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Can volunteer departments do it all?

Recruitment and retention challenges mean it’s tough for us to be experts in everything

Over the years, many departments have changed from a fire department into a fire-rescue-EMS-hazmat-fire-police-public service.

As departments add more to their responsibilities, the result is “mission creep.” In the end, departments end up responsible for just about any type of emergency (or non-emergency) the public may call for.

Although it may seem helpful to take on any task presented to us, it is difficult to do everything well, and keep to your core mission.

As the number of working fires has decreased, the number of other calls has exponentially increased. Some of this is due to the natural progression of the fire service and our fire prevention efforts.

Fire alarms, “smells and bells” and service calls make up the vast majority of all calls nowadays unless your service does EMS. Services that provide EMS often do triple the amount of medical calls than they do fire calls.

In the end, we might as well not call ourselves fire departments anymore. The problem is calling yourself a “generic public service organization” or “fire alarm response service” just does not have the same appeal.

The compounding factor is that when our departments were created, they were created for one mission: to fight fires. Many departments actually originated in the instance of one fire, and neighbors coming together to help each other to put it out.

The original mission of your department probably says, “to protect your community from fires and other disasters.” The other disasters part has now come to encompass everything from the proverbial cat in the tree to nuclear, chemical and biological emergencies. When all else fails, call the fire department.

So what we do is add a bunch of hyphens after our name (Fire-Rescue-EMS-Who Knows…) Each new hyphen adds another “specialty” to our repertoire, even if it is a new area of expertise.

Some hyphens are added because they are needed, others because they are just cool or high-tech. The problem is each of these areas becomes another task for our members, a new area of required training and another potential problem area.

There is no possible way that we can be experts in everything. The result is that we end up being in a situation of being jacks of all trades, masters of none. This is extremely dangerous when it comes to responding to public emergencies.

We actually may end up endangering the lives we are trying to save by taking on too much. Even though we are trying to help and our hearts are in the right place, there are a limited amount of hours for training and developing expertise that each member can offer.

Each area we add also increases the amount of calls we expect our members to respond to. With most departments having difficulty recruiting and retaining members, the result is we need to do more calls with less.

We also run the risk of burning out the few members we do have. Although some members may think it is interesting to learn about hazmat, rope rescue, EMS, confined spaces and other specialties, it still means more time away from our families.

It also means we need to create more recruitment and retention programs, fund additional equipment and constantly grow the department.

In America, we seem to always think that bigger is better. In the case of a fire department, especially a volunteer department, bigger is rarely better. As a department grows, it continues to need more money, staff and time, all of which is in short supply.

Many departments could serve better by being “right sized” or even downsized to focus on their core mission. In this way, both the public and the membership of the department are served, by focusing on the key services.

Although there is a need for specialized services, it is very rare that a small town will need to have their own rope rescue, hazmat or other “team.”

The better option would be to create a separate, regional service whose mission is meeting the specialized response and service needs of a region.

It may be that the regional team will take longer to respond, but they can focus on building specialized skills with both the right people and the right equipment.

Also, funding can be pooled regionally to assure that the team has what it needs. In the end, your department gets to stay a fire department and others get to help your community in their own special way.

Volunteer fire departments face a unique set of challenges. Learn how to manage or serve on a volunteer department with Jason Zigmont, founder of, in his FireRescue1 exclusive column, ‘Volunteer Professionals.’