What's Working Somewhere: The Carver Fire Department

May 1, 2008
Deborah Parker reviews why the Carver, MA, Fire Department is able to recruit and retain its call members.
A Massachusetts Call Department Is Turning Away Applicants. What's Going On?

Fire Chief Craig Weston needs five more firefighters to meet his personnel requirements in Carver, MA. The chief's biggest problem, however, is that he needs only five more call firefighters right now -- and 23 men and women have applied for the jobs.

Same thing happened last year. That's right. The all-call Carver Fire Department, with its three little stations covering 40 square miles and 12,000 people, has to turn away an average of 20 well-intended, able-bodied and ready-to-serve members of the community who come looking for these highly demanding, sometimes dangerous and very definitely low-paying jobs. Every year. It's a "problem" most other departments in the call-volunteer fire service would gladly bemoan. It also begs the question: Why?

Dana Harriman, Weston's predecessor -- Harriman was chief for 26 years, Weston assumed command in 2005, after 17 years with the department -- beams when asked the question, and then answers: "Let's see if we can get you on Craig Weston's e-mail recipient list, and start you there."

Within hours comes the e-mail letter that Weston sends out to all of Carver's firefighters on Fridays. It has all the makings of a long chatty letter home (back in the days when people wrote long letters home). There's a loving jab at Harriman. There's a photo taken of firefighters at an auto accident they responded to earlier in the week. Several responders on the call are named and complimented. There's an update: the victim survived. And then there's a reference to a sad call from the week before, when there was nothing they could do to improve that outcome...

There's a rundown of which repairs are being done to what vehicles, what's in service, what's not, and oh, yes, a report on which officers went to the plant to spec the plans for construction of the department's new rescue boat. And, for the big news, there will be a Surprise Deputy's Drill next Sunday! "Sorry for the short notice, but yesterday someone gave us an abandoned house to practice on, and we only have it a week before it gets razed. The firefighters will meet at 8 o'clock at the Central Station for the pre-drill meeting. The drill will last three hours, and they will be practicing opening roofs, going through walls from the outside of a building to rescue a firefighter trapped behind a wall, and going through walls from the inside, practicing rescuing themselves after a collapse...Come prepared to carpool." The next day comes another e-mail, looking for a portable radio missing from Rescue 1. "Will everyone please look around?"

Weston's newsletter goes out to each firefighter's e-mail account at the station (they each have one) as well as to the Carver selectmen, some of the fire officers in local towns and anyone else who wants it. It may explain why, at 9 o'clock on a brisk Sunday morning in late October, there are selectmen and officers from other fire departments stopping by the drill to enjoy watching Carver chop apart the donated house.

The letter makes sure everybody always knows exactly what's coming up, what's expected, how the department is performing, the outcome of their efforts -- and that every mother and father, spouse, significant other, child and town official, has reason to be proud. (It also has them all looking for that portable radio.) The e-mail letter takes Weston less than an hour a week.

This sentiment of community ownership of the department -- and the amazing response to its once-a-year invitation for citizens to even try to become one of Carver's finest, if they can -- has not always been the case. When Dana Harriman took command in 1979, he had exactly 12 sets of turnout gear for 40 firefighters, and, despite the fact that the fire department was well thought of in town, he had firefighters on the rolls who didn't show up, firefighters who lacked standardized training, and firefighters who got fed up with the other ones and left.

The chief knew he wanted the Carver Fire Department to become the best call fire department around, and he knew who the folks were that could ensure it happened. He began by initiating an honest and open "ongoing conversation" policy between the department and the townspeople -- e-mail hadn't been invented yet -- and part of those conversations were about what additional equipment the department really needed to be safe and effective. (He made sure to clarify needs versus wants, and never tried to scare them, always assuring them the department would manage with what the town could afford.) Then he sat down with his officers.

"My first order of business was to assemble the two deputies, three captains and three lieutenants and make them aware that I was there to support them and needed their help in taking the department to the next level," he said. "I told them change was going to happen, too fast for some and too slow for others, but it was going to happen. Then I asked them each what they thought the immediate and long-term needs of the department were. I never stopped asking, and I never stopped listening."

Over the decade that followed, some of those answers evolved into an established process for hiring all new recruits. It included a written exam to ascertain basic literacy and learning skills, and a psychological exam with a licensed practitioner to make sure only suitable candidates were moved forward. The Commonwealth assisted by publishing (and mandating) a Physical Abilities Test for all municipal firefighters. Carver added the "PAT" to its list. All of this meant a whole lot of new work, and two years along, one of the deputy chiefs, Mark Weston, was named the department's formal Training Officer. He remains in the post 26 years later.

It took about 10 years to unfold, but today, Carver has Firefighter I and II training protocols that meet or exceed those for state certification, written and practical exams for all recruits, and a system in place for all firefighters to receive additional and advanced training as needed, or simply requested. Of Carver's 75 entirely call members, more than 40 are state-certified to the level of Firefighter I-II, 20 are certified to Officer I; 13 are certified to Officer II; 17 are certified to Fire Instructor I; 14 are certified to Safety Officer; and 10 are certified dispatchers.

Importance of Drills

If you're a proud, rescuer-type person at heart, there's nothing worse than letting yourself down, or worse, the people who need you, on a call. Ongoing drills are thus taken very seriously in Carver, and the department has the true luxury of having a separate, town-owned training facility (which it shares with neighboring departments, call and career alike). The lieutenants at each of Carver's three stations are responsible for designing a monthly exercise for his or her crew. They plan ahead to create training sessions that will address perceived needs and/or National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) competencies, be challenging and be fun. What's more, every drill is reviewed ahead of time by the training officer to make sure department guidelines are met, the required equipment and apparatus is available, and most of all, that all safety elements have been addressed. (Few corrections need to get made, since the lieutenants are also all safety officers.) The deputy himself is responsible for

designing two "all-company drills" each year that will help all the officers stretch, learn and laugh too.

There's a motto in the U.S. Marines that they will "leave no man behind" on the battlefield. That's not because they like you, I once heard a Marine, only half-in-jest, explain. "It's because they've invested $100,000 in training you." Carver firefighters can take solace in the fact that, even on a "not behaving sweetly" day, they are still being viewed as especially valuable human beings by their fellow firefighters and officers as well. For starters, each new recruit has:

  • Completed a comprehensive application, including a personal and work history, and supplied numerous references
  • Received 70 or higher on a standardized, "civil service-like" exam
  • Passed a medical exam based on state standards for firefighters
  • Passed a psychological assessment
  • Passed the state's Physical Abilities Test
  • Passed background checks and drug screenings
  • Been interviewed by three members of the department
  • Been chosen from the pool of all other competitors for their post
  • Participated in 90 hours of training (with no remuneration)

The investment is both psychological and financial. At the end of the first year, the town has invested approximately $2,000 in testing and training each of these firefighters and another $3,200 in equipping them with state-of-the art protective gear. The firefighters know this. They're proud of themselves, and they're proud that they can perform any required role, at any scene, from driver/pump operator to manning the nozzle. In fact, once assigned to a station, the quarter-mile around each firefighter's residence is his or her personal "first-due" area. Any call happens there and the member responds directly to the scene, assumes command, begins size-up and advises the incoming apparatus.

Lieutenant Alan Dunham says a teddy bear is what comes to mind when he thinks about why he loves his job and has such a deep sense of loyalty toward his officers.

"During overhaul at a residential fire late one night -- the family had lost everything, it was awful, they were just watching us from up the street -- the chief came up to me and asked me to search the house and see if I could find a favorite stuffed animal that belonged to the family's little girl," Dunham recalled. "The chief described it to me and, sure enough, I was able to find it in the front bedroom, a little smoky, but otherwise in very good shape. I brought it out and handed it to him. He handed it back to me, and asked me if I'd mind delivering it. As I walked up to where the family was sitting, I could see the little girl crying. I called out, 'I think I found something that may belong to you,' and I held out the bear. The biggest smile came to her face! She ran up to get it, and then gave me a huge hug. Everybody kept thanking me over and over. All I could do was tell them it was my pleasure, and turn back to the scene with tears in my eyes. Here this family had lost almost everything, but they were thanking me? Just for being able to bring their daughter's toy back to her? I'll never forget that night, and I'll never forget the chief could easily have brought that bear back to that little girl. But he wanted me to do it, he wanted me to get the hug, get the thanks, to see that what I'd done had mattered. That's the night I received the biggest 'pay' I ever got on the job."

Sharing Their Secrets

Visit the Carver Fire Department to learn its secrets. Here are just a few:

  • It may be "in the genes." OK, not really, but "fire service families" in the Carver Fire Department are rampant, as they are elsewhere. The non-related members seem to have been born "Mighty Mouse" types who sort of wish they'd had firefighter families -- and have been lucky enough to find a fire department ready and waiting to pull them in. Firefighters in Carver report that when they have to leave the department for one reason or another -- military service, employment transfers or family obligations -- they always feel a little bit homeless. The firefighters, officers and dispatchers of Carver find home there.
  • Universal standards. Say you're an experienced fire service captain or dispatch pro who has just moved to Carver and want to join the department. Chances are they'll welcome you (if you pass all the interviews and tests, that is.) Upon acceptance, however, you'll be assigned to the 90-hour FF1-FF2 class, just like everyone else. The class is required of all members, so everyone knows "how things get done" and "how people get treated" at Carver. Everyone.
  • Collegiality by design. FF1-FF2 is also where collegiality among the new members begins to be nurtured, with forethought and care. The chair you sit in, and your role in every practical skills team, is assigned -- and instructors switch the seatmates and teammates every week. Everybody must get to know everybody, by name and by nature. The officers from the different stations each take part in teaching several sessions of each recruit class too, so all the officers and all the recruits also get to know each other well.
  • Officers (truly) functioning as a team. No firefighter, no station, no town official nor any member of the public can pit Mom and Dad against each other at Carver. Any issue that is not truly personal/confidential, brought to the attention of any one of the top three officers, automatically gets cc'd to the other two. All input is shared. All major decisions are hashed out together.
  • The truth is told here. Firefighters in Carver report they get the absolute truth, and support in dealing with it, from their officers. Officers tell the truth about what they know or don't know. About what really happened and what may happen next. If a firefighter needs to hear it, he or she will get told the truth of how they are perceived, both good and bad, and how they might improve. The officers are committed to telling the truth, to each other, and to the department, and to do so in a way that the recipient still and always knows that he or she is so, so, so valued, by them all. And the members of Carver Fire Department seem to know that that is true.

DEBORAH PARKER is a public relations and marketing writer, a volunteer firefighter/EMT and rehab officer, a public fire and life safety educator and a member of the Franklin County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).

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