Being a Professional Volunteer Officer


Professional volunteer departments need professional leadership — and  it is important to be honest with yourself and your brethren when you decide to become an officer. If you are doing it for the shiny badge or title, think twice. You should only look at being an officer if you believe you can contribute better as an officer and serve as a role model of a professional volunteer for your members. As an officer you will have not only expanded privileges, but also more duties and requirements.

Becoming an officer is a commitment that you need to be able to fulfill and be sure your family will support you. Once you become an officer, the old saying of, "I don’t have to do it, I'm just a volunteer" becomes obsolete. Officers need to be able to put more time and effort into making the department grow. Those elected should expect to add anywhere up to an extra 20-40 hours a month at your department. While requirements vary by department, there will always be things that need your time, on top of officers' meetings and public relations, not forgetting the fires that will need putting out. 

So the next question is, what makes a good officer? Is it certifications? Years in service? Popularity?  Or how about being one of the "good ol' boys?"

Certifications sound like an easy answer. After all, if you have your Fire Officer III or whatever, it must mean you know your stuff, right? While all officers should have some minimum certifications, it is probably not right for the one with the most rockers to win. The bigger issue is whether or not you can actually apply the information you learn. 

Years in service are always important, but they need to be productive years. As with all volunteer organizations, you can have those who have been members for 20 years but come to only five calls a year, and those who have been members for five years but come to 100 calls a year. Also, were those five calls all structure fires and real calls or were they false alarms?

Popularity is too often the deciding factor. Combine popularity with being one of the "good ol' boys" and you have a majority of the volunteer fire officers out there. In reality, a good officer is one who is respected, rather then popular. Just because you go out drinking with the guys does not make you qualified to lead.

A good officer should be the one that others can look up to for guidance and know that they can count on him/her. A good officer also needs to know that respect doesn't come with the badge; while the office does lend power, it is the officer's actions that will gain — or lose — respect and legitimacy.

Finally, a good officer knows their strengths and weaknesses, and those of the firefighters in their command. They don't need to know everything, but do need to know who to go to for the information.

Napoleon Hill, author of "Think and Grow Rich," did extensive research on what makes a good manager or leader. Mr. Hill worked with industrialist and businessman Andrew Carnegie and interviewed many of the people that were the moguls of their time. He further went to work in FDR's administration as a trusted advisor. His research brought around a theory that is doubly important for the fire service, called the "mastermind theory."

The mastermind theory is simply that the best leaders have the best team to support them. Furthermore, the leader needs to use the team, and not be afraid to admit that those under him may know more then he does. What Mr. Hill found out was that those who were able to use the mastermind theory excelled in their area, and their team members grew with him.

In the fire service, an officer needs to apply the mastermind theory in everything from firefighting to fundraising. One officer may have good skills, but is only one person. By recruiting a team, training them and learning from them, all benefit. The hard part is you need to check your ego at the door and allow your members to excel underneath you without worrying about them taking over.

Too often egos are in the way of success. The mastermind theory sounds easy, but it is hard to admit someone else is better. This particularly applies to the fire service where many of us have aggressive personalities, so it becomes even more important to lay your own ego aside.

I think the best compliment in the world is when one of the team members I have worked with exceeds me. While it may look like you have been surpassed, it just goes to show that you had a positive effect on that member's life and fire career.

An effective officer needs to have the patience and people skills to deal with the daily "bs" that goes on at the department. Further, the officer needs to keep out of the backroom discussions and gossip. 

Once you become an officer, you are looked at in a different light. This goes doubly for chief officers. An officer can no longer make off color comments about a private, as it may be taken as a reprimand. What was funny before, might now hurt due to it coming from an authority figure.

Always remember that you were a private before and remember that time that you caused the fecal matter to hit the oscillating rotator, and a chief officer gave you a new orifice. 

Everyone has messed up before and nobody is perfect. If you think you are perfect, please e-mail me a copy of your resignation with a cc to your department as you will do more harm than good. We have all been there before. The key is to use discipline judiciously and try to find something positive as a teachable moment to get out of the process.

Rules are important and safety is paramount. But you need to look at your actions as an officer and make sure the rules are being evenly enforced. It is very easy to fall into the trap of disciplining your arch enemy, while overlooking another member who may be doing something worse. Leave your ego home, and remember that we all want to go home to our families when it is all done.

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