The Professional Volunteer Fire Department, Part 6: Officer Development

By Thomas A. Merrill

When a volunteer firefighter is elected or appointed to the position of fire officer, it is the department’s duty and obligation to provide some type of officer and leadership development training. Departments should not expect new officers to immediately possess all the technical, leadership, and management skills expected from a competent fire service leader. However, as important as it is for volunteer departments to invest in officer development, it is equally  important for officers to embrace their new role and responsibilities. Officers should take advantage of any opportunities that can make them a more educated and well-rounded fire officer and leader.

Many paid departments spend weeks on officer training and offer specialized classes for each officer rank. Although it is easier for paid departments to offer this type of training because they can schedule classes during regular work hours, volunteer firefighters face time constraints because of their paying jobs, family commitments, and other obligations. These constraints make it difficult for volunteers to attend formal training programs, especially if the program stretches out over a period of several weeks or longer. The difficulty in scheduling formal leadership  training for volunteer departments emphasizes the importance for volunteers to take advantage of other opportunities that will improve their leadership and technical capabilities.

All fire officers should read and understand their department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs). Once they are familiar with the SOPs, they can immediately reinforce them by regularly attending the department’s training drills. In addition to reinforcing the SOPs, training drills allow volunteers to sharpen their skills and become proficient in operating a wide variety of equipment in the arsenal. It is just as important for officers to train as it is for those serving under them. Firefighting, emergency medical services (EMS), and technical skills are  parts of officer training that can always be improved on.

In addition to technical training drills, officers should also go through formal leadership and management training. Classes, seminars, and workshops often focus on this type of education. Many areas of the country have fire service organizations that occasionally host leadership programs such as these, and volunteer fire officers should try to attend them.

Since the very nature of the volunteer fire service makes it very difficult for  officers to attend extra training programs, they should find other sources to substitute for whatever formalized training they do not receive. There are countless venues available for volunteer fire officers to take advantage of on their own time schedule. The Internet is a flexible tool that offers Web casts, podcasts, and a variety of other helpful forums for new or aspiring officers to gain valuable lessons at their own convenience. In addition, trade publications feature leadership columns, and many great books are available on fire service command and leadership. A successful volunteer fire officer will seek out this material and spend time reviewing it. John Salka was correct when he said, “If you are going to be a leader, you have to be a reader.”

Many times, I have observed in volunteer departments that new officers are young and have limited experience. If they have yet to marry or start a career, they may have spare time to dedicate to the department. This time can be used to perform many of the routine tasks expected of an officer such as truck checks, tool inventory, and so on. Some departments like the idea of appointing young officers because of their availability. This is not a criticism; I started out this way when I was elected a lieutenant in my hometown department three decades ago. Young officers are dedicated and enthusiastic, and their useful enthusiasm is to be commended. It is important, however, that officers understand the responsibilities their new role entails so they work hard to develop into a competent and confident leader.

Sometimes new officers focus solely on the technical side of the job, such as its required tactics, strategies, and EMS skills. This may cause them to neglect their leadership and management responsibilities. An advantage young officers have is the ability to take leadership and management classes while attending school. I tell my young firefighters who are attending college to work some of these classes into their schedule, if possible. Even if young firefighters do not advance into the officer ranks, or if their paid careers take them far from the fire service, the lessons learned will be useful throughout their lives and serve them well in any vocations they embark on.   

The concept of learning from others is often overlooked by young firefighters. We have all been inspired by experienced leaders and officers who had a positive influence on us and possessed fantastic leadership qualities. Try to emulate the style and behavior of these successful officers. Conversely, you can learn from a poorly performing officer or an officer who demoralizes the rank and file. Take note of what does and does not work. This task doesn’t cost volunteers much time; it simply is a matter of observing traits, styles, and behaviors throughout their careers.

Mistakes will be made; fire officers should never be afraid to critique themselves and learn from their mistakes. Reviewing incidents, decisions, and events in which the officer played a role is part of the leadership development process. Also, engage in discussions with other officers and seek out retired and senior firefighters within your department who are respected and acknowledged as genuine leaders. Valuable lessons and information can be gained from these experienced members.

Not only do volunteer fire officers choose to join their department, but they volunteer to accept the title of fire officer as well. This title brings immense responsibilities. The department has a responsibility to provide the leadership training necessary to make their officers successful. Similarly, officers have a personal responsibility to embrace their new role and take advantage of opportunities that will help them develop into a well-rounded fire service leader.

Tom MerrillTom Merrill is a 30-year fire department veteran in the Snyder Fire Department, which is located in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks, and recently completed five years as chief of department. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the town of Amherst fire alarm office. He can be reached at tamerrill63@aol.com

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