Leadership, Volunteer Fire Service

The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: Becoming an Officer

By Thomas A. Merrill

Deciding to become an officer is an important choice many of us have made in our volunteer firehouse. Sometimes we want to do it because we feel we have something positive to offer and we want to contribute to the continued success of our fire department. Sometimes we see areas we think need to be improved upon, and becoming an officer offers us the opportunity to take corrective actions. Still other times we decide to simply help our department out because there is an opening. And then there are the times we have to be poked, prodded, and begged to assume a position because there simply is nobody else available or wants to do the work.

There usually is a selection process that a member still needs to go through before assuming an office. In many volunteer departments, officers are elected by their peers. Some departments appoint officers. Whatever that process is, it’s important for officer candidates to realize that there are some questions they should honestly answer before deciding to become an officer. In addition, there are things a firefighter can do to better prepare them for the important role they will play as a department officer. There are also things they can do ahead of time to demonstrate to the other department members why they would make a good officer, worthy of appointment or being elected.

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First off, the member needs to understand that being an officer is really a big deal. Officers play an incredibly huge role in the department and can have either an extremely positive or extremely negative effect on the organization. Officers truly set the tone and impact morale, both good and bad. It’s palpable to the entire organization. When the officers shine, the department shines, on both sides of the organization, firematic and administrative. It’s there for everybody to see and to feel. The successful officer inspires and motivates others while taking care of the tasks they are responsible for. When one chooses to seek office, understand this comes with the officer’s badge – whatever office it happens to be.  

The officer candidate must want to hold office for the right reasons and not out of spite for someone else. They should run for office because they have a true desire to serve and have something to offer and want to contribute and move their department forward. Run based simply on your merit and what you can bring to the table. Don’t give people a reason to question your motives or believe you have ulterior motives. Remember, your actions and behavior are there ahead of time for people to witness firsthand. You are always being watched and judged, and that will happen a bit more when you announce your intention to seek office. It certainly will happen more after you become an officer.

You volunteered to join your department. Just the same, you are volunteering to be an officer. That means you want to take on added responsibility, work with your fellow members, and get things done and take on projects. You make a commitment to being visible within the firehouse. Yes, your family and personal job and life come first, but by volunteering for the officer’s position you are making a commitment that you will have the time management skills necessary to get your jobs done and regular assigned jobs are done in a consistent, timely, and efficient manner.

Officer candidates must understand that the confidence firefighters have in their officers is not something that starts when the tones drop or when gavel hits the table. And, it certainly does not start when the new officer first steps foot into the officer’s role. There is no on/off switch to suddenly flip in the “on position” that immediately makes the new officer achieve success and gain the confidence of the membership. There are a lot of things a member can do, ahead of time, to showcase their capabilities and inspire the membership to have confidence in their ability to do the job.

What can we do ahead of time? What can we do before stepping foot into the office to both demonstrate you have not only the desire, but also the skills and traits necessary to make you a successful officer? How can you better prepare yourself and make for a smoother and easier transition into office? What can get you the support necessary to get elected or appointed?

First off, be a doer in the firehouse. Don’t be one of the many who always talk about “what YOU should do.” Be the one doing. When possible and permissible, do things without having to be asked. Take on a project. Serve on a committee. Plan an event. Stick with it and follow through from start to finish. Demonstrate your competency by effectively and adequately completing a project. Realize that nobody achieves success or accomplishes anything without some stumbling blocks, naysayers and setbacks. Learn to put aside distractions to accomplish the mission. Be known for doing things in the firehouse and having the perseverance to see it through.

Immerse yourself in department activities. Ask questions and get to know the inner workings of the department. Know your role. There are a lot of roles in the volunteer fire service. Maybe you want to be an administrative officer–that’s great. Know the department bylaws and maybe seek to understand Robert’s Rules of Order. If you want to serve as a fire officer, fantastic! Go to training drills and seminars. Read and work hard to learn as much as possible about fires and emergencies that you can be expected to be dealing with. Know more about your department and the role you play than the damn smartphone in your pocket.

Demonstrate your department pride and respect for the traditions and customs established long before you arrived. Go to the wakes and funerals of those members that served before you. Treat senior members and former members with the respect they deserve. Sit with them and listen to their stories from yesteryear. Recognize and appreciate that you are a member of an extended family. Extend the same courtesies and respect that you want given to you.

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Before casting a vote for you, or before a committee appoints you to an officer position, people will remember how you conducted yourself in the firehouse. Look in the mirror and be honest with yourself and aware of your reputation. What is it? Are you lazy? A minimal contributor? A point stealer (showing up for credit without ever contributing anything)? Are you a freelancer or a rogue cowboy/cowgirl at the emergency scene? Or are you able to work with others as part of a team? Are you a good follower? You will never develop into a good leader if you did not learn how to be a good follower first. Do others see you as engaged and into the job? Are you working to make yourself a better firefighter and better member? Do you represent your department and our great fire service in a positive way? All of this will factor into people’s decision whether to elect or appoint you into an officer’s position.

Remember that how you conduct yourself off duty influences people’s opinion of you, too. Officers should be of sound character. Simply put, be a good person. Do the right things always, even when nobody is around to see it. You know what the right thing to do is. You will never develop into a good officer or good leader if you cannot lead yourself first and foremost. Lead yourself in the right direction making the right decisions before assuming the officer’s position.

Making the decision to serve as an officer in your department is an admirable and important choice and comes with responsibility. However, you don’t become an officer simply by choice. You must work hard ahead of time to gain credibility and respect and your fellow members must have confidence in you as they cast their vote or appoint you to office. Once you pin that officer’s badge on, however, there are things that you can do to further that respect and enhance that confidence, and I will discuss that in the next article.

THOMAS A. MERRILL is a 35-year fire department veteran and a former chief of the Snyder Fire Department in Amherst, New York. He is a fire commissioner for the Snyder Fire District. He served 26 years as a department officer including 15 years in the chief officer ranks. Merrill recently completed five years as chief of department. He has conducted various fire service presentations throughout the Western New York area as well as at FDIC. He also is a fire dispatcher for the Amherst (NY) Fire Alarm Office. He can be reached at [email protected]

 

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