Volunteer Leadership: Mission First, People Always

My career in the fire service started comparatively late (at age 28) while also being a seven-year veteran of the U.S. Army. My first impressions of the volunteer fire service started in Germany as a member of the Freiwillige Feuerwehr (Volunteer Fire...


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A firematic example would be as simple as the first-arriving engine company responding to a dwelling fire receives the command, “Engine 249, take a line to the second floor, get a ‘knock’ on the fire.” This simple command has a task (take a line to the second floor), condition (given a structure fire at whatever time of day, a Class A pumper with a full crew and an adequate water supply; the implied task here is that they are resourced for the mission at hand) and standard (find the seat of the fire with an implied task of getting it done now). What is more difficult, especially to the new company officer, is in situations other than those governed by SOGs.

Fire Service Themes

• Be specific about your expectations – Frequently in the volunteer fire service, there are a multitude of scenarios that happen, often without SOGs. One of these tasks might be as simple as setting up for a community day. An officer is usually in charge of things like this, as the “community events guy.” On days such as this, he’s probably a very busy person, so he gives some guidance in between meetings that usually happen at exactly the same time as things need to be set up, and his guidance is usually “do it like we’ve always done it.”

The problem is that many in his team have been in the organization for less than a year, and he comes back to less-than-optimal results. He didn’t happen to mention to the team that the first-due engine would be placed out of service in order to make a static display with all equipment out of the compartments and the compartments open and that the second-due engine needed to have its thermal imaging camera and the rapid intervention team (RIT) bag transferred. In short, a great “plan” turns into a debacle.

In the Army, I frequently heard my company commanders or junior staff officers rage about how the units “just don’t get it.” They were very specific (to other members of the staff) about how the operation would run, but the response and results were lackluster at best at the company level. I would always ask the young officer, “What did you ask them to do, specifically?” The usual answer would be, “Well, they know what I mean” or “You know, like we did it last year.”

The simple failure to provide intent and a definitive task/condition/standard led to mission failure. From the volunteer fire service perspective, the team may not feel like a team, and depending on human factors (lack of trust or pride), may even seek free agency with another department. Bottom line, be specific about your expectations and monitor their progress.

• The one-third/two-thirds rule – Some may think this is a complex math problem from hydraulics, but it actually boils down to one thing: respect for time, and in a volunteer fire organization, everything is about time. Basically, if you have three hours to get a mission accomplished, the supervisor should take no more than one hour, one-third of the time available, and then allow those under their command two hours to complete a task. Obviously, for a bread-and-butter house fire (which usually takes about three hours until the hoses are rolled up) the incident commander would not take a full hour to get a plan together; however, in other circumstances, an hour of planning may be required.

• Respect their time – Another example of recurring jobs that volunteer fire companies do is prepare for events, such as a banquet. There is usually one person “in charge,” and unfortunately once the manpower arrives to accomplish the detail (as is always a dimension in the volunteer fire service), the planner should have no more than one hour to accomplish developing the plan and allow two hours for the unit to set up the hall. But here is where another leader teaching point occurs. That hour that was for planning must occur prior to the arrival of the manpower. In the Army we call that “leader time,” meaning the time that you as a leader need in order to properly plan before you go in front of the troops so the plan is solid and their time is not wasted. As a volunteer organization, waste people’s time with regularity and it will be hard to get them to come back. Respect their time and have a plan.

When you assume the role of a leader, the challenge is that, even if you have all of your fire and officer series certifications, it still does not teach you the things that are critical in leader development, including compassion, maturity and, most importantly, common sense. The military, like the volunteer fire service, is more of a calling than a career. The lifelong learning that accompanies our chosen calling makes it all the more satisfying for those we serve to protect, and for those we continue to develop to one day take our place.