Volunteers Corner

Volunteers Corner

PART-TIME OFFICER, FULL-TIME RESPONSIBILITY

BY WILLIAM BEETSCHEN

As a nation, we want our emergency services delivered with immediacy and aggressiveness. Firefighters in particular need to be young, fit, smart, fearless college graduates who are dedicated beyond reasonability, on-scene in moments, and imminently prepared to tackle any emergency with technical expertise and cool dispatch. In short, if you`re an American firefighter, you are a model of professional standards. It follows, then, that if you are a fire officer, you set, implement, and follow those same professional standards to the letter. If you happen to be a part-time, paid on-call, volunteer, or brigade-level fire officer, we don`t want to be able to distinguish you from your paid contemporaries. The title fire officer no longer is qualified with language alluding to the amount of time you commit to protecting your community.

Pretty unrealistic expectations, right? Well, if you are that part-time, paid on-call, volunteer, or brigade-level fire officer, these expectations may seem overwhelming. However, even if we discount public perception, it is impossible to ignore the fact that at this point in the history of the American fire service, professional standards do apply to those of us who command and manage firefighters outside of the career arena.

What are professional standards in the fire service? Simply put, they`re nothing more than accepted standards of practice based on our most current understanding of the needs and hazards out there on the street. Given our wealth of knowledge and experience conveyed through shared technologies, we are continually being updated on the best way to do our job. The solid teachers and managers in our profession then adapt our practices to respond to the changing trends and demands for our services. There is truly no longer any real excuse for fundamental ignorance, particularly as it relates to job one: not killing firefighters.

GETTING WHERE WE NEED TO BE

Okay, so now you`re saying: “I`m not prepared to deal with these issues. My department is likewise unprepared, intimidated, and possibly a little unwilling to come to terms with these issues. What can we do about it?”

First, you have a lot of company. Change has been coming fast and furious for many years but never in such an accelerated fashion as in this past decade. Some leaders would argue that nothing has really changed at all. Bull! Our job and goals are fundamentally the same, but the expectations, requirements, and new hazards are multiplying constantly. Add to that the fact that little has been done to streamline the necessary tools of adaptation into the volunteer and part-time fire service, and it is little wonder that these folks are scratching their heads. Very few “other than career” fire agencies disagree with the fact that these changes and standards apply to them. But given their general financial and time constraints, they are asking, “How do we get where we need to be using what we`ve got?” This is an especially challenging question, considering that in most cases “what they`ve got” isn`t likely to change much in the near future.

The interest, motivation, and ability to innovate on the part of volunteer or part-time fire officers will make the difference between keeping up and just keeping on. It may often seem like a one-person battle. It helps to take your tools with you to the war.

FULL-TIME RESPONSIBILITY

The primary challenge for a part-time or volunteer fire officer is to realize that his rank must be viewed as a full-time responsibility. It`s at this point that a personal program of job evaluation can begin. The officer must have a job description, just as a department must have a mission statement. The argument that this is not a job because it is not done as a career holds no water. The government, the legal system, the insurers, and even the taxpayers view what part-time officers do as a job. Again, there is no distinction drawn here.

Areas of Responsibility

As an officer, it is important to remember that you have four distinct areas of responsibility.

Command and control. Fireground operations are the most visible and probably the most desirable of the officer`s tasks. Excellent fundamental fire suppression knowledge and experience with strong incident command skills prepare the officer to do the best job of organizing and overwhelming the incident at hand. What happens in the first minutes of the incident sets the stage for how the situation will play out. Command conditioning is a requirement, not an option. No department or officer can ever be expected to be totally prepared for “the big one.” But using the incident command system to handle the little ones on a day-to-day basis gives you a great basis for expanding that plan should an overwhelming incident occur: Small incident, small plan; big incident, expand the small plan.

Administrative/staff support functions. This is probably the most poorly defined and most neglected function of the part-time officer. It is vital that the chief empower officers to handle many aspects of the department`s day-to-day business. If the officer does not have a good understanding of how the department functions, his effectiveness will be significantly diminished. The chief officer cannot possibly handle everything that needs to be handled. Besides, autocracy breeds paranoia and contempt.

If the chief spends a little time researching his staff and discovering what necessary job each particular officer is skilled at and really enjoys doing and follows up by assigning that administrative function to that officer, everybody wins. The chief who fails to assign a staff function to an officer who would really embrace the task simply because the officer might enjoy it “too much,” because the officer knows more about it than the chief, or simply because the chief wants to punish the officer for not being “in the group” is an idiot who is simply filling the chief`s chair instead of striving to do the best job possible across the board. Of course, it also stands to reason that an officer who feels that his reasonability ends at the fireground has a poor sense of responsibility and commitment. Not everything in a officer`s job description is always fun and exciting, but it`s almost always necessary.

Personnel management/problem solving. Clearly the least popular on most everyone`s list of things to do, this is particularly painful in a small department of friends where everyone knows everyone. Effective management of staff is every bit as crucial in the little volunteer department as it is in a large career organization. This is a skill that is acquired over time with no small amount of personal pain. Fairness is everything.

Safety, safety, safety. Let`s say it again: Our main job is not to kill firefighters. We don`t send people into fully involved defensive mode fires to save possible occupants who are clearly beyond hope, but we likewise don`t send un-trained, poorly equipped firefighters into otherwise routine fire conditions, since they are likely to become injured or be killed because of their lack of preparedness. You owe it to your department to someday travel to the funeral of a firefighter killed in the line of duty and experience firsthand the life-changing devastation it brings to all involved, and you will probably learn, as is the case in most firefighter deaths, that the firefighter involved was engaged in an unsafe practice or was somewhere he was not supposed to be. For the part-time fire officer, safety must underscore every thought and action. If an unsafe condition exists, the likelihood of someone else`s addressing the problem is poor. The officer must deal with it immediately.

VOLUNTEER AND CAREER RESPONSIBILITIES ARE THE SAME

Many part-time and volunteer firefighters and fire officers regularly bemoan the fact that their career counterparts attack their credibility and question their skills. But, in truth, volunteer and other part-time firefighters/officers frequently do more to hurt themselves than anyone else possibly could. Occasionally, they even use their career counterparts` criticism as a crutch to avoid having to pursue enhancing their education and preparedness. Let`s step away from the officer role for just one moment.

In the most basic of terms, what is the difference between a career firefighter and a volunteer or paid on-call firefighter? The pay. The responsibilities are identical. Consider two individuals. Individual One is a career firefighter who also holds an electrician`s union card. On his two days off, he does electrical work; he has been doing it for years and is great at it. He is, and people will call him, a professional electrician. Individual Two is a union plumber by trade and has been a paid on-call member of his all-paid on-call department for eight years. He took and passed Firefighter I and II; EMT-Basic; haz mat awareness and operations; and confined space awareness, extrication, and technician–and is even a CPR instructor. He makes more than 70 percent of all training events, is on call every third night, and passes his physical every year. He is also a basic pump operator and has functioned in most capacities numerous times. Why would we not call him a professional firefighter in comparison with Individual One? Many people will argue the reason is the frequency with which the skills are used. Well, you needn`t travel far in your own state to discover career departments that see many structure fires and those that haven`t seen smoke in a year. The same comparison is true of many volunteer and part-time departments. There is no good answer to our earlier question.

PROFESSIONALISM THE KEY

The more important issue here is, does our department act like a professional organization? Most career and volunteer departments are absolutely excellent, and that doesn`t occur by accident. But if we accept a job description that suggests less than professional effort, we set the stage for a continuum of that mindset among the department personnel we manage and command–and the members are not to blame for this. Although great but trivial arguments can be made and excuses cited for substandard performance, it becomes impossible to answer this question except in the negative.

In the absolute worst-case scenario (recognizing that this is the rare situation), in which your home and your family were threatened by a house fire, could you make good excuses for your department`s personnel`s responding wearing three-quarter boots instead of turnout pants, having liquor on their breath (some members), wearing beards that inhibit proper mask fit, or doing improper searches and ineffective suppression tactics because the first-in crew hasn`t made or hasn`t been forced to make many of the training classes this year? What about those other egregious errors that, although happening rarely among our ranks today, are well within the purview of you, the officer, to change? There is never any excuse for any of these or related incidents to occur, especially when hundreds, if not thousands, of outstanding volunteers, paid on-call, and part-time departments in this country would be thrilled to share their recipes for success with all their brothers and sisters in the fire service just for the asking. We are only as professional as our approach and our commitment to our duties.

OFFICER SELECTION

Let`s talk about the officers in your de-partment. How are they selected? There are many methods for selecting officers; some are preferable to others. The best is to use a simple testing procedure, similar to that used in career agencies, but one that is designed around the functions and goals of your department. Usually, there are minimal application requirements and a formal posting of the order of placement.

Other methods include political appointment, appointment by seniority or rotation, membership vote (which is precarious because it frequently belies a popularity contest), and the dubious honor of selection because no one else wants the job.

The bottom line is this: When asked the question, Why is he or she an officer? could your department give a clearly defined answer based on the individual`s skills, service record, abilities, motivation, education, and desire to perform the task at hand? If not, the persons best qualified and most likely to do a good job may be falling through the cracks. It`s important that future promotions be based on solid criteria that are fair to the department`s operations and are understood by all.

CHANGE IN RELATIONSHIPS

One of the least attractive issues to potential officers is the inevitable change in their relationship with many of the department`s personnel. Great departmental friendships can be tested when the new officer takes management`s position on any issue. Often, after an unsuccessful debate, the new officer will say, “If those guys would just think like a manager on this issue ….” OK, did you do that when you were in their position?

Some problems can be circumvented by having all of the facts before addressing the issue, whatever it is. And at all costs, don`t just talk–listen! Try, when possible, to make the process interactive. Be fair! Sometimes, the respect that will grow for your position and efforts will, in a small way, compensate for a change in a friend`s perception of you and your perception of him. Remember, you are still on the same team.

To be an example, you must first set an example. Will your next order be based on attitude and conflict or knowledge and education? Your pursuit of education and your persistent encouragement of those under you to do the same must continue until the day you retire. Take a little time to assist others in figuring out some alternatives for gaining knowledge. Most fire service classes are often poorly scheduled with respect to part-time personnel who have other primary employment.

Being an officer in the fire service is difficult, especially when the time to hone skills is limited. One way to evaluate our performance is to run a little test on ourselves that reflects our effectiveness and the effect we have on those for whom we are responsible. It basically means looking in the mirror.

EVALUATION TOOL

One evaluation tool that has served me well is called “The 10 Worst Things an Officer Can Say … and Mean!

“Let`s wait and see what happens.” Something almost always will happen, and odds are that you won`t like it! Procrastinating for lack of an action plan gives the incident the upper hand. If you don`t know what to do, ask someone who might. If you`re not sure, always err on the side of safety.

“… because we`ve always done it that way.” This is a non-answer, an “I`m not now nor ever will be into effecting change for any reason.” The best job for this type of individual is staging officer for antique apparatus. Instead of saying “Don`t fix it if it isn`t broke,” ask “What`s a better way to keep it from breaking?”

“You can`t tell me ….” Well, then there`s no sense in my discussing this issue with you because you`ve already made up your mind that no one`s going to tell you anything. This is a pretty effective comeback, although it can be just like giving sugar to a hypoglycemic–just when you thought he`d get better, he comes up swinging. However, if you give someone this response and mean it, you`d be surprised at the dialogue it might open up.

“Well, you know, that might work for most guys, but we do things around here a little differently than most places!” What is usually meant by the speaker to be a defiant statement of pride actually forms an alliance of ignorance and laziness. Who in his right mind would be proud of deviating from accepted successful practices, except for the rare case in which a great improvement has been made? However, those individuals aren`t usually making that statement.

“Rules are made to be broken.” Yeah, and tower ladders are made to be operated by penguins! This statement might have some truth to it; otherwise, how could the person saying it be an officer?

“Let`s just get through this one; next time maybe we`ll do things the right way.” And the next time turns into the next time, and so on. Of what are we afraid? Change? Education? Work? If you train on a new concept and run scared every time the opportunity to use it presents itself, the fear of change and mistakes will eventually dog every tactical action.

“Oh, well, there`s nothing I can do about it. (This is akin to, “Oh, well, that`s not my problem.) Yes, there is. (Yes it is.) Or at least you can make someone who can do something about it aware. This is pure lack of motivation and interest. Send this person to count folding chairs and ask him to let you know if any of them try to make a break for it.

“We`re volunteers! They can`t make us do anything we don`t want to.” This is gross misinformation at best, yet it is a statement heard with alarming frequency. I am often told by these folks to go outside and look at the sign on their building, which says “volunteer.” First of all, they need to look at the sign and notice that it says something like “Fire and Rescue.” This is not a softball team, a sewing circle, or the Sons of Knute lodge. This is real. Also, it`s most often not their building but the property of the customers they serve.

“What they don`t know won`t hurt them.” If whatever it is doesn`t hurt whomever we`re talking about, you can bet that in this day and age, it will come back to bite you. And, anyway, why are we doing something that fits into this category?

“It`s my way or the highway.” Go ahead, make a good argument for this one. Of course, there will be times when you don`t have the time to qualify your order/answer–and shouldn`t have to–or when you have exhausted all reasonability when dealing with the person with whom you are interacting. To embrace this statement as a style of management is to reduce all constructive input to an irritative status.

None of the above statements are fabricated. All, when used sincerely and frequently, can serve to remind us that we have some personal tune-up work to do as officers.

The ability to approach problem solving from a “get all the facts” perspective is your best hedge against surprise circumstances and hasty judgments. If you can`t be unbiased, find someone who is.

ATTRACTING NEW TALENT

Another fun little issue waiting for you out there is perpetuation of the species. As a member of the management team, you share a responsibility for exploring positive avenues to attract new talent. There must be a reason to belong. Be prepared to discard some old attitudes about recruitment and retention. Overall, traditional recruitment drives don`t work. Most of the people you attract come forward when they see the need but probably are not motivated to embrace this type of work. They are usually destined to be short-term members, although there are exceptions to this.

Some years ago, the Newport Township Fire Department in Wadsworth, Illinois, a combination department comprised of one career person, 12 part-time personnel, and approximately 30 paid on-call staff, conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the staffing problems and the inherent problems of longevity and motivation. A common complaint of chiefs of small volunteer and paid on-call agencies in the Midwest was that members would join, obtain extensive training at the department`s expense, and shortly thereafter be hired as career firefighters in other departments, leaving the volunteer department with a perpetual staffing problem. Chiefs of many small departments try to dissuade them from joining if they intend to use the volunteer department as a stepping stone to a career department.

Newport`s chief, Mark Kirschoffer, and the fire district`s board of trustees took a gamble. Instead of dissuading people, new applicants hopeful of making the fire service their career were encouraged. They were promised training; support; and assistance with résumés, references, and letters of recommendation. The proviso was that, in return for this career assistance, they would remain with our department for a couple of years after being hired by a career department, unless residency requirements dictated otherwise. Also, these individuals were placed on an every-sixth-night instead of an every-third-night rotation in deference to their 24/48 career schedule.

Newport currently has at least 12 members who are career firefighters elsewhere. Of all the members who accepted career positions after having been trained by Newport, only two have left; one left because of a residency requirement. In addition, Newport has the added benefit of having 12 individuals with training extended beyond what the department can normally afford. These 12 have also influenced other career personnel living in or near the district to join the Newport department. For an experiment implemented with no fanfare, all parties came out ahead because a negative was made into a positive.

Much of your success as a part-time fire officer can come from conceptualizing these types of solutions and testing them in a limited fashion. But even greater successes lie in your ability to recall the officer you most respected and trusted as a rank-and-file member–not the guy who let you get away with murder, but the one who challenged you while at the same time always looking out for you. Is that you in his footsteps? Are you the officer with whom you would want to go in or to whom you would entrust a problem? Are you really fair? Is the department fair? Rules must be reasonable; legal; read; understood; and, most importantly, applied according to plan and across the board! All rules. Is this going “by the book”? No, this is simply being fair.

Can you deal well with your folks? Can you make statements such as “He is a great firefighter, and I`d trust him with my life even though I hate his guts”? This perhaps is the toughest challenge an officer can face, or it can cause him to seek refuge in a few of the aforementioned “10 worst things ….” The ability and willingness to work toward this attitude is the greatest example of teamwork and is learned with no small amount of stress. And yet, it would be so easy for the part-time officer to say, “To hell with this. I don`t need this. This isn`t how I make a living!” But it`s tough to leave something you love so much.

Be a positive catalyst for good change in all matters. You can do no better than to fight for positive improvements and upgrades for the safety of your department members and the protection of your community, even if it negatively affects your personal level of comfort for a while.

Take a moment to think about where you see your department and yourself in the fire service in five years, and then 10 years. Are you good at planning and looking ahead? You had better be!

Finally, the day will come, my friends, when our time for the fire service will be nearing completion. Take a look at your involvement. As an officer, especially in a part-time department, you hold the keys to where this department can go or how long it can sit still. Ask yourself, Have I done as much as I can accomplish here? Do I still want to be here? Do I still have time for this? Am I too old, too sick, too bitter, too negative, too busy, or too tired? Can I spend enough time with my family, devote enough time to my religion, and satisfy other important areas of my life? Am I doing a good balancing act? Am I still a good officer? Do I remind myself from where I came? Do I treat my folks as I used to want to be treated and respected? Do I still love the fire service? Am I the reason no one comes around the station as much anymore? Do I take more pride in being a rebel than in doing a good job? Am I still here for the right reasons? Might it be time to go?

You are only as good as the teams with which you share your experiences–the fire department team, the family team, the community team, and all of your brothers and sisters in the fire service as a whole. Your success–and, yes, fulfillment–as an officer will lie quietly among the members of your team but will depend on your willingness to remain at bat and take coaching. We are allowed to do the greatest job in the world, albeit on a part-time basis. We must savor that and be grateful for that opportunity, just as the community is grateful for us. n

Note: I acknowledge the contributions of the Newport Township Fire Department, the Kenosha (WI) Fire Department, and the North Chicago (IL) Fire Department.



(Top) Newport Fire and Rescue, assisted by mutual-aid companies, operates at a multivehicle accident in which civilians were pinned in their cars. Small incident, small plan; big incident, expand the small plan. Keep it safe and simple. (Photo by W. Dunn.) (Bottom) Specialized equipment in the Newport Fire Department includes a heavy rescue trailer outfitted for complex vehicle extrications; a six-wheel-drive, all-terrain fire and rescue vehicle; and a fully equipped four-wheel-drive command unit. Part-time officers have no immunity from complex and challenging incidents. Training and equipment must be obtainable to optimize applications. (Photo by Rob Schreiner.)

WILLIAM BEETSCHEN, a veteran of the fire service for more than 29 years and the emergency medical service for 26 years, is deputy chief and training officer for the Newport Township Fire Department in Wadsworth, Illinois; the founder and owner of Emsource Group, Inc., an emergency services consulting firm; and the Illinois sales and education representative for Emergency Medical Products Inc. of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1990, he was named “Wisconsin Outstanding Paramedic of the Year” by the Wisconsin Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians and the Emergency Nurses Association. He developed the programs R.gif>.L.A.T.gif>. (Rescue Emergency Liaison and Training Exercise); EMS M.A.T.I.C.S. (Mutual Aid Triage and the Incident Command System); and DUI Project 90, which resulted in the awarding of a NIITSA grant to the State of Wisconsin.

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