Based upon some recent discussions in the "fire" world, here are a few thoughts regarding volunteer FD's, one that is appropriately, near and dear to so many firefighters and their communities.
In so many areas of the USA, sadly, it seems that volunteer fire companies are giving up. In some areas that may be what is best for the community. After all, there are probably a few dysfunctional volunteer fire companies out there. How would a volunteer fire company "know" that it is dysfunctional? Well, believe it or not, one CLUE might be if that fire company is having predictable and historic trouble providing good emergency service!
Yeah. I know to some of you it seems strange, but there are some fire companies that see no problem with not being able to get a crew of trained firefighters on the road for a call in a few minutes. Tones go off, and off, and off, and yet sometimes the response is nonexistent. Sadly, many fire companies have FORGOTTEN what they were formed for and why they exist. Other clues that a fire company might be dysfunctional are little to no training, and little to no participation in that training and other fire company details. Actually, let's take a look at this from another style of writing.
YOU MIGHT BE A DYSFUNCTIONAL FIRE COMPANY IF...
- There is little to no training for ALL responding members, including officers.
- There is poor or no rapid turnout for a fire or rescue calls. What is a good turnout or a fast turnout? Well, put yourself or a loved one in the position of the person who just dialed 9-1-1 for your FD. How fast do you want trained and qualified help to arrive?
- Safety is a low priority as seen at the firehouse and on the scene.
- 25 percent of your members do 80 percent of the work.
- Written and enforced operating procedures are few and far between.
- The members responding on calls are unable to physically function at calls.
- You have to call members at home and "begg'm" to come down in order to get a quorum for a meeting.
- You have a social event and few members show up.
- Your neighboring fire companies don't invite you to their calls.
- The leadership feels fundraising is more important than training.
- Members are subjectively disciplined for silly nonsense type stuff but when someone really screws up, nothing happens.
- Officers aren't courageous enough to do their jobs by leading, without worrying about who likes them.
- Members aren't interested enough to do their jobs by participating.
- Screaming at a scene (or in the firehouse) is not from the victim, but from a fire officer.
- A clique or a dictatorial "family" gene pool dictates how your fire company operates.
- Voting is controlled by members who never respond to calls or participate actively.
- Being drunk and responding isn't really worth worrying about.
- There is no "formal" and lead attempt to maintain positive relations with career personnel (and vice-versa).
- Elections are personality based vs. qualification based.
- E.M.S. to some stands for "Eat More Snacks" and getting trained EMS on the road quickly is an organizational afterthought.
- The last statement you ever hear at your firehouse is "let's do what's best for the community."
- Gossip is the best way to find out what's going on in your fire company.
So what is the answer for becoming or maintaining a FUNCTIONAL VOLUNTEER FIRE COMPANY?
Well, it starts both at the TOP and at the BOTTOM. The members first must decide if they truly want to keep existing. How do you do that? ASK THEM! Sometimes you may be better off shutting down or coming up with a more effective means of providing service than to keep "pretending" to be a fire company. I mean, if members just don't care and are not participating, why exist? Don't give me that "tradition" and "pride" stuff cause it isn't there....otherwise they would be there! On the other hand, let's assume the members and leaders DO want to keep the fire company alive and well. Where do you go from there?
One great way to "set the new tone" for your fire company is to have an outside "friend of your fire company" come in and facilitate a PLANNING SESSION. Maybe even someone from far away who doesn't know who the players are, and therefore can think with a clear and non-prejudiced mind. After all, you will need a "road map" for this new trip and someone needs to be good at helping get that done. In that session, members (with ground rules) can identify what they want to do and what the future holds for THE COMMUNITY THEY PROTECT. Remember, THAT is why your fire company exists.
What may be some of the issues that are creating problems and stress in your fire company? These may be a few.
In some cases, the members of your fire company may need to look at the big picture of what is BEST for the community such as merging small volunteer companies into larger volunteer companies. Have you ever visited some communities where there are more fire companies than fire hydrants in the town? I know, not in your area, but "somewhere else" that might be a problem. Of course, there are many areas where having numerous fire companies is working just fine but in others, the waste is obvious. Perhaps a merger that recognizes and honors the past but focuses on the future is the best way to go. Generally, change isn't easy but what is BEST for the community is the goal, and if that can be accomplished with a focus on what is good for the members as well, then you have a success.
Are bigger and related type fire company mergers always better? Of course not. Each community is different. But if the membership numbers and related staffing in three or four fire companies, for example, protecting the same area is an ongoing problem, the members probably need to look at some possible solutions in a merger.
Of course, merging of the fire companies may not be the answer. Maybe the answer is segregation of services. For example, in a community maybe two of the fire companies become ENGINE EXPERTS, another fire company becomes THE RESCUE Company and the other becomes THE TRUCK. Everyone still has some independence but the focus is not on "everyone doing everything," which we know does not work. The narrowing of focus by a specific fire company may be a great way to pave the future and actually simplify areas such as training, funding and coordination.
And about EMS. In some VFD's, EMS is literally "killen'n em" and the citizens too! While it is commendable that a VFD wants to provide EMS, it really MUST if that's the plan. Otherwise it may be time to look at alternative means of providing the service. Look at it from the standpoint of it being YOU who needs EMS. Can you count on your fire company to arrive fast 24/7 when you are having trouble breathing? If not it's time to re-evaluate what's best for those who dial 911.
Local and State Governments need to help FUND volunteer fire companies so they don't have to spend precious time raising funds and worrying about dollars. As we have asked before, when was the last time you saw the COPS raising funds? How about the road department employees? Yeah, that's what I thought. Local communities need to be able to form FIRE TAX DISTRICTS and allow those in the community to pay a fair fee for the services they decide upon. It is enough to ask people to provide volunteer services; it is a joke that those same folks have to raise the funds in order to do it. Some will say "our fundraisers are moral builders" and that may be true, in some few and rare areas. But in most fire companies, it can be a major morale buster.
..And while we are on the subject of funding..
State and local elected officials also need to understand that until (volunteer AND career) fire companies have the equipment, staffing, training and leadership to safely and successfully handle a grocery store fire, a house fire, an apartment fire, a barn fire or a serious auto accident, WE PROBABLY CANNOT HANDLE A WMD OR A TERRORIST EVENT. So instead of providing funding so every cop has a hazmat suit, every FD has a decon trailer and every fire officer can learn how to identify white powder, maybe they could divert those funds so we can handle the BASIC stuff first. Are WMD's and Terrorism a problem? ABSOLUTELY. But there is NO WAY ON EARTH any FD will be able to handle that until they can handle the more predictable events. Whoever told you that we are the "we can handle every emergency department" was wrong. We need basic funding to handle the basic runs. Why do we need the funding? Quite honestly, it is an inappropriate challenge to get today's volunteer members motivated to raise funds while also expecting them to be properly trained and prepared to provide fire and rescue services.
And finally on funding for FD's: VFD's need to understand that when a fire company accepts fundraising dollars it is not much different than accepting tax dollars. So many fire companies worry that they will have to be very careful if they accept tax dollars. Well of course ya do! What were you doing with the FUNDRAISING dollars? If you collect taxes or raise funds for your fire company it is still a moral "contract" with the public that the money you take from them will be used to benefit the services you provide them. So don't be so afraid of tax dollars. It isn't any different than a fund drive except that there is more paperwork! Consider the time it takes your members to raise funds and work toward better utilizing their time.
APPLICABLE TRAINING STANDARDS and Accessible TRAINING.
There is no question that every person riding a fire engine needs basic training to properly and professionally do their job. No one should be functioning without NFPA level firefighter training. No officer should be leading without officer training school and no incident commander should be incident commanding without INCIDENT Command Training. But how far does the training need to go?
There is no simple response. It depends on the level of service that is required to protect the community while protecting firefighters from getting ourselves hurt or worse. Some communities protect a rural area, so rural training is required. Some communities protect high rise building, so high rise training is required and some communities protect factories, so industrial and large area structural firefighting is required. The training should match the risks that we have to protect. Once the risks are determined, the training needs to be accessible and to the point. No, the training shouldn't be "skimped" on but should keep in mind that volunteers will commit time as long as it is not wasted. Make sure fire training includes MODERN AV equipment, well written books that address issues at all levels and Internet access so your firefighters can study without hassles and most critically, make sure the INSTRUCTOR is an EXPERT on the subject. In other words, the training of volunteer firefighters has to be no cost, applicable and hassle-free. Otherwise you can do or build whatever you want, they will not come.
INTERNAL FIREHOUSE B.S.
For sure, many of the above issues as well as many national influences create challenges for the volunteer fire service, but one of the biggest killers of volunteer fire companies is the internal "BS" issues we have within fire companies. Simply put, if a member doesn't feel welcome and enjoy being in your fire company, they will stop coming down. Sometimes it's just that simple. Take a real close look and ask the questions. Quite often members just decide "it isn't worth it" due to officers that don't know how to treat their members, or fire company rules so antiquated that Ben Franklin wouldn't like them. To truly make members feel welcomed and valued, the leadership must remember that the members are their "customers" who must be taken care of. Now, I am NOT saying fire companies shouldn't have applicable discipline, rules, regulations and fair enforcement. Not at all. In some cases that is exactly what IS needed to make a FUNCTIONAL fire company out of a dysfunctional fire company! On the other hand, a few psychos on a power trip running a VFD will drive members out, quickly.
What is being done for all the members of your fire company? What incentive do they have to be there? In some towns the incentive is to work in a well-respected fire company that is well-led and well-trained. In some towns it's that plus a cool new jacket each year. In others, it's a retirement program or a great insurance plan. And in one fire company I know of, along with all that, the soda and snack machines are free. Sound like a big deal? Sometimes it's the little stuff that matters.
Simply put, if "it sucks to go down to the firehouse" it's time to find out why. Keep in mind that volunteer fire companies ONLY WORK if members WANT to come down to the firehouse! This is simple stuff.
It's also not all about the leadership and officers. Firefighters, you joined to serve, so don't try to totally "customize" your fire company to meet YOUR personal needs. Respond quickly and safely every time the tones go off and participate in training regularly, and remember "Ask NOT what your fire company can do for you... ask what YOU can do for your fire company"...(with apologies to JFK!)
From my standpoint, the volunteer fire service has a good, solid future but CHANGE may be needed for some companies in order to match the needs of those they serve. That means the internal organization may have to change to meet the needs of today's volunteer, and then the fire company must change to meet the needs of the community they serve. Is this stuff easy? Absolutely not. But it's all a matter of how badly a fire company wants to remain alive, well, effective and healthy to carry on the great American tradition. Sometimes it's a few organizational changes, sometimes it's leadership changes. In some areas, VFD's have now become combination FD's with some good career firefighters to help get the job done. In others, they have merged partially or completely to provide better and more effective service. Whatever may be needed, when it's planned for and done right, with the needs of the public as the Number One priority -- the future looks good.