BASIC ANALYSIS FOR THE VOLUNTEER FIRE SERVICE, PART 2: MODEL

BASIC ANALYSIS FOR THE VOLUNTEER FIRE SERVICE, PART 2: MODEL

BY CARL F. WELSER

This month, we continue by fitting models to missions. More importantly, we also deal with an open and honest recognition of all the separate, personal visions of the individual members of a volunteer organization. Personal visions may not be tolerable in career organizations, but they are absolutely vital to the health and survival of the volunteer fire service, and the chief officer who understands both the how and the why of leading a volunteer fire department will take them all into account.

The model overlays the mission like the upper layer in a cake. A sloppy fit is either ridiculous or nonproductive. Or dangerous. Or all of the above.

It is a task of the chief officer to apply whatever model best suits the mission at the moment and to modify the model as necessary when the mission shifts or other conditions in the municipality demand a change.

There are probably upwards of a dozen or more gradually differing models for fire departments across the country, ranging from public to private, from volunteer to career, and everything in between. Crossing over the imaginary line in the dirt separating one township from the next often reveals a slightly (or radically) different mode of operation.

Wherever an existing model–“the way we`ve always been doing it”–is allowed to determine the mission, there the tail is wagging the dog.

VISION

If model fits atop mission like a layer on a cake, then let vision be represented by candles. Here and there, one candle may appear larger or burn more brightly than the others. A few may be entirely burned out. But there is one candle for every member of the organization. Every member envisions himself as a person capable of making a unique contribution to the work of a volunteer organization. This may hold less true for career departments in which employees serve under a different agreement.

The difficult task faced by the chief officer of a volunteer fire department is to blend the separate visions of two dozen–or a hundred, or more–individuals into the unified pursuit and achievement of the goals of the organization. A chief is like the focusing magnet yoked around the neck of a television picture tube. Nobody is going to see a clear picture unless all the separate pieces of information flying toward the face of the tube are held in focus. Anyone who has ever stood outside a malfunctioning machine trying to clear up the picture by fiddling with the knobs and banging on the box with fists (a technique commonly referred to as “military therapy”) can sympathize. A blurred picture may not be entirely the chief`s fault, but that`s where the blame comes to rest when the department slips out of focus. And the lack of focus is at least partly the result of conflicting visions among the membership or a failure on the part of the chief officer to understand the how and the why of running a volunteer organization.

Most every application form for entrance to the fire service contains a question something like this: “Why do you want to join the fire department?” This is the part where the organization seeks a coherent vision statement from the enthusiastic young candidate, usually at the bottom of the page–a kind of afterthought, right after evidence that the applicant inhabits a warm, walking body.

A good poker player doesn`t reveal his hand all at once. No one answering this question dares venture much beyond responding, “Because I want to serve my community.” That is the noble answer. To admit anything more than is absolutely necessary would be foolish on the part of the applicant.

How wonderful if that noble answer were true from the start. Hidden within and beneath the noble answer lie as many different answers as there are applicants. Everyone has his own vision of the organization, how it should operate, how to add effort to it, and how to draw satisfaction from it. Effort (input) and satisfaction (outcome) are vital issues pertinent to the how and the why of a volunteer fire department.

One very common covert vision statement never written at the bottom of any application form goes like this: “I want to join the fire department because I want to drive a big red truck like a bat out of hell with lights blazing and siren blaring, and everybody had better get out of my way because I`m boss of the highway.”

Not everyone enters the fire service driven by so primal a vision. But some of us did.

Fortunately, personal vision has a way of maturing with age and experience. Maturity comes via knowledge through a chain of information, experience, and mistakes. A member may begin with a primal vision at the visceral level where adrenaline flows like gravy over biscuits at a truck stop diner. Most probationers probably start somewhere around there. If they survive and endure, their vision has a good chance of migrating from the visceral (gut) to the cerebral (brain) level, where reason slowly takes precedence over adrenaline.

Driving a car (or a big red truck) requires constant vector analysis. One force under the hood pushes the vehicle forward (the engine vector). Other forces try to stop it (more vectors, like gravity and friction). One vector holds it to the roadway (friction again). Another vector tempts the vehicle to fling itself off the roadway at every curve (inertia), especially on a slippery morning. Driver carelessness is not a true vector component, but it does figure in. Vector analysis (adding and subtracting all the forces) leads to a unique solution–called the resultant–which allows the vehicle to proceed safely to its destination. That`s the good result we want.

The personal visions of all the members of the organization represent separate vector forces. Some are right on target. A few are quite contrarian; they`ll put you in the ditch in a hurry. Blending a dozen or a hundred separate visions into the operation of a functional organization is like solving a problem in vector analysis. The chief officer works constantly toward a single solution–the resultant–of all the separate vector forces brought to the organization by the (often conflicting) visions of a host of individuals. And that unique solution must work toward the goals inherent in the municipal demands that underlie the fundamental mission of the organization.

Some personal visions are so immature and contrarian that they must be squelched immediately. Willingness to serve does not excuse dangerous conduct. The firefighter safety curriculum is loaded with prime examples of destructive behaviors. All of these behaviors must be quickly expunged. That`s what probation is all about. And suspension.

It is the business of the volunteer chief to create and maintain a nurturing environment in which people of immature vision may make their mistakes without endangering themselves or others. Ordinary mistakes are not cause for dismissal, or even for harsh discipline. Mistakes are the essential stuff by which experience is gained. Through the experience of our mistakes, we accumulate the information necessary for the knowledge in which a mature vision can grow and prosper.

ASSORTED VISION STATEMENTS

As volunteers, we are highly regarded by some of our fellow citizens as people of noble aims and great sacrifice. That`s the part about dropping what we`re doing or jumping out of bed at all hours of the night to risk our lives for the safety and well-being of our communities. Being admired is fun for a while. But it does become tacky.

Others tend to judge us harshly as Rootie-Kazooties with flashing lights on pickup trucks driven by an unquenchable desire for action. That judgment bears the sour breath of jealousy about it and is just as well ignored.

Out of the maelstrom between sticky adoration and sour judgment rises the beacon of self-gratification. Personal gratification is an important motivator. Our sense of vision tends to reach for self-gratification. And that`s OK. None of us is a self-effacing saint. We all have our reasons for doing what we do. There is always a payoff. Just let it be a socially acceptable payoff. To do less is to allow self-gratification to become self-serving.

The beacon draws some person to the fulfillment of a childhood dream of growing up to be a firefighter–a part-timer, to be sure, but a firefighter all the same. Eventually he will discover there`s more to it than meets the eye. Excitement and glory are tempered by prolonged boredom between actions plus a surprising lot of effort required to hold the infrastructure together until the pager announces the next piece of action. And the infighting among fellow firefighters waiting for action can be as vicious as any flames. They will soon discover that some people in the organization should be required to file material safety data sheets for what they`re thinking at the moment. At that fork in the road, they will either advance to a more mature vision or burn out.

Others live to fight fire and nothing else. They are the ones who suffer measurable clinical depression if they happen to be out of town when “the Big One” ignites. To be sure, there are few challenges more stimulating to a firefighter than a major structure fire. But this eclectic vision is increasingly difficult to entertain, especially in communities of higher socioeconomic level, where real fires are becoming a rarity.

Some want to be personally challenged in any way, shape, or form. They crave testing. Some want to lead and control other people. Some want to be part of a worthy action group, serving their community. Some want to know what happened in town last night without having to ask anyone else about all the sirens. Some want to gossip about what happened.

Large numbers of younger candidates frankly intend to use their volunteer experience as a stepping stone to a career opportunity. The wise organization considers it a feather in its cap when it assists a member toward career placement. That`s a win-win situation.

There is a candle on the cake for everyone; some are brighter than others; some are completely burned out. Everyone in the department has his own vision for being there. None dare be dismissed. All must be blended toward departmental goals.

I am a 30-year veteran of a strictly volunteer fire department. Its equipment and assets are held entirely in the name of the department members (an organizational model more common out East but mostly a fluke of history in Michigan). The 51-member department averages about two calls per day, mostly medically related. No one is paid anything for his services. The department has experienced wracking changes and wrenching upheavals in recent years but continues to grow stronger and more effective as a result.

I believe that my personal vision for the fire service has evolved and matured unto the highest order over the years. So, who doesn`t? We each consider our personal vision to be of the highest order.

My personal vision simply aims at helping people whose lives are temporarily out of whack to get back on track, whatever action that may require: douse a fire, peel apart a car, push oxygen, punch the shock button on the semiautomatic defribrillator, transport a hopeful family to the hospital and back home again grieving, or bury the pet that suffocated in the laundry room fire.

My vision for my volunteer fire department enables me to help my community to be and remain what I want it to be–a community free of the impersonal pathologies that drag so many communities down to destruction. The astute observer will recognize yet another personal vision hidden beneath that last statement.

Whatever specific activity it takes to fulfill our vision is secondary to our concern for the needs of the people we serve. What we do becomes much less important than how well we do it, and for whom. We may always fall short of the maximum. We aim, nevertheless, to reach beyond minimum acts of stabilizing kindness in times of duress for friends and strangers alike.

Feeding on that font of satisfaction, you can even laugh your way through your next Rumpelstiltskin Regression.

CARL F. WELSER is training officer for the Hamburg (MI) Fire Department, Inc.

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