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Chiefs, it’s time to talk about your department’s most important resource – people. A fire department is a group of individuals with a common interest, much like a corporate board of directors, a school board, a town council, a bowling league and even a family. The department exists to satisfy the needs of its customers – the community, the insurance industry and fellow department members. Unfortunately, the members may have different perceptions of the group’s organizational goals and objectives, leading to conflicts colored by facts, emotions and politics.
You should be proud to be the chief of your department. It’s an honor to be selected as the leader of a group in which you likely exhibit a great deal of personal pride. Like those who have preceded you, you probably share in the traditions of your organization and of the fire service. However, being the chief of a volunteer fire department isn’t what it used to be.
Popularity once ruled
Prior to the 1980s, volunteer fire chiefs were often selected by department members on the basis of popularity, often rewarding longevity. Too frequently, volunteer chiefs were the “supreme firefighters” who excelled at combating fire. Fire chiefs were responsible for ensuring the department operated smoothly and commanding the department through emergencies. A fire department bylaw, identifying the chain-of-command and organizational procedures for meetings, was the only document that guided its operation.
Times have changed. Once, fire officers were conditioned to assign higher priority to the safety of victims and property than to the safety of firefighters, who were conditioned to think they were invincible. In 1980, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) 1910.156 standard, pertaining to fire brigades, marked the beginning of the fire service’s “age of discovery,” in which firefighter safety became the primary concern for those responsible for organizing, training and equipping fire departments.
This was followed in 1987 by the adoption of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program. Then, along came the OSHA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “HAZWOPER” (Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response) regulations, which identify levels of training for emergency responders to hazardous materials incidents. In addition, OSHA developed its final rule on confined-space entry, and today, we can add weapons of mass destruction. A great deal of responsibility and accountability accompany that gold chief’s badge and white helmet.
Thoughts about “chiefing”
Some fire chiefs still fall into the pitfalls of the past, such as the one sometimes seen on the fireground who, with the best of intentions, leads his firefighters into battle, but is not functioning as command. He may have become chief because he was the department’s best “water-squirter,” but a fundamental “chiefing” rule states that he cannot command an incident and squirt water or man a hoseline at the same time. Some jokingly suggest this dilemma can be solved by chaining and locking the chief to the pumper or command post at the scene.
If a chief can’t trust the people working behind him, then it’s either time to get a new group of firefighters or a new chief. A good training program and continuing education for the troops will provide a high confidence level for the chief, regarding his crew’s capabilities.
Finally, be careful about falling into the role of community fire expert. Unfortunately, some people think the role of the expert is to be called in at the last moment to share the blame.
Fire department liability issues
Legal and personal liability concerns should encourage rural fire departments to ensure that the department complies with the minimum requirements of applicable standards and regulations. Our democracy guarantees that an accounting be made when a wrong, or even an alleged wrong, is committed. In many cases, this accounting takes the form of a lawsuit.