Electing Volunteer Fire Officers
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As another year comes toward an end, many departments are holding their elections or appointing new officers. This process can be difficult and requires a balancing act to make sure that the right officer is put into each position. While researching this topic, I found that there were more options for election requirements than I would ever have believed. Therefore, I will try to take a broad look at the issue, but will focus on firefighting officers only.
The one common denominator in all election or appointment procedures is some type of minimum requirements. These commonly include meetings, drills, calls, years in service and/or certifications. Some may say that minimum requirements aren’t needed, as the best person will always win … Those of us who have been in the service for a while know that it is actually often the most popular, rather than the best qualified, who gets the job.
So what requirements are fair? The answer varies by department, the number of members, number of calls, and duties of the officer. Minimally, the officers should be held to the same standards as any "active" firefighter. Ideally, they should be setting an example and be held to a higher standard. To require attendance at half of the monthly drills/meetings is reasonable. Exemptions can be made for extreme circumstances, but it needs to be the same for everyone.
Requiring a minimum call attendance is nice also. After all, the primary duty of a fire officer is to respond to fires. The hard part is to require a percentage of the overall calls, since we all have work and family obligations. One option is to require a minimum of responses during a member’s "available" time.
This system tracks that a member may be unavailable from 0600-1800, or whatever time frame, due to work and therefore does not penalize them for not coming during those hours. While the hard part is tracking availability, luckily most computer NFIRS reporting systems track availability and can report percentages easily.
Most departments have some kind of minimum years of service requirement. After all, would you want your new probie getting elected chief?
Two years seems to be a common minimum before someone can run or be appointed to an office. Many departments also have a sliding scale of year requirements. (i.e. Lieutenant two years, Captain five years, and Chief seven years). Some departments allow credit for years of service in other departments, sometimes prorated at a 2:1 basis, or more.
Controversy begins when you start requiring minimum years of service in rank, before progressing to the next rank, such as two years as Assistant Chief before becoming Chief. While this concept looks good in principle, when you have a limited number of positions, you may end up with only one candidate.
An alternative is to require a minimum amount of years as a junior officer — Lieutenant, Foreman or Captain — before running for a chief officer position.
What creates further controversy is when you start requiring minimum certification levels; enter the dinosaur vs robot battles. It would be nice if every officer had every certification available, but we need to be realistic.
Minimally, an officer should have the same required certifications as the firefighters underneath them. Ideally, they should have more knowledge than their firefighters. Of course, certifications are just a piece of paper and will never make up for on the job training. To account for years of experience, you might try requiring a certification or having been active in the fire service before x,y and z date (i.e. Firefighter II or have been active before Jan. 1, 1986.)
The Presidential Lakes Fire and Rescue Squad submitted their bylaws to VolunteerFD.org and have some good minimum requirements. They require 30 percent of all calls, 75 percent of all company meetings and 50 percent of scheduled drills. An interesting point of their bylaws is that after seven years, a member can become an "exempt member." This lowers the requirements to 15 percent of calls, 50 percent of meetings and 25 percent of drills.
Once you have set your minimums, the next question is how to elect, appoint or nominate your officer. Each department does things slightly differently.
Both elections and appointments can lead to a department's officers consisting of an old boys' club and them being a popularity vote. One member of VolunteerFD.org wrote to me about the situation at his department.
The bottom line of his message was that after the incumbent Chief lost one year, 12 months later he brought in all his old friends, who were "life members" and stacked the vote to get back in. While you can never get around popularity contests, sometimes there are ways to add to the minimums and raise the bar.
One option is to have a nominations committee, which can meet with potential candidates before your election to determine the candidates reasoning and eligibility to run for office. The committee can then report its findings and recommendations at the election. By having an investigation process, and recommendation, you are less likely to get officers who are doing it on a whim or because of their popularity.
The Snelling Volunteer Fire Department has a combination of elections and appointments. Their bylaws state: "Officers, not appointed by the Town, are the elective officers. They are elected for an indefinite term. When a vacancy exists, any member with five years experience or any member that is felt to be qualified, may be nominated with a second. When all nominations are in, a secret ballet will be taken and a simple majority shall elect. This may be done at any meeting having 10 members present that are eligible to vote."
I find the SVFD's bylaws interesting as some of their officers are appointed by the town, while some are elected. Also, they have indefinite terms and require five years experience or "any member that is felt to be qualified." While I could not find any reference to what qualified means, I would be interested to find out how that decision is made in their department.
On the other side, the Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department has term limits for their President and Chief. Their bylaws state: "Term limits will be imposed on the president and chief. These officers can only serve for two consecutive terms before stepping down for one year. These are very demanding offices. Limits will keep members from burning out and will keep the department running smoothly."
Term limits are an interesting idea, and I can see their point. While I do not agree with indefinite terms, a chief officer needs to have at least two to three years to make any long term changes. All of these bylaw examples are available at http://www.volunteerfd.org/bylaws/
As you can see, there are many facets to the selection of officers. What works in your area may not work in others, and vice versa. Just remember to think through the requirements you place, and make sure they are for the good of the company rather then one specific individual.
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