Balancing Bylaws...



Every department needs to have a document with the rules governing the department, and no matter whether you call it bylaws or a constitution, the principles are the same. Without a bylaws document, your department will end up as organized, or not so organized, chaos. The challenge is do develop and maintain a document that outlines the way your company should run without strangling it.

Chances are your department is split into two factions, those who want more rules and those who want less… (Does this sound like the Democrats versus the Republicans? :) )

Each side has its valid points and it is just a matter of finding the balance between the two. Some issues may be easy such as what days you meet on or drill on. Other issues, such as who is eligible to be Chief may be a bit more stressful.

Let’s start with the more basic and ‘easy’ items of a good set of bylaws. Your governing document should clearly state your mission statement and what the goal is of your department. This may sound like a bunch of mumbo jumbo but without a stated purpose or goal, you will never reach it. Keep in mind that this document will help to serve members years down the road when they have to make decisions about your department. A good mission statement can be a reality check when the big decisions need to be made.

The next step is to develop a structure for your department. Most departments have some type of division between church and state, as in the business/social side and the firefighting side. Depending on the size of your department you may opt to have a separate slate of officers for business and firefighting functions or they may have dual roles.

Having a separation is nice in that you will always have members more interested in one side or the other… As members age they might not want to put out fires but might still be interested n doing fundraising. The point of having a business side is to handle all the details of raising funds, paying bills, keeping the building up to shape and all the other jobs that need to be done ‘before the bell rings’. The social side is what keeps the doors open and having a good social or business side will help you to retain members and prevent burnout.

The other bonus of having two sides is that the job of Chief is stressful enough just handling the fire side. All of the new regulations and duties make the Chief’s plate full without adding the business functions. As long as your department has enough eligible and skilled manpower, ideally each member would hold no more then one position. Members can hold a position on both sides of the department, but may find it too time consuming.

The ‘normal’ corporate structure and/or business structure of a fire department consists of; President, Vice President, Treasurer and Secretary. There may also be a board of directors, auditors, parliamentarian, steward, and a host of committees and their respective chairpersons. My column on “Embezzlement of non-profit funds” took a look at establishing a system of checks and balances.

Business officer structure tends to be simple and there are very few variances between departments. Firefighting officer structure varies widely depend on the department’s size, call volume and overall needs. Most departments have a Chief and some type of Lieutenants, but that is about the only thing we can all agree on. :) It does not matter if you have a Deputy or Assistant Chief, Engineers or Foremen as long as you define the job duties for each position. The color of your helmet and number of bugles does not matter, your duties, rights and responsibilities are what make the difference.

Your bylaws should outline not only the chain of command but also the duties, rights and responsibilities of each office. My articles on Power and Control looked at the different types of power and how to keep them in check. You can refer to another document, such as your SOGs for job descriptions since it does not matter where you specify it as long as it is somewhere. The caution is to develop descriptions that are more then “The Chief is in charge, if he is not there the Assistant Chief is…” and so on. This would be the chain of command, not a job description.

Once you have your structure down and well developed job descriptions, the next step is to set minimum requirements for electing or appointing officers. This is so important that I dedicated an entire article to this topic. Here is where the debate and challenge will be in developing your bylaws. Here is where there is a huge balancing act.

The caution is that while you may mean well in setting tight requirements, what happens in the lean times at the department? Departments naturally have highs and lows and if your requirements are too strict you may end up with no qualified candidates, or even worse, candidates who meet the requirements but would not be good officers. Your good intentions may end up causing the department harm. Be very careful when setting requirements. If you require someone to have 2 years of service as Captain to be Chief, then your only candidate would be your existing Captain…

The last required element of your bylaws should be a way to waive and change your bylaws. Bylaws that are set in stone will be nothing more then a weight to drag you down. This does not mean that you should be able to throw them out at any time but you should be able to waive or change them with a 2/3rds vote or unanimous consent. This gives you a way out and a way to keep up with the times. Your bylaws should be reviewed every 5 years and updated as needed.

It is the 21st century, if you are still using 20th century bylaws, or worse, no bylaws; it is time to catch up. Find a balance and create a document that you can live with. You will not make everyone happy but finding the middle ground will benefit your department in the long run. The second column this week will look at some of the best bylaw documents submitted to Learn from how your fellow firefighters run their department and see what you can adapt for yours.


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