‘And that’s OK’: Not all volunteers want to operate like FDNY

Volunteers have lives beyond our station walls, and we cannot force them to all have the same level of commitment and passion

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As officers of rural volunteer fire departments, we wish that the rest of the membership shared our same passion and vision for our department. But we must understand that this may never be the case. And that’s OK.

We often try to “push” pride in our department onto the younger members. But many of them weren’t raised with the same sense of community as we were, so they will likely never carry that pride. And that’s OK.

Every officer of every volunteer department has plans, big plans for their department – apparatus upgrades, training ideas, station renovations, etc. These big ideas are sometimes met with hesitation from the older generation and a lack of drive from our younger generation. And that’s OK.

‘Volunteers are simply on loan’

I’m sure by now you can imagine yourself in one of these three scenarios. In my career, I have seen all three, and guess what, it all turned out OK. We have to remember that not every person lives to fight fire on a volunteer department. Not every member has the desire see our little department operate just like an FDNY or Chicago Fire Department. And that’s OK.

On my department, we have several farmers, an avid fisherman, a steel scrapper, several hunters, campers and travelers. The thoughts that fill their head throughout the day when not focused on work are probably those very hobbies, plus their families, friends, various personnel situations and more. They likely aren’t considering the fire load of the newly built two-story house or where the closest hydrant is to the downtown restaurant. They simply aren’t wired like those of us who already feel an intense commitment to the job. Again, that’s OK.

I can’t tell you how many times I have been frustrated by a low member turnout for an early morning carbon monoxide call, a fender bender or even our annual fundraiser, just to see a 25-member turnout at the last structure fire. It happens. The real question: How can we sustain an adequately sized membership, cater to our young generation, and keep the older generation happy at the same time? You can’t and you won’t. And that’s OK.

The thing we need to understand is that these volunteers are simply on loan to this department. They are on loan from their families, hobbies, dreams and jobs. They have lives beyond our station walls and we must remember that to keep them paying into this loan, we cannot force them to feel the same as us. The reality is that not every person will ever be 100% happy, not every member will make every call, several members will leave training early, and for some of them, this department and community is not a priority. And that’s OK.

Even at times of frustration due to staffing shortages, we must consider the outside lives of our members. You cannot force your staff to attend two trainings per week, make 90% of the calls or wash trucks in their off time. You can try, but you’ll end up a miserable salty fire officer with a growing animosity toward your department and the members on it.

Remember, we usually plan training or events on days that fits our schedule as officers. How many times of have heard in response, “It’s my wife’s birthday” or “My kiddo has a ball tournament”? Lots, I’m sure. Before getting angry with this member, did you check with them before scheduling this training? Probably not.

I’m sure you are thinking to yourself, If I have to work around everyone’s schedule, we will never train. You’re right. You can’t, and it’s not your job to cater to your members’ schedules; however, working to understand that other members’ priorities are different than yours will keep your soul on an even keel.

So, if you can’t cater to these members, you can’t force them to show up, and you can’t make them have pride in your department, how do you maintain a quality, well-trained membership?

Like this ….

A plan for volunteer engagement

Most volunteer members initially join the department for four reasons:

  1. They have always wanted to work for a fire department and fight fire.
  2. They have a desire to help the community.
  3. They are looking for something to do.
  4. They have friends on the department and consider this a social club.

It only takes a few short months before you learn who is who. Regardless of why they joined, if given some direction, expectations and responsibility within your agency, you will have success in the retention of these volunteer firefighters. It all starts with training.

Officers need to sit down and ensure the base training hours aligns with the core needs of the department in order to handle the most frequent target hazards.
Officers need to sit down and ensure the base training hours aligns with the core needs of the department in order to handle the most frequent target hazards. (Photos/Dan Rogers)

Training time: Training hour requirements need to be set at the NFPA-determined minimum level. This expectation needs to be relayed to your membership with the understanding that in the event of a line-of-duty death (LODD), your agency could be liable – and its training records will be reviewed to determine if the department has complied with the standard. This takes the responsibility of constantly trying to get members to show up for trainings out of your hands.

Now, we all understand that good firefighters are not made from just doing the minimum, but by establishing your base training hour requirements based on NFPA, you can ensure enough trainings are attended by members to be an asset on the fireground.

As the officer, you need to sit down and ensure your base training hours aligns with the core needs of your department in order to handle your most frequent target hazards. Publish recent call critiques (two or three paragraphs) as awareness trainings that can be set out on the table and read by each member as they wait for the meeting to start or when they stop by the station. This ensures that a lesson learned is a lesson shared – an important step toward ensuring that history won’t repeat itself.

Department pride: How can I get my younger members to have pride in this department? You cannot make a member have pride. It simply doesn’t work like that. What you can do is develop a set of committees and assign your members to a committee. The installation of committees within the firehouse is one of the best ways to delegate responsibilities and give them pride in the job. With responsibility comes commitment, with commitment comes satisfaction, and with satisfaction comes pride.

Example: It’s important for us to track and maintain NFPA-compliant PPE. Develop a committee that inventories your PPE, tracks NFPA dates, assigns new members PPE, and submits monthly reports at the meeting.

This may sound like a lot, but consider the benefits of committee engagement:

  1. It helps you as an officer to track PPE, thus taking one more thing off your plate;
  2. It allows these members to learn the NFPA requirements for the lifespan of PPE;
  3. It helps the new member meet other new members, thereby increasing comradery and morale; and
  4. Finally, by submitting reports, the new members get their voice heard at the meeting.

With members participating in committees, you should see an increase in commitment. As you praise their efforts (an important step) at the meeting, they will feel a sense satisfaction having contributed to the department, and the positive reinforcement will unknowingly lead others to seek the same approval. Before long, this satisfaction slowly morphs into the pride we have been wishing for among the ranks of the department.

Other committee ideas:

  • A small engine committee that’s in charge of starting the small engines weekly, filling with gas and oil, and reporting any problems; and
  • A recruitment and retention committee that’s in charge of sending out recruitment media, posting department updates on social media, contacting the newspaper with public relations items, and polling the members annually using online satisfactory surveys.

These committees can be tailored to your department’s needs. We have found the best practice is to first request volunteers to fill the spots. As officers, we know who has the most potential to be great firefighter, so it can also help them along by assigning them to be the committee head. This gives them a sense of pride in their abilities and allows them to see your confidence in them.

Final thoughts

Judge your members not on how often they show up, but rather on what they bring to the table when they do show up.

Praise them for a job well done and correct them without maliciousness when they have done wrong.

Attitude reflects leadership, so in times of struggle, the very first look should be in a mirror.

Being a volunteer fire department officer is tough. There is no manual to follow and you will make mistakes, and that’s OK.

Editor’s note: How do you engage your volunteer firefighters? Share in the comments below.

[Read next: ‘I am your local volunteer firefighter’]

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