Minimum mandatory training qualifications standards for firefighters and fire officers are at or near the top of the list of critical issues that must be resolved by our volunteer fire service. For many reasons, not the least being increased firefighter safety and the litigation monster that seems to stalk our every move, this issue cannot be ignored. It raises serious questions that shake the fabric of volunteerism itself.

Recently a small suburban New Jersey borough was thrown into a week-long fevered pitch when its council body refused to confirm the appointment of an assistant chief who had been elected chief by the 33-member fire department. Training qualifications were at the crux of the furor. Apparently the council, reported to have been unsatisfied with local officer qualifications bylaws, saw internal allegations against the elected chiefs training record as just the impetus it needed to make changes. The fire department, of course, saw it another way: as a threat to its democratic election process and to its authority in its own domain.

Confidential personnel records were seized in the night, fingers were pointed, attacks on officials’ integrity were made. Several fire department pagers were surrendered in protest. Public confidence in the fire department was weakened, at least temporarily, and the borough council was condemned for perpetuating a cloak of secrecy and suspicion about the affair. A hundred firefighters, citizens, and neighbors who gathered to voice their dismay at a borough council meeting were met with frustrating political rhetoric. Seventeen years of firefighting experience and personal reputation were on the line.

This story was to have a happy ending, with the chief producing proof of his qualifications at a 90-minute closed-door meeting with the council. He was confirmed the next evening. Getting there, however, was painful. Could this happen in your department? Maybe it already has, perhaps with worse results. One of the lessons extrapolated from this experience is that the volunteer fire service can continue as professional emergency responders only if adequate training qualifications standards are established and maintained to meet changing times.

This introduces the age-old question: Should we make such demands on a volunteer’s time? How far can we go? Amidst changing population and lifestyle demographics, which make it so difficult for many departments to recruit and retain membership, could this be the last straw? Are we asking too much of a volunteer firefighter who is responder, apparatus shop mechanic, fund-raiser, fire prevention officer, public relations executive, politician, and then some rolled into one? Are we forgetting that he or she has a life and a family, too? A chief of a paid department once said to me, “Increase the training standards? Seems to me that the entire town should be kissing the chiefs ass just for wanting to do the job!”

Unfortunately, admiration for the volunteers will not make the problem go away. If the fire service doesn’t police itself, someone else will, be it a town council, a board of insurance, a bureau of fire safety, a national code-making machine, or whatever. A strong fire service is one that is in control of its own destiny at the local level. A strong fire service dictates firefighter and fire officer standards at the local level. There is no other way to avoid being swallowed up by the tidal wave of national and state mandates than to have proactive local policies. And you can ill-afford to have local politicians throw the training issue back in your face.

It is impossible to argue against the benefits of expanded training qualifications requirements: increased firefighter and public safety, a greater opportunity for the fire department to maintain control of itself, and the respect and support of municipal citizens (where the dollars come from). And yet, it is a lot to ask volunteers to live their lives around classes at a distant training facility three nights a week. The question is how to establish a creative program that assures increased training with only minimum disruption of members’ lives.

The answer is to bring the training to the people. Rally support from neighboring towns and pool resources to bring qualified, certified instructors to a central, convenient location. Perhaps a longer weekend session is more feasible than several short weekday classes. Utilize “roving” regional training academy instructors or independent certified instructors. Lobby for funding of regional or county training facilities; if fire departments should have minimum standards, then you must work to fund those who will train them.

Approach your local government with your plans to increase training qualifications. Work with those officials to ensure that the qualifications will be written into the municipal bylaws. Make sure they understand that the fire department is most qualified to institute and implement the minimum standards and to determine who’s best qualified to serve as leaders.

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