ask themselves:

  • Do our current rules and policies negatively impact our ability to attract new members?
  • Do we have a “good ol‘ boy club” that deters new members from staying on the job?
  • Do our traditions and culture serve as a deterrent to community members?

Let’s consider each question.

Rules and policies

Think about your rules and policies. What purpose do they serve? Why were they created? We must reassess our standard operating guidelines and procedures (SOGs and SOPs) to ensure that they exist for the right reasons and they serve our members. After all, we cannot effectively lead an organization centered on policies and regulation without also focusing on empowering our members through coaching and mentorship. Yes, we need SOGs or SOPs, but they should not be so burdensome that we can’t do what’s right for our members or community.

For example, do we need a rule that prevents members from having tattoos? I have had the good fortune to be a fire chief for 20-plus years, and I have never received a complaint from Mrs. Smith regarding tattoos, piercings or hair color. If your members are courteous, nice and proficient in their skills, the community will remember those things far more than whether your member had a full arm of tattoos. Where a policy would be important here is to specify that members cannot have visible tattoos of an offensive nature, with “offensive” being clearly defined.

Furthermore, be careful not to fall into the trap of writing rules or policies based on an isolated incident, emotional reaction or mere perception of what others do. Many organizations’ rules are rooted in a single mishap and therefore fail to capture the true need for a new policy. Yes, an incident can serve as a prompt, highlighting where an important policy was missing, but it must be broad enough to apply to a variety of situations to ensure your members are clear on expectations.

Also, do not write policy simply out of fear of litigation. Yes, it is important to be mindful of legal issues, but we too often draft a policy thinking we are protecting the organization, but we are actually hurting it. I’ll come back to the no-tattoo policy – one that could hurt the organization by preventing us from hiring highly qualified individuals who just happen to have non-offensive tattoos.

Other factors or policies that could limit a new member from joining:

  • A lack of organized onboarding process for new members. We need to provide some structure or a road map for new members to envision what’s ahead.
  • A probation system. Making the new member “earn their stripes” is a deterrent for new members who want to be part of the family. Don’t make them wait!
  • Too restrictive or too demanding of policies can hinder participation of volunteers.
  • Mandated policies or procedures, anything labeled mandated is a deterrent and should be reassessed
  • Hours, availability, pager response – do you provide flexibility for volunteers to flex their availability but still meet training requirements and response requirements?

“Good ol‘ boy club”

This topic is a little harder to see from inside the organization and might require more reflection and investigation from community members outside the organization. General indictors that you might have a good ol‘ boy club include having a small but dedicated core group of members who do everything and limits anyone else from participating or taking ownership. Another indicator is that new members come and go like a revolving door. This is a sign that they found it difficult to engage with the insular members. Furthermore, this revolving door fuels the belief by the core group that “the new generation is the problem.” The core group focuses on building its strength and passively keeping everyone new outside the group.

As leaders, we need to break up the good ol‘ boy club and foster an environment of inclusion. Some organizations have found it difficult to move past this roadblock, but through strong leadership – and possibly dismissal of a core member having a negative impact on the organization’s mission – it is possible to move the organization forward.

Traditions and culture

The fire service is steeped in tradition, and we as leaders should honor many of those traditions; however, we also need to assess the impact of tradition on our members and our service to community. Traditions should be an honor not an anchor.

Which traditions are important to your community? Don’t let your ego drive the traditions you maintain; let the value of the tradition be your guide. Too often we forget that our most important traditions should represent the character, integrity, compassion and commitment of past members – not just a perceived image of the organization or past members. Focus on the traditions that highlight your people. As Chief Alan Brunacini once said: “Don’t be afraid to make change. If something has been done a particular way for 20 years, that alone is often a sign that is being done wrong.”

In the business world, “cash is king.” In the fire service, “culture is king.” Your organizational culture will trump individual performance. Who you are, what you stand for and how you live your organizational culture will determine your success.

Remember, these three key components of culture:

1. Your culture must match the community identity and needs;

2. Your culture must be owned by the entire membership, not just the core group; and

3. Your culture must be fostered, nurtured and supported.

All too often, I see struggling organizations that have cultures that fail to match their community or organizational needs. In most cases, it’s an organization that is attempting to adopt an image or philosophy of another organization. Culture is local and should be built locally, not copied from another organization because of an image or a perceived “coolness.” Culture is king! New volunteers want a healthy, inclusive culture. Image is paper thin, but healthy culture is resilient.

Final thoughts

The new volunteer members seek leadership, support and involvement. Your leadership should strive to be inclusive and supportive. Provide a system of value to your members. Value comes in many forms beyond monetary, specifically empowerment, ownership, training, praise, organizational pride and self-satisfaction. And remember, leadership is not just from the chief; it must be found at all levels of the organization. Provide opportunities for informal leaders to develop and grow in your organization.

As the world continues to evolve, the choice to hold a death grip on traditional policies, cultures and leadership principles will negatively impact your ability to attract community members who seek opportunities to volunteer in your organization but don’t fit the traditional image of the volunteer firefighter. Leadership, culture, self-assessment and a desire to evolve without sacrificing the mission will provide a foundation for you to attract the new volunteer member.

Remember, people are volunteering in your community. Why aren’t they volunteering with you?

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Jason Caughey is the fire chief of the Laramie County Fire Authority in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and an adjunct professor for Laramie County Community College, where he teaches on the principles of fire behavior. Prior to arriving in Cheyenne in 2011, he was the fire chief of Gore Hill Fire Rescue in Great Falls, Montana. He also spent 10 years working for the Montana Fire Services Training School as a regional instructor and regional training manager for the state of Montana. Caughey has been an active member in the “Kill the Flashover” project, led by Joe Starnes. He is also a current technical member of the UL Positive Pressure test committee and a lead instructor for the Ottawa Project “Knowledge to Practice.” Caughey has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Columbia Southern University and is working on his master’s degree in public administration. He is currently attending the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer program. Connect with Caughey on LinkedIn or via email.