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Many times in discussions with the public, I am asked whether I am a professional firefighter or a volunteer firefighter. I take exception to that, and politely explain to them that there are paid firefighters and there are volunteer firefighters, but all firefighters, including volunteers, can strive to be professional.
No doubt, there are paid fire departments that cannot be considered professional and there are volunteer fire departments that are nothing but professional. Professional means much more than being able to handle emergency calls proficiently and adequately, although that is a large part of it. Also, being professional has nothing do with the age of the fire equipment or the firehouse, how many runs a department responds to or how much equipment it has.
To me, professional has everything to do with a department’s attitude, appearance, commitment and dedication. It has to do with how members approach the job, how they prepare and train and take care of their equipment. It includes how they treat not only the public, but their own members. It also has to do with behavior on and off duty.
The professional volunteer fire department takes the time to drill on a regular basis. You simply cannot use the excuse that because we are volunteers, we don’t have the time to drill regularly. That is unacceptable. In fact, there are more potential drill topics than time to do them all. And, as we have heard many times, a fire doesn’t treat volunteer firefighters any different than paid firefighters.
The professional training drill is well organized and ready to go on schedule. Members taking the time to attend the drill should not find that time wasted while officers scramble around trying to get things set up or, worse yet, deciding at that time what the drill topic should be. In most volunteer fire departments, members are usually coming to drill after working a full day or are giving up a Saturday or Sunday morning to drill at the firehouse. They are owed well-prepared and pertinent drills that will help lead to good fireground performance.
That performance is an important trait of the professional volunteer fire department. The emergency call should be handled calmly and efficiently. Not that we can possibly prepare for all emergencies, but there is no excuse for being unprepared for the routine emergency response and I put most fires in this category. Is the apparatus running order clearly defined? Are apparatus roles and responsibilities at emergency scenes clearly identified and communicated to the members? Are the tools clean and in good working order? Is there a strong working agreement with neighboring departments and are we acquainted with their apparatus and equipment? Are plans in place ahead of time to account for short staffing or that dangerous building in your district requiring special equipment or tactics?
It is one thing to think you have taken care of these items, but it also must be clearly communicated to the members. The ranks of many volunteer fire departments can fluctuate greatly, with new members coming in and more tenured members leaving. It is important to review all of this important information on a regular basis.
Another item that can impact a department’s reputation is poor radio communications, especially inappropriate and unwarranted transmissions. Members should be trained on the importance of radio discipline – transmitting only pertinent and important information in a clear, calm and concise manner. There should be no unnecessary radio traffic, no babbling and certainly no nasty or mean-spirited transmissions. If you are the fire chief or incident commander, are you yelling and screaming when you are actually confronted with fire? Or are you calm, poised and in control, which portrays a professional image?