Getting Along In Combination Fire Departments

The fire doesn't care. The trauma victim doesn't care. The family of the cardiac arrest patient doesn't care. What don't they care about? Whether you get a paycheck for your service or whether you perform your duties for free.

Combination paid and volunteer fire and rescue services have existed for years. For practical and economic reasons, more communities are turning to combination systems to provide fire and rescue services. There are tremendous advantages to combination systems in the efficient and effective provision of quality service within an affordable budget. There are also disadvantages.

Photo by Jeff Schielke
Many communities are turning to combination departments to provide fire and rescue services. Here, members of one such department, in Batavia, IL, fight an overnight house fire (the occupants escaped after being awakened by the incessant chirping of their pet ferret).

One disadvantage inherent in combination systems is the conflict that often arises between career and volunteer members. This conflict works against the teamwork necessary to perform our duties in a safe and effective manner. It has frustrated individuals on both sides of the fence, causing departments and the fire service to lose outstanding individuals who become burned out from the often petty fighting that goes on between the paid and volunteer sides.

So what can be done? Do we simply throw up our hands in defeat, or do we find ways to reduce this conflict or eliminate it from our combination services? Here are a few pointers on how the friction can be reduced. It is pretty simple stuff but it always takes one side to make the first step.

Understand the rationale for combination services. It is important that members of combination departments understand the reasons both paid and volunteer members are needed.

In many areas of the country that have been served by all-volunteer departments, volunteers alone simply can't handle the increasing call volume that their communities are facing. Members cannot take the time off from work to respond to the many routine calls and emergency incidents that are occurring daily.

In other cases, demographic changes have separated the areas where volunteers work and live; the volunteer who lives in one town but works in another town simply cannot respond during the daytime. Therefore, career firefighters or rescue workers are needed to cover times when volunteers are not available.

Further, very few communities can afford to maintain sufficient numbers of paid personnel to staff for optimal performance during peak call loads and major emergencies that may occur only several times a year. Volunteers in these departments fill the staffing gaps in these peak load times. They also provide a trained force of personnel ready for major incidents. They are, in effect, a "ready reserve" similar to the military reserve units. The volunteer reserve concept is used in some European countries and may see more use in America as demands on the fire service increase.

Most combination departments are somewhere between the two extremes, often juxtaposing a long tradition of volunteer service with a growing need for career personnel to handle both the routine and specialized fire service tasks that growing suburban communities (and some others) demand. Economic forces often prevent these communities from being able to afford an all-career fire or rescue service. In many cases, an all-career or all-volunteer service can provide only minimum staffing for emergencies. Combination departments can provide increased staffing levels beyond what may be available or affordable in an all-paid or all-volunteer service not just at peak times but all the time.

Volunteers in combination departments also keep the local community directly involved with the fire and rescue service. In this way, volunteers may act to promote a higher level of service provided to the community than would be afforded by a large, centralized department directed from a headquarters located miles away.

Complementary, not supplementary. The question of whether the career or volunteer side of the department is supplementary to the other side is one of semantics, and a divisive issue in itself.

In some cases, a small volunteer force supplements a large paid force by staffing one area or by providing extra staffing for each unit. In other cases, a mostly volunteer organization uses a few paid personnel to respond during workdays or to fill positions that require special skills.

Whether the burden is shared equally or whether one side or the other does most of the work should not be a divisive issue, though it does have a psychological impact, especially on those personnel who are told to take a "back seat" to overall department operations. The important concept to remember is that paid and volunteer members are needed to complement each other. In this way, the best and most efficient public service can be provided.

Need for R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Aretha Franklin sang it best. Earning respect in the fire service is often a long and hard process. Respect between career and volunteer members is no different but there are important considerations.

For the paid members of the service, this is their livelihood. This is how they pay for their homes, their cars, their children's educations. Volunteers should respect this and understand that organizational changes and financial decisions often directly affect the job and income of the paid members.

Volunteers should also respect the fact that the career personnel are confined to the station for their shift. They usually can't run home for holidays or dinners, or leave to run errands. Volunteers must also recognize that the career firefighter or rescue workers have a unique and special relationship with the other members of their shift. Living one quarter to one third of their lives with these same people leads to unique relationships, friendships and tensions of which volunteers should be respectful.

Career personnel should respect that volunteers are giving of their time for little or no compensation, and at the same risk of injury or death. They may take hundreds of hours of training. They give up time with their families and time from work. No volunteer serves to "take away" jobs. Career members should recognize that the volunteer doesn't go off duty when shift change occurs the volunteer could be summoned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Career personnel should also respect the community involvement volunteers bring to the fire-rescue services.

Respect and understanding from both sides will go a long way toward reducing tensions between paid and volunteer service providers. All sides can increase the level of respect by taking their roles seriously, getting the best training and certification available, and performing in the field. Respect is earned from competence more than from good intentions.

Equality. Another vital and important factor for combination services is the need to promote equality and parity between the paid and volunteer members. This encompasses all aspects of the service, from training to operations to management.

All members performing the same job should meet the same level of training. All firefighters must know the job equally well whether receiving compensation or not. Separate standards for firefighters and rescuers drives a wedge between career and volunteer personnel. Remember, we are talking about paid and volunteer members in the same department. If a paid firefighter is required to be certified as a Firefighter II and EMT, then a volunteer should be required to be certified to the same level if he or she is going to perform the same job.

Likewise, officers should be held to the same standards of training whether or not they get a paycheck. Some combination departments require their paid and volunteer officers to pass the same promotional tests or to have the same minimum numbers of years or experience before being eligible for promotion.

Career and volunteer members should have equal access to training. Varied times for training may need to be provided to accommodate career or volunteer schedules. For example, one course may be taught on a shift schedule one month and then at nights or on weekends another month, thus allowing members to attend training sessions. Also, all members should have the same opportunity to train in the station or to become qualified to drive apparatus, for example. Paid and volunteer members should be held to the same standards for testing and completing courses and becoming qualified to ride or operate apparatus.

Equality must also exist in operations. Staffing of the apparatus should permit equally trained members to have equal opportunity to perform their duties. That means that a volunteer, if qualified, should have the same opportunity to drive a fire engine as a paid firefighter, for example. Likewise, the career firefighter shouldn't always get the least-desirable assignment, such as always driving the ambulance or reserve unit. Equality in staffing lends itself to equality on the fireground, as all members will get the opportunity to gain experience in their job requirements in the field.

Members must also be equally accountable for their actions. Rules and regulations, policies and standard operating procedures (SOPs) should be uniformly applicable to all members of the department.

Equality in management is important too. Whether the top management is paid or volunteer doesn't matter. Because career and volunteer members of the department are all responsible for carrying out the department's mission, all must participate in management functions. These members are among the "internal stakeholders" that the total quality aficionados talk about; to exclude one side from contributing to the management of the department not only is divisive but a waste of a valuable resource. The best organizations let all employees participate in setting the goals for the organization, then empowering them to achieve those goals.

Define job roles. Job descriptions should be clearly defined. Responsibilities should be clearly laid out for all members of the department, whether paid or volunteer. A clearly delineated formal organizational structure should be known to all members. This will help guide members in their daily interactions.

Top management's influence. Career or volunteer, the chief sets the tone for the relationship between the members. Policies of inclusion, fairness and equity, along with intolerance for prejudicial behavior, will go a long way toward improving the teamwork between career and volunteer members.

Chief officers must look on the people under them, paid and volunteer, as an asset, not as a threat. Their departments will function smoothly and be able to focus on the job issues. A significant source of stress for employees and volunteers will be reduced. The community will benefit from the improved level of service provided.

When the alarm bell sounds, the public expects help. Teamwork is essential to providing the professional response necessary to provide this help. The common ground, respect and understanding forged in the station between career and volunteer members in combination departments, will carry over to safe and effective operations on the fireground, allowing us to provide the best possible service to the public. Our shared mission demands that we all make a better effort to get along. Issues of safety, accountability and public safety are everyone's concern, and should act to unify career and volunteer firefighters and rescuers.

Jeff Stern is a firefighter/paramedic with the Arlington County, VA, Fire Department and an officer of the Cabin John Park, MD, Volunteer Fire Department's River Rescue & Tactical Services. He also is a former member of the City of Williamsburg, VA, Fire Department. All are combination fire departments.