Leading in the NEW Volunteer Fire Service

Photo by Tim Olk.

By John A. Sahatjian

What has happened to the change of attitudes within the volunteer fire service in the past 10 to 15 years? Is it the volunteer fire service, or is it the new generation coming into the profession causing this change? I am concerned that the new attitude of firefighters and their departments are going to kill the reputation and respect for which we have strived and earned.

Citizens have always looked at volunteer fire departments differently than they have at career departments. They picture volunteer firehouses as us drinking with our buddies, jumping on the rig, and being foundation savers; unless, of course, you and your department have changed that view with good training, leadership, public relations, and public outreach. Has your department done that?


Lead a Popularity Contest, or Lead?

In some volunteer firehouses, the officers’ positions are “one-year terms” and elected by the popular vote of the membership. This includes the position of Chief. How can you possibly change anything in one year? Let’s break it down.

Scenario: You join the fire company at the age of 18; go to the fire academy; complete the requirements to be a lieutenant; and then, hopefully, you get voted into the position because you won the most votes in the company. This is great in some departments, but departments like mine do not have a huge volunteer base from which to pick, and the number of actual emergencies to which the members are being exposed have decreased greatly.

So now you are lieutenant, moving up the ranks because “that’s what’s supposed to happen.” You get to be chief because—the excuse I hear all the time—“Well, it’s his turn.” This leaves the department in a very vulnerable spot. The one-year rotation of Chief leaves the department with inexperience, inconsistency, and no commitment to the citizens or its members. The constant rotation of chiefs may not be able to be change immediately because of by-laws and such, but what can change is your attitude as a volunteer (which is contagious). Adversity breeds integrity.


Social Media

A concerning factor of today’s youth in the fire service is the constant soft decorum on the Facebook and Instagram social media platforms. Ten years ago, leaders didn’t have to compete with the desire to be popular, be “liked,” or be attacked by the “Facebook firemen.” Today, you can post anything on social media, and there is no recourse for your action. Post a picture of yourself on the roof and your “salty helmet,” and all of a sudden you have some respect? You apparently can now “Monday morning quarterback” another company’s decisions and hide behind your keyboard.

When I was a new member in my firehouse, there was no “friending” anyone, so forget “friending” the chief on social media. I was deathly afraid to even talk to him and the other senior men of my firehouse. I kept my mouth shut and did what I was told, and even when I did that, I still got scolded. Now, everyone wants to be like “Kentland 33” but no one wants to understand what is involved to get your agency to that level; they just want to wear the shirts and hats.


Respect and Work Ethic

Back when I was a regular member, the front seat or the officer’s seat on the rig was highly respected, and priority seating went by who the officer was, and then by seniority. When the pager went off, you rushed to the firehouse just to see a senior man pull up to the firehouse right after you. Hence, you had better get out of that seat before he tells (not asks) you.

What happens today? A five-year member now gets “bumped out” of the front seat by a senior man, who then complains and has a bad attitude because “it’s not fair.” What happened to that respect for the job and senior men? Today, I see young men who join the fire company who have been babied at home. How can we as chiefs and senior men expect anything different when they come to the firehouse? Not only has it become our job to make firefighters out of them, but we must now make adults out of them as well.

Young firehouse members now want “thank yous” and awards just for answering calls. They complain when they have to get up at 2 a.m. and answer another fire alarm at the local business. These are our next officers in line! The problem starts at the top. Youas a leader—allow that. Yes, they are the ones who bring that attitude into the firehouse, but it is the job of the officers and senior men to change that culture.

I have always heard the phrase “mediocrity breeds contempt” but never really understood it, until now. The most common problems I hear in firehouses are, “He doesn’t train, so why should I?” “He doesn’t put his gear on, so why should I?” “The older guys don’t show up, so why should I?” When everyone doesn’t strive for excellence, how will the job survive?

Fire service leaders have a much harder job now than in the past, and they are not being prepared for it. Like it or not, today’s volunteer chief is just as liable as the career chief.

Any member of the fire service, whether he is two or 22, needs to strive to leave the firehouse a better place than when he started. Leaders and senior men need to make the commitment, and from the top down—to the members, the community, training, self-improvement, mental health, and morale. We are in the customer service business; when a citizen calls 911, he expects a big red truck to show up, and he doesn’t care if you are volunteer or paid, purple or green. What he does care about is that you had better know exactly what to do to fix his problems.

Following is a list of things to do and ways to behave for our new members:

  • Be early.
  • Pay attention.
  • Be prepared.
  • Keep your mouth shut.
  • Suck it up and stick it out.
  • You can’t learn from failure if you don’t admit to failing.
  • Have a backbone for the right things.
  • Work harder than everyone else around you.
  • Have RESPECT!

For new members coming into the firehouse: You will be pushed to perform, treated like an adult, expected to keep your mouth shut, and should expect nothing in return for your service.


John A. Sahatjian is a 17-year fire service veteran and the chief of department for the South Wall Fire Rescue Company–Fire District #3 in Wall Township, New Jersey. He has been chief since 2012 and oversees the Uniform Division. Sahatjian is a certfied National Level 2 instructor and attended Fairleigh Dickinson University. He developed the Preferred Behavioral Health Group to aid firefighters with their behavioral health.