Earning the Title ‘The Professional Volunteer’

Is it possible for a volunteer firefighter to be "professional"? Yes, argues Tom Merrill, but you've got to earn that designation.

FDIC International 2021 is inching closer, and I am sure you are as excited as I am to put 2020 behind us and get back to the greatest fire service conference in the world. If you have been fortunate to attend past conferences, you know how they always leave you reenergized and anxious to return home and deliver exceptional service to your communities and your residents. Delivering exceptional service is the trademark of a professional firefighter. If that firefighter happens to be a volunteer, he can still act professional and deliver professional service. After all, professionalism is certainly not defined by a paycheck, and a professional fire department need not be staffed by career firefighters. And, in my view, being a professional firefighter and representing a professional organization are directly under our control.

Revisiting 2020

Now, 2020 certainly has been a crazy year. I think you’d agree that now, more than ever before, public services are under immense scrutiny; some even say they’re under attack, and that certainly includes the volunteer fire service. All eyes are on us. We must accept the fact that we are living in a different world today: a much more judgmental, scrutinizing, and some say even mean-spirited world. Events around the country certainly seem to verify that sentiment.

The volunteer fire service doesn’t get a free pass anymore, either. It used to be that people recognized and understood that their local volunteer fire department provided a cost-effective, important service. In fact, the fire company was filled with local citizens; if you didn’t serve, you most likely knew many people who did. The volunteer firehouse was the center of attention, hosting community events, picnics, and other activities that continually connected the firefighters to the residents. And the volunteer fire company might not have been judged too harshly if they had a bad day at the office or a poor response or perhaps even if a member misbehaved or didn’t treat somebody right.

(1, 2) It is imperative that fire departments connect with their communities. The fire department needs its community as much as the community needs the fire department. (Photos courtesy of author.)

That’s not always the case today. As professional firefighters, it’s imperative that we do not allow ourselves or our fellow members to ever fall back on the line, “I am just a volunteer” or “We are just a volunteer department,” and use that as an excuse for poor performance, inappropriate behavior, or illegal or unethical activities.


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Some in the fire service like to say that it doesn’t really matter what the community thinks or that departments don’t need to worry about maintaining a positive relationship with their residents. In their view, when a resident needs help, they have no choice but to call 911 and accept whoever and whatever shows up. However, fire departments need their community as much as the community needs them. In 2021, recognize that it’s more important than ever to build, maintain, and even enhance our professional reputation. Get the word out and let your residents know that they are served and protected by professional volunteer firefighters representing professional volunteer fire departments. And, get your members to understand just how important it is to be a professional volunteer.

The Meaning of “Professional”

Some dispute the notion that volunteers can also be considered professional. However, when I consult the dictionary, I see various definitions for the word “professional,” including “relating to work that needs special skills and qualifications; showing a high level of skill or training; behaving in a correct way; doing your job well.” You could certainly apply all these definitions to paid as well as volunteer firefighters.

Even if we agree that some definitions of “professional” include a person who earns a paycheck to do a job, we must also agree that other definitions apply as well. As volunteer firefighters, let’s hold up our end of the bargain and concentrate on the things that we have direct control over. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to do that. Remember, “professional” has nothing to do with the size of the department, the age of the equipment, how many runs you go on, how many members you have, or even the department’s operating budget. Professional is delivering calm, competent, and compassionate service. Professional is having our ship in order back at the firehouse. Professional is truly connecting with our community, even outside the realm of their emergency call. Professional is treating people nicely—yes, this includes not only the public we serve but also our own members. All these things are under our control.

Community Interaction

The best way to deliver calm and competent service is by training regularly. We personally contribute to an organized, proficient operation by capably fulfilling whatever position we hold in our department. Whether it is being a line or an administrative officer, a firefighter, or even a support member, we can define professionalism by embracing our role and accepting the responsibility associated with it and working consistently and competently to do the jobs required. That is certainly under our control.

Professional volunteer organizations must strive to connect and be engaged with their community. But, as volunteers, it is impossible to attend every community event in which we are asked to participate. We can easily be overwhelmed with requests to attend block parties, chicken dinners, fundraisers, community days, field days, school events, parades, and a variety of other activities that our communities host. However, we must recognize and accept the fact that the more involved we are, the more opportunities we have to deliver our message of service, commitment, dedication, and selflessness. It is also an opportunity to showcase our professional volunteer fire department.

Perhaps your department cannot attend a community function. There simply may not be any members available that day. People are working or otherwise indisposed and that is so understandable and certainly out of your control. But what is under your control and directly impacts your department’s reputation is how you choose to communicate or not communicate with those asking for your presence.

If your department is unable to attend a community event, maintain your “professional” reputation by being honest with those requesting your presence and tell them you can’t make it. Don’t ignore the request; it’s far better to be open and honest than to fail to show up, which will leave people with a very poor opinion of your department. For that matter, anytime a member of the community reaches out to your department, address the request, question, or concern in a timely manner. Think of your own personal dealings with businesses and organizations. Don’t you appreciate an immediate response and clear communication? Well, so do your community members.

While at these public events, remember that every action you take and every word you utter are done as a firefighter. Every time you are out in public, every community event you attend, you are representing your fire department. Like it or not, how you act and treat people will definitely impact the reputation and professional image of your department. Your behavior is another thing that is directly under your control.

Be Nice

Treating people nicely must truly become a part of who you are. If you genuinely don’t like people, the fire service is probably not for you. Accept the fact that you are going to be dealing with people of all different personalities and thought processes. Their emergency call may not be an emergency in your mind, but you must still offer compassionate service and show true empathy for their problem.

All volunteer members must understand that there is no room for bigotry, biases, and prejudices in our firehouses, especially today. The volunteer fire service must be a diverse and an inclusive agency open to all members of our communities and dedicated and focused on the respect, protection, and well-being of everybody. Personal biases cannot be allowed to interfere with the fire service’s mission as well as its treatment of members or the public; all department members must be onboard with this sentiment!

(3, 4) When somebody is having a bad day and needs help, he really doesn’t care if those showing up to help are being paid or volunteering their time. All he cares about is that those helping are caring, competent, and professional.

From the moment a new member joins, he must be made aware of his personal responsibility for representing his department and our fire service in a positive and professional manner. Members must also be aware that today people are watching and recording everything. Even our veteran members need to be reminded of this; when they wear their departments colors (i.e., T-shirts, hats, and jackets) or display their department’s colors (i.e., stickers on cars), they have a duty and responsibility to act appropriately. In fact, they should act appropriately even when not wearing the shirt or displaying the sticker because even “off-duty” behavior can impact a department’s reputation. As firefighters, we are held to higher standards whether we like it or not. Again, this is all under our control.

We are living in a chaotic world today. Public servants, including those in the volunteer fire service, are under the microscope like never before. However, professional firefighters still have a duty and an obligation to respond to the public’s call for help and to provide competent and compassionate service every time we roll out the door. We still have a duty and an obligation to maintain the public’s trust and goodwill and to uphold the honor associated with our iconic fire service by behaving appropriately.

Fortunately, there are thousands of professional volunteer fire departments staffed by thousands of professional volunteer firefighters who provide nothing less than professional service every single day. These firefighters understand that it takes more than a paycheck or words and fancy slogans to be considered a professional volunteer. They understand that it takes their own personal commitment, dedication, and resiliency to provide stalwart, compassionate, and competent service to their community. Our residents are owed professional service, delivered by professional firefighters representing profession organizations. It’s that simple.

THOMAS A. MERRILLis a 37-year veteran of the Snyder Fire Department in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks and five years as chief of department. He has conducted various fire service presentations throughout the Western New York area as well as at FDIC International. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the Town of Amherst Fire Alarm Office.

Thomas A. Merrill will present “The Professional Volunteer Fire Department” at FDIC International 2021 in Indianapolis on Tuesday, August 3, 8:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.

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