Making it Through the Day

Volunteer fire departments by nature have good times and bad. We have times when we pack the truck like a clown car, and times when we respond with just a driver. Often, our lean times are during daylight hours, which also tend to be our busiest times. This week I will look at making it through the day, and what departments can do to improve their daytime responses.

The evolution of society, and the change from a farming country to an industrial or commercial environment, has completely changed the volunteer environment. When members were their own bosses, it was much easier to stop what they were doing and respond to a call. Now our members have to convince their employer to let them out, and hopefully, still pay them for their time.

It seems like once a week I get a question from a user who thinks that employers MUST let their employees out for fire calls. While I wish it were true, unfortunately, it isn’t. Many states have adopted legislation that allows municipal and state workers to respond to fire calls, but those of us in the private industry are exempt from these rules.

Volunteer departments need to find a way to encourage local employers to let their members out. The worst thing we can do is go in and demand that they have to let a member out every time the whistle blows. The first step is to educate employers.

Employers need to understand that they are served by a volunteer fire department, and their commitment to the department benefits the employer, as well as the town at large. A letter, or personal visit, by the Chief of the department often has a strong impact. You would be surprised how many of your local employers take it for granted that the fire department will come to every call, and may or may not know they are served by volunteers.

The second step is to respect the employer’s time, and recognize their commitment. When an employer is willing to let members respond, the members have a responsibility to use their time and judgment wisely. Everyone knows that the call takes 20 minutes, but social time afterwards is another 20 minutes. While it is nice to get out of work, by wasting time hanging around the firehouse, you are wasting your employers’ time. When members waste their employers’ time, they will loose the privilege of being able to respond. Also, do we really need to spend an hour waiting for the wrecker, light company, or whoever to respond? Maybe during the day, we can make an effort to clear out of calls quicker…

Recognizing their commitment is an easy thing to do, and is often overlooked. A simple letter once a year goes a long way. Write a letter, on letterhead, recognizing the commitment to the town that XYZ company has made. Have it signed by the Chief, and/or Mayor, and present it to them. Chances are that the letter will end up framed and put up on the wall.

If you really want to make sure they are recognized, publish a letter to the editor, or story, in your local newspaper about the commitments that employers in your town are making. List out the amount of hours they have donated to the town, and spell out exactly what benefit that has. If one of your members did something above and beyond, during their work time, be sure to mention their employer. Companies love publicity, and they will see it as a way to recoup their lost productivity.

So now that we have basic employer relations down, lets get creative. How about arranging a tax break with the town for employers who allow their employees to respond? It sounds far fetched, but if you were to explain to your town management the cost savings in the long run, it may just be possible.

While we are being creative, how about recruiting people who work locally, but may volunteer for other towns? With more and more people commuting 30+ minutes from home, you may have a ripe ground for qualified firefighters working in your community. Drive through the parking lot of local employers and you will see the blue lights and license plates of your brethren. Design a way for them to be able to respond with your department in the day. Even better, get them involved in your incentive plan to give them further incentive to respond.

Another ripe source for daytime firefighters is your local high school or college. A cooperative program with the schools would provide the students with a potential career path, and provide you with manpower. Be very careful that students do not abuse the privilege of ‘getting out of school’ to go to a call. Maybe limit their responses to only ‘real’ calls, or make a minimum grade average they have to maintain.

Finally, if you can’t get the manpower, utilize what you’ve got. I spent many years as the ranking officer during daytime hours. One of the best things I did was keep track of who was around, and use cell phones. If you track who is available, and have them call in when they are responding, you can decide to sit around, or respond with the crew you have. Time is of the essence, and if you are only going to get three firefighters, you’re better off leaving early with them, then waiting ten minutes to see if anyone else shows.

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