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...


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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.