What's Working Somewhere: The Carver Fire Department

Deborah Parker reviews why the Carver, MA, Fire Department is able to recruit and retain its call members.


A Massachusetts Call Department Is Turning Away Applicants. What's Going On? Fire Chief Craig Weston needs five more firefighters to meet his personnel requirements in Carver, MA. The chief's biggest problem, however, is that he needs only five more call firefighters right now -- and 23 men and...


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The investment is both psychological and financial. At the end of the first year, the town has invested approximately $2,000 in testing and training each of these firefighters and another $3,200 in equipping them with state-of-the art protective gear. The firefighters know this. They're proud of themselves, and they're proud that they can perform any required role, at any scene, from driver/pump operator to manning the nozzle. In fact, once assigned to a station, the quarter-mile around each firefighter's residence is his or her personal "first-due" area. Any call happens there and the member responds directly to the scene, assumes command, begins size-up and advises the incoming apparatus.

Lieutenant Alan Dunham says a teddy bear is what comes to mind when he thinks about why he loves his job and has such a deep sense of loyalty toward his officers.

"During overhaul at a residential fire late one night -- the family had lost everything, it was awful, they were just watching us from up the street -- the chief came up to me and asked me to search the house and see if I could find a favorite stuffed animal that belonged to the family's little girl," Dunham recalled. "The chief described it to me and, sure enough, I was able to find it in the front bedroom, a little smoky, but otherwise in very good shape. I brought it out and handed it to him. He handed it back to me, and asked me if I'd mind delivering it. As I walked up to where the family was sitting, I could see the little girl crying. I called out, 'I think I found something that may belong to you,' and I held out the bear. The biggest smile came to her face! She ran up to get it, and then gave me a huge hug. Everybody kept thanking me over and over. All I could do was tell them it was my pleasure, and turn back to the scene with tears in my eyes. Here this family had lost almost everything, but they were thanking me? Just for being able to bring their daughter's toy back to her? I'll never forget that night, and I'll never forget the chief could easily have brought that bear back to that little girl. But he wanted me to do it, he wanted me to get the hug, get the thanks, to see that what I'd done had mattered. That's the night I received the biggest 'pay' I ever got on the job."

Sharing Their Secrets

Visit the Carver Fire Department to learn its secrets. Here are just a few:

  • It may be "in the genes." OK, not really, but "fire service families" in the Carver Fire Department are rampant, as they are elsewhere. The non-related members seem to have been born "Mighty Mouse" types who sort of wish they'd had firefighter families -- and have been lucky enough to find a fire department ready and waiting to pull them in. Firefighters in Carver report that when they have to leave the department for one reason or another -- military service, employment transfers or family obligations -- they always feel a little bit homeless. The firefighters, officers and dispatchers of Carver find home there.
  • Universal standards. Say you're an experienced fire service captain or dispatch pro who has just moved to Carver and want to join the department. Chances are they'll welcome you (if you pass all the interviews and tests, that is.) Upon acceptance, however, you'll be assigned to the 90-hour FF1-FF2 class, just like everyone else. The class is required of all members, so everyone knows "how things get done" and "how people get treated" at Carver. Everyone.
  • Collegiality by design. FF1-FF2 is also where collegiality among the new members begins to be nurtured, with forethought and care. The chair you sit in, and your role in every practical skills team, is assigned -- and instructors switch the seatmates and teammates every week. Everybody must get to know everybody, by name and by nature. The officers from the different stations each take part in teaching several sessions of each recruit class too, so all the officers and all the recruits also get to know each other well.
  • Officers (truly) functioning as a team. No firefighter, no station, no town official nor any member of the public can pit Mom and Dad against each other at Carver. Any issue that is not truly personal/confidential, brought to the attention of any one of the top three officers, automatically gets cc'd to the other two. All input is shared. All major decisions are hashed out together.
  • The truth is told here. Firefighters in Carver report they get the absolute truth, and support in dealing with it, from their officers. Officers tell the truth about what they know or don't know. About what really happened and what may happen next. If a firefighter needs to hear it, he or she will get told the truth of how they are perceived, both good and bad, and how they might improve. The officers are committed to telling the truth, to each other, and to the department, and to do so in a way that the recipient still and always knows that he or she is so, so, so valued, by them all. And the members of Carver Fire Department seem to know that that is true.