Creating a ‘Paramilitary’ Volunteer Fire Service

Benjamin Smith explains the parallels between the fire service and the military and how to bring these two mindsets together to create a more disciplined fire department.
VOLUNTEERS CORNER

Any firefighter in today’s fire service will tell you the fire service is held to the ways of the military and has been ever since after the Korean War. When we compare the fire service to the military, we follow a lot of the same trends. For example, after we are hired, we go in front of our elected officials and are sworn in under oath. We also progress through the ranks, starting out as a firefighter and working our way to the top, becoming a company officer.1 We also follow the incident command system and chain of command to know to whom we have to answer; from whom we take orders; and, most importantly, with whom we must coincide when it comes to working with other companies.2

In larger departments, we also have battalions, divisions, companies, task forces, and so on. In the volunteer firefighting world, we use these terms to describe a certain group of people from multiple units who are completing a single task. For example, you may have two members from an engine and one or two members from a ladder truck designated search and ventilation. This group would be referred to as the truck company, while someone designated suppression would be referred to as an engine company, and so on.

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Volunteer firefighters are in a unique position. Contrary to popular belief, they are almost always held to the same standards as firefighters in large metropolitan cities in the United States, so why should we act any differently? Why can’t we, as volunteers, act in a paramilitary way?

Why the Uniform?

It can be challenging—if not impossible—to make a group of firefighters who don’t know when the call will drop or when they are needed to dress in a certain way on responses. Although this is not my intended point, this same group should be able to dress when they are out on detail; for special events in and out of the firehouse; and, most importantly, when they’re in the public eye.

If you want the public to respect you as a firefighter, respect yourself. That means following uniform standards: being clean-shaven, having good hygiene, and dressing like a professional. This means, essentially, having a uniform, which is a big boost for public relations, whether it’s Class A or Class B, as well as a big boost when the voters hit the voting booth.

Instill a Fire Academy Mentality

When volunteer departments get new recruits straight out of the academy, the recruits either (a) have been out of the academy so long that they only have the bare minimum of continuing education hours to hold a card until they get put on a department, (b) are brand-new, bright-eyed 18-year-olds with little to no experience, or (c) are looking for a hobby and may or may not understand the true demands and sacrifices required of the fire service. So, how do we get all these people to operate on the same page? How do we maintain them? A viable solution is through mentorship.

Speaking from experience, mentorship should take a practical approach, with the basis of a program consisting of structured measures of achievements. The Berlin Township (OH) Fire Department (BTFD) mentorship program features several standard operating guidelines (SOGs), which follow:

  • The recruit is assigned a senior member of the department who is responsible to stay in contact with recruits regarding training, meetings, and so on.
  • The recruit must complete a set of skills that are compliant with the state of Ohio’s firefighter 1 and 2 courses.3
  • The recruit may not come off probation until cleared by the mentor and once his skill set is completed.
  • The chief has the ultimate say in when the recruit can come off probation.
  • Having this mentorship program in place ensures that the recruit is up to par with the department’s SOGs, is trained in how the department operates, and is kept at the same level as every member of the team as if they all came from the same fire academy.
Instilling Discipline

Our biggest challenge is getting the new recruits—and even current members—to the level of discipline that keeps them all running like a well-oiled machine. This discipline includes having all members do the following:

  • Wear a uniform at the appropriate times.
  • Be clean-shaven per National Fire Protection Association standards.4
  • Keep up up-to-date on trends in the fire service.
  • Train out of the firehouse, not relying on just the department training.

Often, it can be hard to convince your crews to do these sorts of things if your department’s culture isn’t willing to change. Without a doubt, the volunteer fire service faces challenges in recruitment, retention, and funding, which undoubtedly impacts training. When it comes to training, you cannot rely just on what your department offers once a week or month from the training officer. This training could be as simple as doing an Internet search or your own research on a certain firefighting topic, opening a fire service magazine, talking with other firefighters on certain topics, and so on. You may not get credit for the time invested in the reading, but it’s more than just about getting credit—it’s about personal development, expanding your knowledge base, and bettering yourself for the people you protect. It’s about them, not you.

To overcome this obstacle, get involved in outside training, and be willing to bring something back to the department. Never be afraid to reach out and do things beyond your department; it’s just another way of getting members involved and learning. By allowing department members to present training, you instill in them the desire to do the research and put together the information for the group. This then gets them out reading the information, brushing up on their skills, and learning new things instead of just listening to the same old person who presents the information every week or month. In volunteer departments, having a variety of members contribute to training brings a wide range of expertise and knowledge.

Also, remember not to overlook the newest members for training. They are always a good source of information because they are the most recent members out of fire school, which means they are the most up to date with the newest tactics. This is a great way to build buy-in within the organization and promote an open-minded culture in your department, where the exchange of ideas is encouraged and valued.

When it comes to training, instill discipline in your new members and allow them to have a say in new strategies and tactics within the department and to provide insight on training. These newer members will be eager to learn and even more eager to further their careers through outside training. Encourage them to bring something back for the rest of the group to learn but allow them to present the material themselves.

The volunteer fire service is in a unique situation. We are held to the standards of the rest of the fire service community, but the required discipline and paramilitary ways can often be difficult to achieve if they are not instilled in the department from the very beginning of the members’ tenure. Help them see that change; an open forum can be more constructive. Also, provide research and rationale to support your training topics. Although this may present initial challenges when introduced, having a standardized training program for all members will help get everyone on the same page. Stay positive, be proactive, and never miss a training opportunity.

References

1. Essentials of Firefighting and Fire Department Operations, IFSTA and Brady, 2013; Chapter 1, page 18.

2. IS-100c, An Introduction to the Incident Command System; Emergency Management Institute with Department of Homeland Security; June 25th, 2018 Edition.

3. Ohio Department of EMS, Practical Skills Evaluation Forms. https://www.ems.ohio.gov/charter-ps-forms.aspx.

4. NFPA 1500-2018 Edition: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program, Section 7.13, Fit Testing.


BENJAMIN SMITH is a nine-year fire service veteran and a lieutenant with the Berlin Township (OH) Fire Department, where he also serves as the personnel and emergency medical services officer. He is also a part-time firefighter/emergency medical technician (EMT) with the Vermilion (OH) Township Fire Department. Smith is also certified as a NREMT-B, a State of Ohio Firefighter 1, and an Ohio EMT-B. He has three years of EMS experience and works full time with the Fisher-Titus Medical Center’s local level 3 trauma center as an EMT in its emergency department.

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