Building Professionalism in Your Volunteer Fire Department [Webinar Transcript]
According to a National Fire Protection Association 2017 report, approximately 65% of America's firefighters are volunteers, and 91% of fire departments are partially or completely volunteer-based. Even so, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. reached a low in 2019, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.
One method for addressing this issue is by promoting professionalism within volunteer fire departments. Professionalism benefits department reputation, promotes security among the crew and attracts new recruits.
Columbia Southern University hosted “Building Professionalism in Your Volunteer Fire Department,” a recorded webinar and Q&A session with former fire Chief Tom Merrill. The 37-year fire veteran discussed the importance of professionalism and its role in developing leaders in the volunteer fire department. The following is a transcript of the webinar.
Hello everybody, and thank you for tuning into this webinar, “Building Professionalism in Your Volunteer Fire Department.” My name is Tom Merrill. I'm the past chief of department and current fire commissioner for the Snyder Fire District, which is located in the town of Amherst, New York, just outside the city of Buffalo.
It is my honor to be talking to you today. I'd also like to thank Columbia Southern University for allowing me to take this opportunity to discuss with you all just how important it is as firefighters, as EMS providers, as emergency services first responders, to deliver a professional service and to treat people, both the citizens we serve as well as our own members, in a professional manner.
Today we're going to spend some time discussing exactly how we can do that, as well as hopefully helping you to not just understand, but to embrace this professional message we are talking about and how it applies to whatever agency you might happen to belong to, whether it's fire, EMS or law enforcement. No matter what line of work you happen to be in, everybody should strive to be a professional, to act professionally, to deliver professional service, and to treat people well. Think of it as professional development; that's a term that a lot of businesses like to use for their employees, and we can and should as well.
We're also going to take just a few minutes to discuss the very important role that officers play in this professional equation and how so often officers are simply elected or appointed and basically thrown to the wolves with no real professional development offered for them. They really have no idea what they can do to gain a reputation as a reputable and confident and professional officer.
Or, as happens so many times in our first responder organizations, they have trouble even becoming an officer. They certainly have a strong desire to serve as one. They might be technically competent, but they have trouble winning that dreaded volunteer fire department election or getting the appointment they're seeking. That leads so often to them being angry and upset and demotivated. They may even choose to leave their department, and that certainly would be bad. Even if they don't leave and they do remain, they are disgruntled, and that can lead to them doing some unprofessional things that hurt them, hurt their department and hurt the very service that they work for. We want to avoid that. Again, the way to avoid it is through proper professional development.
Protection, Security, Trust
The fire service is an incredible institution. Our fire departments offer our residents a real feeling of protection and security and trust. They offer protection for everything that they hold near and dear, their homes and their loved ones. When they walk by the firehouse, they are comforted by the sight of those imposing rigs that are staffed by dedicated firefighters, ready to respond to help them in their time of need. They take great comfort in that and they feel secure.
Residents also have an incredible trust in you as well. Think about it. You're in their houses. You're in their businesses. You see their money and valuables. You're in their businesses when the owner's not even there. They don’t question it because they trust us, and that trust has been earned throughout our history.
Joining the fire service is a time-honored tradition. Our great fire service legacy has grown in the imagination and envy and appreciation of the public through real examples of heroism, dedication to duty, compassionate and exemplary service, and selfless sacrifice by those who came before. The fire service has a rich history that has seen honorable community-minded citizens band together to help protect their little neck in the woods.
Many of our founding leaders actually were volunteer firefighters, including Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Paul Revere. They all served as volunteer firefighters, and that list goes on and on over the years, decades and centuries of service. It's safe to say you are in good company.
Wearing the Maltese cross is something to be so proud of. Whether volunteer or paid, our fire service enjoys a rich heritage filled with incredible customs and traditions, proud family legacies, and unfortunately, sacrifice as well.
We’ve Come a Long Way
Most communities' fire service has grown from meager beginnings, starting out with very little. They did the job with little equipment. Members often threw in their own money, their own sweat, their own labor and their own muscle to build what firefighters today take for granted. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves to take a step back and realize how far we have come.
It's important that those stepping into the ranks today not only recognize that they stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before them, but they must do everything in their power to ensure that that proud and trusted legacy continues on their watch.
Impact of Volunteer Firefighters and Departments
There are many firefighters out there that can help us continue this legacy. The NFPA reports that in 2017, there were 1,056,200 firefighters in the United States and 29,819 fire departments. That's a lot of firefighters and a lot of fire departments. Collectively, they can do a lot of good to uphold this reputation we've been talking about. They make a big impact.
I want to focus on the volunteer side for just a bit, as they have a big role in this impact. Of the total number of firefighters out there, 682,000, or 65% are volunteers. There are a lot of volunteers serving and protecting. Just the same, there are many people out there and large areas depending on their local volunteer fire department when they need help.
Issues and Challenges for VFDs
The volunteer fire service is facing many challenges today:
- Getting a lot of attention is the declining membership in so many departments. Yes, there are over 682,000 volunteer firefighters now, but just a few years ago, there were 815,000 volunteer firefighters.
- The average age of the volunteer firefighter is increasing; it's well into the 40s now and 50s in some departments. That's great for experience, but we need younger members as well to come up through the ranks and prepare them for future leadership roles. We need their young muscle too.
- Call volume and call dynamics are changing. In other words, people are calling us for so many types of different types of calls today.
- Training requirements are increasing.
- Diminished funding leads to time spent fundraising to get the very equipment needed to do the jobs. We're spending time hosting chicken dinners and bingo and other activities to get the funds to get the equipment that we need to do the job. Who else has to do that?
It's a challenge simply trying to balance all the demands needed today to provide a professional service and establish professional standards within our volunteer organizations.
Our members can feel like they're walking a tightrope when they try to keep everything in order while maintaining a work-life balance. So much has changed over the nearly-300-year history of the volunteer fire service, but there remains one constant: when bad things happen in many communities, the communities rely on their volunteer firefighters to come help them. This is a simple expectation our communities have: even in the midst of all the challenges being faced, even in the midst of all these challenges, there's still a real job to do.
Your Professional Reputation is Important
There are many people out there still counting on the services of their volunteer fire departments. If the volunteer fire service does happen to make the news, let's hope it's for all the good things being done, like handling fire and medical calls to doing charity work.
We don’t want to be known for bad things being done, self-inflicted damage by our own members who make bad choices or treat people badly or do something illegal. Even if the damage isn't particularly excessive in terms of monetary loss to your department, or it turns out not to be harmful to a member, it nonetheless damages your professional reputation. It can take a long time to recoup that reputation that's been earned over the last 50 or 75 years. It can all come crashing down in an instant, and it can take years to overcome that. As firefighters and public servants, we want to have our members embrace that and understand that.
Far too often, people think that because they are volunteers, they're able to be judged differently and graded on a different scale. That might be true in some volunteer organizations, but not in the volunteer fire service. We deliver a real service, and we deal with real emergencies. It is the fire service after all, and we provide a service. Volunteer firefighters should be prepared to deliver that service that the residents are expecting.
Paid or Volunteer, We Have the Same Goals
You know the old saying that fires don't treat volunteer firefighters any differently than paid firefighters. You know what else? There's no 912 to call.
My paid job is working at the fire alarm office. I handle a lot of emergency calls, and you know what? No one ever calls and says, “Hey, send the paid fire department,” or “Hey, send the volunteer fire department.” They simply say “Send the fire department. I need help.”
You're it, paid or volunteer. We exist to provide that service. It sounds bad to say “I'm just a volunteer,” and then expect that to serve as some sort of a crutch for not doing things in a professional manner, for being mean or treating people badly, or even having a dysfunctional operation.
Embracing Professional Standards
Yes, even as volunteers, we provide a real service, an important service, a service that should embrace professional standards. Professional standards ensure that that service is:
- Competent. People actually know what they are doing.
- Compassionate. The responders have a true empathy for the problem being experienced. Even if it's not a big deal to the responders, it is to the caller. Chances are it's the worst day ever for them.
When all is said and done, and you're safely back at the firehouse or the EMS quarters, maybe even back at your own house, you know what that person who had the emergency is remembering? They're remembering that their problem was solved by caring and competent people, that they were nice. They showed up. They knew what they were doing, and they were nice. They treated the family. They treated the patient. They treated any bystanders in a caring manner and with respect.
You may be thinking how great it was that your new $800 tool that you recently purchased worked so well, or maybe the new EMS bag really worked out well because it allowed you to get to the equipment so fast. That's not what the citizens remember. They simply base their opinion on how you treated them and how you handled their problem. That’s really fair, isn't it?
At one time, the volunteer fire house was the center point of the community. Many residents stepped forward and volunteered, and even if they were not a member, chances are they knew a lot of the members. Back in the day, people recognized that the volunteer firehouse was a cost-effective way of delivering this vital, important service.
We need to recognize that we are living in a different world today on so many levels, and we need to get our members to understand that. Here's a relatively recent example of just what a different world it is today.
This was in Anaheim, California, back in February. There was quite a backlash when they published this photo and tried to explain to the public why they shouldn't park in front of fire hydrants. We used to see postings like this years ago, and there was no public backlash. This time, the public lashed out at the fire department, who did a very professional job trying to explain why they did what they did. The point is that the world today reacted much differently than they did just a couple of years ago.
More Than a Social Club
We need to remain cognizant of this changing world and change with the times as well. We cannot run our volunteer fire departments on outdated models. They will eventually get us in trouble, operationally or administratively. There were great programs and a lot of great things being done back in the day. We should celebrate that – we should maintain many of the unique and proud traditions, the individual characteristics that departments might have – but it's imperative that our volunteer fire service be viewed as much more than a social club.
The social side is still a very important part of any successful volunteer fire department. We want our members to have fun. Fun brings people around, but an organization should have zero tolerance for bullying, hazing and being disrespectful of each other and of the public's money that's used to support its operations. We don't want a social club persona being more prevalent than a professional and competent image we want our residents to have of our departments.
It's important to remember that one mistake can undo your great department’s reputation that maybe was formed over the last 50 or 75 years or more of exemplary service. It can be a very long time to fix something like that once it's been tarnished.
There are some out there in volunteer firefighter land who think: “It is what it is. The community has no choice but to accept us and deal with any indiscretions or oversights.” But we need them as much as they need us. Building and maintaining a professional volunteer fire department will help build and maintain our community support. By acting as a professional firefighter, we can continue to uphold the honor we wear with that title of firefighter, and we do this through professional development.
You might ask: “How can volunteers be professional?” Let's look at this definition of professional:
- 1. relating to work that needs special skills and qualifications: Every applicant is entitled to good professional advice. • Teachers must be free to exercise their professional judgment.
- 1a. showing a high level of skill or training: the firm with the most professional approach to marketing • very/highly/thoroughly professional • I congratulate you on a thoroughly professional job, done in difficult conditions.
- 1b. behaving in a correct way at work and doing your job well: The whole cast was very professional and hard working in rehearsals. • They want me to dress in a more professional way. – opposite unprofessional
There are certain keywords and phrases here that we should be concentrating on. Do these not apply to us, relating to work that needs special skills and qualifications, showing a high level of skill or training, behaving in a correct way, doing your job well?
What's not in this definition here? Is there any mention of a paycheck? The definition talked about much more than that, relating to work that needs special skills and qualifications or showing a high level of skill or training and behaving in a correct way and doing your job well. Those are all professional standards that should be embraced by any professional organization. Even if some definitions do mention earning a living or earning a paycheck, I'm OK with that.
Let's all be on the same professional team. Let's uphold our end of the bargain, act and train and perform like a professional, as in the definition. Isn't that fair?
Building a Professional Culture
Let's work together and build this professional culture. That's really what we want, a culture that is both felt by and embraced by the membership. We want our members to feel it the moment they step foot inside the firehouse when first picking up that membership application. We want it to continue with them throughout their career. We want them to learn to pass on their culture to those who come behind, lead by example, and display professionalism throughout their career. Even if they do leave, we want them to remember that culture that they were part of. It truly was something special, and they can talk to others about just how great it was.
Just the same way, we want our organizations to enjoy a professional reputation within their community. It can be done. It doesn't matter how big the department is, how busy it is, how well financed it is, how many members it has, if it's a paid department or a paid on-call or volunteer department. Professional standards can be part of any organization.
A Professional Reputation Can Improve Many Things
Done right, embracing professional development can help out a volunteer department in so many ways:
- It can actually increase your membership. If you act and look like a professional, that's a great recruitment tool because people want to be part of something special. Do they want to be part of dysfunctional operation or a member of the buffoon fire department? Of course not.
- It can also lead to better performance. Professionals train, and training leads to better performance. Think of a professional sports team. Don't they practice together? Doesn't that practice lead them to performing better on the field?
- It can help your morale as well. We're treating people better. We're treating our citizens better.
- That leads to a better reputation within the community and also with other fire departments around us as well.
- That can in turn help get a better budget.
- We can also get a better fund drive return.
The list of positives goes on and on. Everything is better inside the firehouse among the membership and outside within our community as well.
How do we make our volunteer fire department badge, or the badge of any organization that you might happen to belong to, equate to the badge of a professional? What can you do to preserve and protect and even enhance your own and your department's reputation?
We need to teach and remind our members that being professional in a professional department has nothing to do with earning that paycheck. It has everything to do with our attitude, appearance, commitment, competency, performance, dedication, customer service, and how we run our organizations.
Here's the deal: all of these things I just mentioned are under your own personal control. You might not be able to control things like the types of calls you're going on or the number of calls. You might not be able to do much about your budget, but there are a lot of things we can control.
One of them is taking ownership in ourselves as professional firefighters and ownership in our departments to help maintain them as professional organizations. We do not use the line “I'm just a volunteer,” and use that as some type of excuse for poor performance or unethical, illegal or bad behavior, treating people badly, hazing or bullying. Ultimately, doing that cheapens the badge that we wear so proudly.
A Badge of Honor
The badge of a professional firefighter or professional first responder is definitely a badge of honor. We must encourage our members to understand, embrace and uphold that by doing the right things and acting accordingly. The professional title isn't automatically assigned when you get that badge. It must be earned and it must continue to be earned and maintained.
It can be said that it's easier to prevent unprofessional behavior than it might be to do damage control later on. Right or wrong, remember that everything we do can enhance or damage that professional reputation.
It Can Only Take One Mistake
As professionals, we need to have strong situational awareness and recognize that it's important to take steps to preserve and enhance the great reputation we enjoy today. After one mistake, chances are it's out there for everybody to see and hear about. When John or Jane the plumber get in trouble, it most likely doesn't make the news. No disrespect to those professions at all, but if John or Jane the firefighter gets in trouble, that most likely will make the news. As professionals, paid, volunteer or paid on-call, it doesn't matter. We have a duty and an obligation to the public we serve.
Our service enjoys an honorable reputation, and it's critically important that we all work together to uphold the trust that's been placed in us and maintain this reputation that we enjoy. It's important to understand that we live in a world filled with much more public scrutiny today and a wide range of public opinions and expectations.
There are a lot of things we can do in our fire service organizations to build a professional foundation and get our members to buy into the fact that they truly are professionals and have a responsibility to uphold that title. There are things that are directly under our control:
- How we recruit and process new members, so that when we get them started in their career, they understand our focus on training and how training is the basis for delivering competent service.
- How we use social media and how it can impact the department's reputation, both in a good way and a bad way.
- How we interact with the public by hosting open houses or attending community events.
- How we develop and train new officers is one of the building blocks of the professional foundation. It's important to mold officers and ensure that they understand the important contributions they make to this professional culture in the department as well.
This need to not only identify our future officers, but to properly prepare them for the important role they're going to play, is often overlooked in many organizations. We need our officers and our future officers to understand how important this role is and how they're going to have to work hard to make themselves a capable officer while developing into a strong leader.
It takes work, and it doesn't come naturally for many people. There are a lot of things that they can do ahead of time to prepare themselves for the officer's position, to help them earn a good reputation and begin gaining the trust and confidence from their fellow members in their ability to serve as an officer while developing into a leader.
Developing successful officers and leaders is of paramount importance for any organization to survive, thrive and progress into the future. Officers and leaders in any organization truly set the tone by what they do and don't do, what they say and how they say it, what they tolerate, how they act or how they look.
All of that impacts morale too. How are they talking to people? All that sets the tone for an organization and impacts the members’ attitude and work ethic.
Competent officers impact a department's reputation as well. If your treasurer isn't paying the bills, or your secretary is not corresponding correctly with people, or the paramedic line is not training people correctly, that certainly impacts the department's reputation.
Poor Leadership Can Lead to Many Things
Poor leadership can lead to:
- Uninspired workforce.
- Bad attitudes.
- Unprofessional behavior.
Just like we want our members to participate in professional development through training and exercises, to make themselves better firefighters and EMTs, we want our officers to do it as well, on both sides of the aisle: the operation side, as well as the often-forgotten-about administrative side.
Our organizations look to the officer ranks to provide the leadership that is necessary in all aspects of our department's operation, to move forward and progress and take care of their members. Yes, you need safety in the emergency scenes, that's for certain, but also take care of them in the firehouse by:
- Making sure the equipment is taken care of and operating the way it should.
- Staying on top of the latest ways of doing things.
- Training them.
- Paying the bills.
- Representing the department in a professional manner by writing correspondence that pays attention to the details, with correct spelling and grammar.
All of this is professional leadership by professional officers.
Officer Leadership Development is Important
Leadership is a topic that's getting a lot of attention lately. There is no shortage of material out there. There are books and videos, webinars, and podcasts, by military leaders, political leaders, business leaders, and obviously fire service leaders as well. There is a real need for this training, especially in emergency services. As a matter of fact, studies and white paper reports continue to highlight the need for this type of training in our emergency services.
Why is that? Why are we failing to produce and prepare good leaders in emergency services? Often it's because we spend so much time training to be a great firefighter or a great EMT, and there's no time left. Or we're not making the time because we're not investing in ourselves. We probably don't even think of leadership as being in the fire service training spectrum, but it certainly is.
We rarely think about it until we turn around at that work detail or that emergency call, and there is no one there with us. We have an uninspired workforce. We need to work to understand our people, to motivate them and inspire them, because as true professionals committed to our craft as firefighters, and now fire officers, we must realize the importance of doing that.
Self-Reflection is Key
The first lesson to embrace as a future officer: if things aren't working out and you appear to be having an uninspired or disgruntled group of people under you, what’s the first thing you have to learn to do? Look in the mirror. If your people aren't performing well or doing what you want them to do, look in the mirror first. How can we change for the better? Take a look in that mirror, and do it ahead of time, even before seeking the office you desire.
Do a little self-reflection, and learn to get out of your own way. Size yourself up first, and do this even before stepping foot into an officer's position. We're so good at sizing things up, aren't we? We size up fires and motor vehicle accidents, and we certainly size up other people. We often find it hard to be honest with ourselves and admit what we don't know or what we can do to be a better firefighter. The best way to improve the team, sometimes, is to improve ourselves first.
That requires us to be humble, to admit what we don't know, and to learn to understand how we can improve. That requires us to ditch the ego. One of my favorite fire chiefs, Chief Rick Lasky, has a great line: “Egos eat brains.” Ego will kill any natural talent that you have. Ditching the ego is in every leadership book that's out there. It's important for you to recognize just how much an inflated ego can harm an organization and your own reputation.
Natural Talent and Competence is Not Enough
Natural talent is never enough, and being a successful officer means much more than being confident. I'm not downplaying the importance of competence by any means, but we often think, because we're good at being an EMT or paramedic or firefighter, we automatically are going to make a good officer.
That's not the case at all. We often get into office, and much more is thrown at us. We're dealing with other stuff, maybe personal issues because members love to bring problems to their leaders. General Colin Powell said it best when he said, “The day the soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them.”
But what really prepares us for that? “I thought I would just be leading firefighters down a dark, small, smoky hallway,” you're thinking, “or making decisions about the next ambulance we're going to buy.” Now all of a sudden you're appointed to an officer's position, and people are knocking on your door saying, “Hey, I need to talk to you. I'm getting divorced,” or “I'm an alcoholic,” or “Joe called me a nasty name.”
How do we handle that? We handle it through professional development. Part of that is understanding that being a successful officer is so much more than wearing a cool helmet or getting a cool car or pounding the gavel at the company meeting.
Learning Never Stops
The skills and traits that got you elected or appointed as an officer are definitely not the skills and traits that will make you successful or sustain you as an officer. They don't come automatically with the appointment or the election, either. Pretty much every leadership book covers a lot of the same points, and there are some common themes.
People ask, “Why do we need more books, why do we need more training?” It's because people aren't listening. They're not learning and working to make themselves better. Partly it's because they're so busy running calls and training on other things, but we need to invest in ourselves as officers and strive to get better.
This is so important on the volunteer side as well. We need to have our people want to be at the firehouse. In most cases, we don't have assigned shifts, and we’re asking for our people's most precious commodity: time. They will not come around if they're not treated well or we’re not making the most of their time. We want to encourage them and make them want to go to that call. We want to them to come to the firehouse for that work detail. We need to learn how to motivate and inspire our people.
This can be learned and it can be practiced, and it certainly can be part of your own professional development. There are a lot of things you can do. Start by understanding the importance of it. Start by reading some of the great leadership books that are out there. Leaders are readers, there's no doubt about it. Make yourself better with professional development and investing in yourself. Learn to understand people and how to motivate and inspire. Those people coming into your organization come from different backgrounds and learning curves and education levels.
By learning to become a better leader and a more functional officer, another side benefit is you're going to be better off in the game of life, too. There are lifelong leadership lessons that you can apply no matter where you go in life, whatever else you do. They can help at home, they can help in your place of employment if you're a volunteer firefighter, and they can help in any other organization. There are some common, universal lessons that can go along with you and benefit you through your fire service journey and through your life's journey as well.
Start Your Officer Training Early
You'll become a better leader in everything you do, and it's never too late to start. Start ahead of time, too. There's no on-off switch, and “I'll start once I'm elected and flick that switch.” Throw the switch on early, keep it on, and start working on the skills and traits of a good officer even before becoming one. Throw that switch on now, and start building your reputation to showcase that you would make a good officer, worthy of that appointment or election. Do it ahead of time so you don't have to promise to throw the switch on the day you're elected.
I heard an expression once about “microwave leadership.” We live in such an instant society in which some believe their leadership traits and officer skills can be turned on and everything happens in an instant. I like to think of it more like “crockpot leadership” and “crockpot officer development.” It takes time, but it pays off. In the same way, your reputation develops daily. It can't be microwaved; you can't nuke your reputation. It forms over time.
Become Aware of Your Reputation
Officer, build your resume. Start now. While you're building it, be aware of your reputation. Understand that your actions and your choices truly show who you are, much more than your abilities. Remember, natural talent is never enough to achieve that good reputation you want as an officer.
Set a high standard for yourself:
- Are you engaged and into the work? Do you love coming into the firehouse and doing what's necessary? Are you a positive person? We all love to complain, but nobody likes when the officers and leaders are complaining. Do you contribute, or do you sneak in and sneak out of your firehouse? Are you a points dealer that gets your points and credit for calls and details without really doing anything?
- Do you strive to make yourself a better firefighter and train and work hard, or do you blow off training drills and downplay the importance of it?
- Do you uphold the great customs and traditions of your department and respect those around you and the senior members?
- Are you a good person? Nobody likes to think of themselves as the department jerk, but here is where that self-analysis comes in, where looking in the mirror pays dividends.
- Learn to be a good follower. To be a leader, you must first work on being a good follower. As you progress up the ranks, how would you expect people to follow your directives if you didn't do it when you were a younger firefighter? If you can't obey commands and directives, how can you expect others to do the same?
- Don't be lazy. I read a great expression once: “Laziness breeds doubt.” If you want people to have doubt your abilities and how you would serve as a leader and as an officer, be lazy. That will hurt you in the future.
Take the Initiative
Take on a project and plan an event. Be a self-starter and recognize when something needs to be done, and do it. Take some initiative in your organization.
I remember, as a young firefighter, I had a strong passion for history. Our history wasn't recorded properly, so I took the initiative to sit down with senior members, start recording the memories of the early days, taking our photos out of drawers, and identifying who was in them and framing them. I took steps on my own. Nobody asked me to do it, to preserve our history.
Be known as a contributor. Be known for something in your firehouse. That's a great opportunity to highlight the abilities that you have that would make you a good officer. You can showcase your competence.
Pay attention to the details and see things through in a calm, organized manner. Demonstrate your calm when planning events and when things maybe don't go according to plan. Then when you do decide to throw your hat in the ring to become an officer, make sure you let people know you're doing it for the right reasons and that you do desire to earn that title you're going to be carrying. You're not doing it for a helmet or a radio or the chief's car or a convention trip. Let people know you're not doing it out of spite for someone. You're doing it because you have a strong desire to help your organization, to keep the good reputation it has, maybe even to improve its reputation. You truly desire to work hard, move your department forward, and work to improve yourself at the same time as a leader. You're doing it to help take care of your people.
Remember: It’s Always About Them, Not You
Here's a hint for you: if you don't like people, don't become an officer. Remember, it's about them and not you, always.
At the same time, remember that as an officer, you will be watched and you will be judged on what you say, how you say it, how you act, how you dress, how you handle yourself on scene, or how you handle yourself at that business meeting. Everything you do is open to judgment. Understand and accept that. You probably did it yourself before becoming an officer.
When you do decide to become an officer, please remember that you must accept the responsibility that comes with that title you now wear. One of my favorite quotes is: “Success on any major scale requires you to accept responsibility. In the final analysis, the one quality that all successful people have is the ability to take on responsibility.” If you're willing to do that and embrace these other things we've been talking about, hopefully now you've enhanced your reputation and you now can get appointed or elected into an officer's position.
You’ve Been Promoted. Now What?
I like to call it a “promotion.” I've been saying “elected” or “appointed,” but it truly is a promotion and something of which you should be darn proud. Whether it’s on the career, volunteer, operations or administrative side, it doesn't matter. Being an officer is a big deal. It should be considered a promotion.
Here is where we get in trouble: now what? Unless your organization has an academy that they can send you to, or a really good officer development program, it's usually “Here's your new badge. You're now in charge of ambulance aid or Engine 256,” or “You’ve got to put a budget together for next year since you're the new treasurer,” or “Start ordering new bandages, oh, and we need to drill next week.” There's nothing really that prepares us for that. There are things senior leaders and senior officers can do to help, but that's a topic for another day.
Earn the Respect of Your Members
There are things you can do as a new officer to get off on the right foot, to help generate a good reputation for yourself as an officer.
Recognize and understand that your strengths are now exposed to a much larger group, which is great. They’re going to be out there for everyone to see. You're running drills. You're running meetings. You're reading minutes. You're reading letters you might have written. You're dealing with your members on a different level, as I mentioned earlier. If you're doing a great job, your strengths are there on a bigger scale for everyone to see. So are your weaknesses, and they’re all out there.
Remain humble. Be honest with yourself. Work to get better, and work to earn the respect of your members. You might have the title, which gives you the rank, but you need to earn the respect of the members. It takes some time, and it takes some work.
We can't just tug our collar and say, “I'm a lieutenant now,” “I'm the president,” or “I'm the chief,” and expect to earn that respect that we need from our members. If we have the respect, then they will follow you. Earn your members' respect.
How do you do it? Start by getting to know your areas of responsibility and doing the job required of you. Understand that, as an officer, there will be jobs to do, the jobs that you are responsible for.
Some jobs come with the title; the treasurer pays the bills, for example. Other jobs might be delegated to you, like “Hey, new lieutenant, you're in charge of fire prevention tours,” or “Hey, member of the board of directors, you're in charge of ordering paper plates.” All the jobs are important. They might not all appear to be glamorous, but all of them are important to the overall success of your department.
Consistency, Timeliness and Efficiency
This is my little spiel that I use to pass on to my new officers on the volunteer side:
“By volunteering to be an officer, you are saying that you want to do more. You want to be responsible. You want to lead people. You want to train. You want to get things done and take on projects. You commit to being visible in the firehouse.
“I understand that work and family come first, but by volunteering for the officer's spot, it means you are making the commitment to finding the time for what you are responsible for. It does not mean that something delegated has to be done that day, or maybe not even that week, but it needs to be done. And, it certainly means that regular assigned jobs are done in a consistent, timely and efficient manner.”
There are a lot of important traits that are highlighted there that the new officer should focus on, that help them gain credibility and enhance their reputation. Be responsible for not just the people depending on you to do your job, but for any assignments you're expected to complete. You're going to train, never stop training, and be excited to train. You're going to be visible because nobody likes it when the officers aren't around.
I'd like to focus on three other things because these three can impact your reputation as an officer and can get you started out on a positive note. Those three things are the three key words: consistent, timely and efficient.
Consistent means regularly assigned jobs are completed as required, time and time again. Oftentimes new officers start off like gangbusters. They're excited to do the air pack checks or the apparatus checks the first time, the second time and maybe the third time, but it soon grows tiresome. They get bored, and they start taking shortcuts. Then maybe the weekly check becomes a monthly check, or the monthly check becomes every two or three months.
As an officer, you need to realize the importance of a consistent effort. The jobs expected of you need to be done in a consistent manner. Bills need to be paid, minutes need to be taken and equipment needs to be checked.
This needs to be done whether the jobs are cool or not or whether you like them or not. You can't decide you don't like paying the department bills and then take a few months to pay a vendor. It'll damage your reputation. You can't decide that you don't like arranging community tours if that's one of the jobs you're in charge of, and all of a sudden you stop calling people back who left a message. A consistent effort is an expectation of the professional officer.
Timely means you get things done in a timely manner, because some of the jobs have timelines. Monthly bills, for example, need to be paid monthly. Minutes need to be compiled monthly for your department meetings. Equipment needs to be checked on a regular basis.
Timely is being aware that there are timelines. It's not doing the job only when you simply feel like it. You know it has a timeframe.
Yes, your family comes first, and your paid job probably comes first as well if you're a volunteer firefighter, but jobs at the firehouse need to be done in a timely manner. It's something that you need to be aware of, and you need to work time management into your day. Good time management is an expectation of a professional officer.
Efficient means you're doing the job thoroughly. A reputable officer pays attention to the details and doesn't take shortcuts. They complete tasks with the required paperwork being done accurately and equipment being checked completely.
We don't want to miss an empty albuterol case the next time there's an asthma call. We don't want our SCBA only being half-filled. We need to pay attention to the detail. Completing assignments efficiently, ensuring all work is done with attention to detail, is an expectation of a professional officer.
Excellence in Every Area
It's important to recognize, as an officer, the fun stuff – maybe the firefighting side of things – comes with other, more mundane tasks like record keeping, paperwork and small tasks. Those are equally important to the overall success of the organization.
General Colin Powell said it best: “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters.” Our profession demands excellence, and excellence is nothing more than a consistent string of small actions done properly. This applies the same whether you're leading a crew down a dark, smoke-filled hallway, as it does for the weekly SCBA checks.
Herein lies a great thing. You can do these little things – maybe it's a little thing like making sure the clipboard in your rescue squad is stocked with EMS reports – but you can do these little jobs far more often in most cases than at the big fire or showcasing your skills at the big emergency scene. You can also do these on the administrative side at the big contentious company business meeting where you're leading the vote on the new bylaw that's been talked about for years.
I'm not downplaying the importance of knowing what you're doing at a fire or at the emergency scene or at the company meeting in any way, but these little jobs that might not be viewed in a glamorous light are not only important – obviously to your organization – but they showcase your competence and your commitment to the rank.
I call it quiet professionalism. In addition to how you conduct yourself in the firehouse and your performance on the fire ground, nothing speaks louder for an officer's reputation than efficiently doing the jobs they are responsible for, doing things in a timely and efficient manner, and remaining committed to getting the job done, all while maintaining a positive attitude, time and time again. That's how you start off gaining the respect of your peers and start gaining a good reputation as a successful and professional fire officer.
Quiet professionalism is exhibited by professional fire officers and professional firefighters serving in a professional fire department, arrived at through good professional development. That allows us to wear the badge of a professional firefighter with pride.
There is much to be proud of in our great fire service and in your own particular department as well. They share our rich history and incredible heritage of service and sacrifice, and they enjoy the public's adoration and trust, the bonds of which should never be broken. All of us should endeavor to contribute to the continued success in selfless sacrifice that has been the hallmark of our American fire service for nearly 300 years now.
Love what you do. There are many reasons you should love this fantastic fire service and your own fire department. Have a passion for the work that you do as a firefighter, as a fire officer; show enthusiasm because it trickles down to the members. Be a passionate, proud, professional firefighter.
Questions and Answers
Thank you for listening, everybody. I'd like to thank Columbia Southern University for offering me this opportunity. I appreciate it, and I'm open to any questions that you might have.
Q: How much time should a department dedicate to professional development per week? Should there be any incentive for participating?
A: I would hope that whatever organization you join, you want to be the best you can be and be a contributing member. The incentive is you're volunteering or serving in a service that can kill you. Honestly, it can kill you, so why wouldn't you want to do everything in your power to be the best firefighter you possibly could be and train and work hard?
As far as time, I prefer to focus on it being done on a regular basis more than any time period. When a member first joins, they need to understand the role that they're going to play in their department and how their actions impact the department's reputation and how they're part of this great fire service. That can be a part of any orientation process that new recruits are given. Some companies do special training drills for new members, some do orientation programs. Veteran members should also be reminded from time to time, and we work that into our regular training drills.
Sometimes we discuss examples of things that have been professionally done or that are examples of unprofessional behavior. As professional firefighters, we don't troll, we don’t beat up other firefighters and other departments when they're having a bad day. We learn from it and we discuss it internally. We can talk about what our department would have done in those situations. We don't go on social media to criticize and mock others because that's anything but professional, and it goes against the brotherhood and the sisterhood that we celebrate in our fire service.
Q: Is there any way to break down the barriers between members in a combination department?
A: This is an issue that I hear about quite a bit as I travel around and do seminars and even talk in my local area where there are combination departments. That's a tough one, and the successful departments that have achieved a good working relationship between paid and volunteer members all have the same answer.
It’s all down to mutual respect. That starts with leadership from the top, making people aware that if you're the paid department side, you need to respect the volunteers. If you're on the volunteer department side, you need to respect the paid. You need to work harmoniously together. It's not always easy, but it can be done. There are a lot of successful departments out there that are doing a combination department.
Training together is huge. The volunteers often have a stigma associated with them because if they're volunteer then they don't train. They need to prove that's not wrong and show up for training. They need to train together with the paid firefighters.
The paid firefighters need to work together with the volunteers and ditch any egos there might be because they are getting a paycheck. They need to understand that these volunteers were working all day at their eight, nine or ten-hour day job or night job. They were coaching their kids' Little League games, and now they're running to the firehouse to work and train with these paid firefighters. Let's cut them a little slack and help them become a better firefighter.
It's strong leadership, on both sides of the aisle, administrative and fire medics. It also gets down to the individual firefighters treating each other with respect. Mutual respect goes a long way toward breaking down barriers between the members of the department.
Q: Who managed professional development in your fire department?
A: If I look back to my early days, it was the senior members and the chiefs who watched over us and trained us. Do you know what else they did? They pulled us aside to talk to us about what the expectations were for us, the behaviors we were to exhibit. They laid everything out.
I remember once when an announcement went out to our department about a former, elderly member who passed away. It was someone I didn't know because he wasn't an active member at the time he passed away. One of our senior members pulled me aside and told me the department was going to pay their respect. When I saw the message about going to a wake, I thought, “Well, I'm not going to go, I didn't know this former member.” The senior member explained to me that, “We go as a department. We pay our respect because he was an active member and is due that honor.”
I went, and I was completely touched by the reaction from the family. They were so appreciative that we were there. They said they knew their father wasn't an active member for many years, but he still talked fondly of his time in the department. It made quite an impact on me, so I make sure I do that now with our members when a detail like that comes up.
For professional development, senior members play a huge part. Officers, if they've been managed correctly, they learn to pass it on.
Q: What do you do when the chief decides to promote someone outside of the election process, which requires a membership vote in the general membership, if the vote actually happened? Would you not agree with promoting this person?
A: That's a tough one. I would ask “Are there bylaws that need to be abided by and followed?” A lot of departments have an election process – the dreaded volunteer fire department election – and there is good and bad with that. I would say work to have your bylaws prohibit something like that.
If you're going to do a true election process, there normally should be minimum standards that a member running for office has to meet before they can even put their name into the ring. Then it's up to the membership to vote for who they feel is most qualified.
If there's an appointment process – some departments appoint their officers – the company should also put minimum qualifications together for that as well before someone can be appointed to that position. They should have to meet minimum criteria to even be considered for that.
Then, if there's none of that, and the chief just picks who they wants to pick, I don't have an answer for that other than try to improve yourself as a firefighter. Continue to work harmoniously with the others, and try and go forth the next time. That's one of the tough things about the volunteer fire service, if there are no minimum standards put into the rules, regulations and bylaws.
Q: Do you recommend any external training programs with little to no cost for volunteer participants?
A: There's no shortage of material out there to make yourself a better firefighter, both technically proficient and personally proficient as well. Subscribe to trade publications like Firehouse, Fire Engineering and a ton of others online. Trade publications might not be free, but they're inexpensive today. My department buys them for our officers, and we buy an extra copy or two that we leave in our club room for them to read, but there's also so much online.
There are a lot of great podcasts out there, like the Fire Engineering Podcast on BlogTalkRadio. I do one called “The Professional Volunteer Fire Department” every six to eight weeks. Anything you like in emergency services is available on Fire Engineering on BlogTalkRadio. There are a lot of other firefighting, EMS and emergency service podcasts out there.
The National Volunteer Fire Council is a great resource. They have webinars and trainings. They have a lot of free information that you can take advantage of.
The other thing I'd like to say, take advantage of any training seminars that come out your way. I’m 56 years old, and I’ve noticed a big change in the last 10 years where not as many of the newer firefighters and emergency service providers are going to training seminars and networking with their peers. I can't emphasize enough just how important it is to train and network with your peers at training seminars, conventions and conferences, if you can do it. A lot of times they're free and sponsored by chief organizations, and they bring people into your area. Take advantage of that. That is some of the best learning that you will ever be able to do. You will learn so much and you will network with so many great firefighters that are out there.
I really appreciate this time to speak with you regarding professionalism, and I look forward to doing some more work for Columbia Southern University. If anybody wants to reach out to me, feel free. My email is TAMerrill63@aol.com, or I have a page, The Professional Volunteer Fire Department, on Facebook.
I look forward to hearing from you, and look forward to hearing any other concerns or suggestions you have. Or you can tell me about the great professional things you're doing in your department. Thank you very much.
CSU is the leader in fire education, offering programs recognized by Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education through the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Academy. CSU offers an associate degree in fire science and a bachelor’s degree in fire administration.