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How to build a combination fire department

Understanding how to pay for the change, achieve buy-in and foster connections, plus tips rooted in experience

DALL·E 2024-02-02 09.48.16 - A horizontal image depicting the moment right before the ribbon-cutting ceremony at a new U.S. fire department. The scene should focus on a single p.webp


A lot has been espoused about the volunteer fire service, and more specifically, the decline in volunteerism we’ve seen in the past several years.

What began in many places as a self-sustaining insurance-subscription fire protection service has evolved into so much more today. The American fire service now protects nearly 350 million residents spread across 50 states and five territories (there are an additional nine territories with no population recorded).

What has also changed is the culture of volunteerism in general, which brings us to the topic at hand: building a combination fire department. While there are many trying to solve the problems of recruitment and retention, here I hope to offer some solutions to continue providing service when “going combination” is the decision.

Paying for it

Volunteer doesn’t mean free. As needs increased, the subscription fire service turned to fundraisers and has evolved to today’s environment of multi-million-dollar grants to build NFPA-compliant stations and purchase NFPA-compliant apparatus. But spaghetti nights, bingos and car washes will only take you so far. So, what will be your funding mechanism to pay salary and benefits for firefighters? It doesn’t seem too tough when you’re only paying for one, but the load grows exponentially as you add each firefighter and cover the many associated needs.

Whether it’s county, district, parish or any other municipal form of government, the fire chief will likely find him or herself working with one or more municipal leadership groups to determine an appropriate funding mechanism to pay for people – and stuff. I recently spoke to a volunteer chief in Pennsylvania who has to negotiate with more than 20 municipal entities to determine how they’ll fund their operations. They pay a few full-time firefighters, but despite the politics associated with more than 20 municipal governments, the fire department continues to carry the volunteer elected chief model. It is well past time for that department to make the switch to a combination organization.

Whatever your income – fundraisers, fees, taxes, assessments, subscriptions – the method likely will require some approval through the municipal (and maybe state) process. This is a long-haul discussion and not a process to take lightly, nor to try to do on your own. There’s plenty of help out there.

The anatomy of a combination department

There is no cookie-cutter combination department. For a singular department with one or two stations, the evolution from all-volunteer to combination is usually a slow process, likely first hiring a day-time driver for at least one station.

What drives the need to hire? The catalyst is often increasing failures to respond or some catastrophic incident. Maybe it was a citizen complaint or political pressure, or maybe it was a progressive volunteer chief who saw the need for help. Sometimes the department will later hire an additional firefighter for specific hours or use some creative means through grant opportunities to provide stipends or paid-per-call opportunities.

I have observed that many long-time volunteers feel threatened by the mere notion of paying firefighters, and in some cases will even resign as a result. To alleviate that threat, many volunteer departments soften the blow by calling paid staff something else. I recently spoke to a New York State volunteer chief who told me that paid staff in the VFDs are not always identified by traditional service ranks – paid officers called “foreman” and paid firefighters called “engineers” or “maintenance” and similar terms. I understand the concept, baby steps maybe; however, I don’t think renaming firefighters, paid or volunteer, is a productive improvement for the community.

The number one challenge of any leader charged with the responsibility to “combine” a department is making sure the best possible service is being provided to the community. Within that challenge are many micro-challenges, including the need to “stop the bleed” of members leaving because they feel threatened. There are myriad incentives and some basic education that can help. As important as it is for people to acknowledge and accept help, volunteers want to continue to feel welcomed and needed. Fostering that atmosphere can sometimes be a challenge when paid firefighters are brought in, leaving the perception that some power has been taken away from the volunteers. The outlook must be about service to the community, not the power level of any group.

I’ve never seen a successful combination system succeed with an all-or-nothing approach. While it must be about service, there is a shared empowerment to accomplish goals. The department still needs volunteers, and the volunteers need help getting the apparatus out the door – both “sides” need each other.

First-hand experience

I’ve worked in three different states in systems that were, at least at one time, all-volunteer:

Mineral County, West Virginia: This is the one that remains all-volunteer today, providing service out of 10 stations.

Prince George’s County, Maryland: PGFD entered the combination environment under a County Charter in 1970 and remains an evolving combination department today.

What was originally 40-plus independent volunteer 501(c)(3)s before charter, remained independent administratively after charter. After charter, the 501(c)(3) fire department operations were wrapped under the county fire chief. Sounds simple, right? Of course not! PGFD, one of the largest combination fire/EMS systems in the United States, is the quintessential combination department experiment, now 54 years in the making.

Highlands County, Florida: The area’s 10 volunteer chiefs got together and petitioned the county commissioners for help as volunteerism declined. This ultimately resulted in a professional study that provided options as well as a report that provided a blueprint to implement the study.

I had the unique opportunity to start this process after the elected officials had decided to move forward with hiring paid firefighters. With the elected official mandate at hand, we needed to get the community to approve a level of funding to pay for the plan, which included these core recommendations:

  • Establish a county fire chief
  • Hire paid firefighters
  • Work to bring apparatus into NFPA compliance
  • Work to bring facilities up to 24-hour occupation status and into NFPA compliance
  • Combine fire and EMS (which was all county-employee-paid)

While the county had a previously established a working group as the study was being conducted, this group was terminated as a fire department working group was stood up. This group, which would be the avenue to implement the approved changes, included this lineup:

  • Each volunteer chief
  • An EMS representative
  • The new county public safety director/fire chief

Delivering regular updates to the County Administration and elected officials was crucial to ensuring transparency and accountability to the plan (and the people). Unfortunately, the product of any municipal relationship, especially one where the “boss” is hired from the outside, will face certain hurdles. For example, it was my experience that certain connected volunteers and paid EMS folks were keeping their own connections to the elected officials alive and well. Balancing this dynamic is never easy for a leader, especially when you’re trying to establish a new organization while helping 13 others to stay afloat.

Lessons learned from the experience

The best advice I can give someone in these shoes is to understand several basic principles:

  • Operate from a plan, not an idea.
  • Understand that you will never make everyone happy. You’re likely shifting some power and making progress, while “fighting the fights” and ensuring that service delivery is improving.
  • Do what’s right for the community, for your people and for the organization – JDTRT.
  • Resist the urge to be the bull in the china shop. You may need to be a bull, just keep it in the arena.
  • Focus on individual steps you can succeed at daily.
  • Establish a regular rotation of internal and external constituent monthly meetings – and stick to them.

As you look to build this new combination department, make sure you provide any and all support possible to those volunteer stations that continue to sustain themselves. While they may be benefiting from the new county income, that doesn’t mean that paid staffing has to be thrown in the station just because. Use a strategic approach to staffing that focuses more on safety than just getting fire trucks out the door.

Pick locations that have higher call volumes and may have lower volunteer participation. Make sure there is sufficient PPE and radios to equip any newly hired firefighters, while still maintaining capacity for volunteers. Make sure the facility can sustain 24-hour living. Let’s face it, it’s a home as much as it’s a firehouse! Be prepared in advance to support not only your volunteers but the staffing you hire as well.

As you hire, if the IAFF is involved, you’ll have additional dynamics to manage – all opportunities to succeed, if you let them succeed. Much like parenting a family, a chief with volunteer and union members working side by side will have family feuds to deal with – that’s part of the human nature within us all.

Final thoughts

You have a mission and a plan. Moving from an all-volunteer system to a combination department is not a process for faint-of-heart, uneducated or inexperienced leaders.

My last bits of advice, if you really want to succeed:

  • Less talking and more listening
  • Respect your people and your community
  • Move forward with the plan – take positive and informed action

Remember, the train cars will not combine and move forward on their own, whether your stoker (firefighter) is paid or volunteer, someone has to shovel the coal!

Chief Marc S. Bashoor joined the Lexipol team in 2018, serving as the FireRescue1 and Fire Chief executive editor and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board. With 40 years in emergency services, Chief Bashoor previously served as public safety director in Highlands County, Florida; as chief of the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Fire/EMS Department; and as emergency manager in Mineral County, West Virginia. Chief Bashoor assisted the NFPA with fire service missions in Brazil and China, and has presented at many industry conferences and trade shows. He has contributed to several industry publications. He is a National Pro-board certified Fire Officer IV, Fire Instructor III and Fire Instructor. Connect with Chief Bashoor at on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Do you have a leadership tip or incident you’d like to discuss? Send the chief an email.