Speak Up: The Professional Volunteer Fire Department

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?

Sometimes, as volunteers, we often get more help at the scene than we may need. Maybe four or five members are needed inside to perform EMS work and the other responding members assemble outside, ready to help if needed. How do we expect these members to behave? Are they laughing and joking around, in full view of the patient, concerned family members or neighbors? It is totally understandable that our firefighters are going to make random conversation as they stand around ready to assist, but they must understand that their behavior impacts the department’s reputation. At a fire scene, members should show compassion and refrain from overzealous behavior when mopping up. Remember that laughing loudly, joking, smoking or swearing while someone is having a really bad day presents anything but a professional image.

Even off-duty behavior is important and impacts the department’s reputation. Once somebody knows you are a firefighter, in his view you are a firefighter 24/7. Just being a firefighter elevates you to a higher standard and we all must work together to uphold the standard. Every action you make, every word you utter is made as a firefighter. Every time you are out in the public, you are representing your fire department. Like it or not, how you act impacts the reputation and professional image of your department.

In my travels with my fellow volunteers, often times we are wearing our department T-shirts or job shirts. Many times while sitting in airports, people feel compelled to chat with us and bring their kids over to talk to us. No doubt it’s because as firefighters, we all enjoy the great reputation of being warm hearted and friendly people. Now, imagine the damage we can do to that reputation if we act inappropriately or are rude and nasty.

Speaking of T-shirts and job shirts, if your volunteer department is like mine, there is no shortage of these. They are a wonderful way to advertise our departments and our profession, but what image do these shirts portray? Can they be considered professional, with a neat, clean logo? Or do they offer disparaging comments or drawings? The latter does not portray a professional image and could actually diminish the confidence people have in our abilities and lead them to believe we lack compassion and concern for them.

Appearance affects a department’s professional reputation as well. Now, it is perfectly understandable that as volunteers, we often are alerted to respond to calls while working around the house or doing something else that may not have us looking neat or clean. We certainly cannot be wearing uniforms all day just in case we get alerted for a call, but there are ways to present a more professional appearance to the citizens we serve and other responding agencies such as law enforcement. Keeping a department T-shirt, sweatshirt or jacket in your vehicle is one way to quickly cover up and present a decent appearance. Some members quickly don turnout pants to cover up bathing suits, gym shorts or tattered jeans, even at EMS calls. My department created inexpensive laminated membership cards and put lanyards on them so they can be put on quickly when responding directly to the scene. Looking clean and easily identifiable as a firefighter helps create a respectable and professional image.

Professional behavior does not only apply to training and call responses. The professional experience also applies inside our firehouses. It starts the minute any member of your community expresses an interest in joining your department. Is the process for bringing them into membership organized and efficient? Does a member or a committee discuss your department rules and expectations? How about after they are formally accepted – do you just throw equipment at them and tell them to show up or does someone mentor them on expected behavior and other important department roles? My department developed a booklet that is handed out to interested parties. The booklet outlines how the department operates and details expectations and requirements. If interested parties do formally apply, they meet with a board representing a broad cross section of the department. This board reviews the booklet in more detail and is available to answer any questions candidates may have. Once new members are accepted, their first night on duty involves a formal orientation program in which they not only are issued their gear and equipment, but much of the important information that was shared with them before is reviewed again to ensure it is understood and accepted.

This formal, step-by-step process leaves a positive impression on our new members. Even if they are able to be with us for only a short time, they are left with the impression that they were involved with a well-organized, proficient and professional operation.

The fire service is the greatest profession in the world. Our ranks are filled with hard-working, dedicated, caring and extremely competent members. At all times, we should strive to be professional firefighters, whether paid or volunteer.

Thomas A. Merrill
Past Fire Chief
Snyder Fire Department
Snyder, NY

The writer recently completed a five-year term as chief. The Snyder Fire Department was formed in 1915 and protects a six-square-mile area of the Town of Amherst with more than 35,000 residents. The department responded to 1,068 emergency calls last year.




The Value of Higher Education in the Fire Service

Alaska curriculum gives students valuable fire and EMS experience

As the fire chief at the student-staffed University of Alaska Fire Department, I really appreciated Paul Snodgrass’ article on community and technical colleges, “Community & Technical Colleges: Delivering Training and Education in One Package.” in the August 2012 issue of Firehouse® Magazine. Our 42 full-time student firefighters know the value of higher education, experience and employment history to achieving their career aspirations – that is why they come here from all over the U.S. Over 70% of our alumni are now serving their communities in the emergency services.

Unlike similar programs, we hire our student firefighters as full-time uniformed employees who work a standard 56-hour work week on one of three shifts. Under the supervision and tutelage of nine career officers, they gain valuable fire and emergency medical experience while pursuing their degrees at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Community and Technical College. Students are released from duty to attend classes and are dismissed as necessary to respond on calls.

By the time a student firefighter completes four years here, he or she will have a complete resume including an AAS degree in fire science and/or paramedicine, a bachelor of emergency management degree, a variety of fire and medical certifications and the experience and work ethic that comes from four years of employment as a firefighter and emergency medical technician. I invite you to check us out at www.uaf.edu/fire.

Doug Schrage

Fire Chief

University Fire Department, Alaska

Fairbanks, AK

The writer has more than 30 years of fire service experience. He has a master of science degree in emergency management, bachelor’s and associate’s degrees in fire service administration and is National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer. See page XX for more higher education coverage.


Arrival reports

I’ve been enjoying reading Mark Emery’s multi-part series, “How to Nail Your First-Due Strategic Responsibility” (see page XX). It seems like we, as company officers, are stretched so thin on the fireground that we do botch our arrival reports because we’re in a mad dash to get a thousand things done in two minutes – with less staffing. I thank and applaud Chief Emery for the work he is doing for us.

Beau Gardner


Port Orange Fire Rescue

Port Orange, FL




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