ESTABLISHING OFFICER CREDIBILITY

BY STEVEN A. SAVIA, CMC

One of the ongoing strug-gles within the volunteer fire service is establishing the credibility of its officers among other volunteers; paid firefighters; and, at times, the community. To some degree, we have done this to ourselves. Many departments elect their officers annually, often based on friendships or feuds, cliques or coalitions.

Paid personnel, especially within a combined department, have been observing leadership in constant flux: dealing with someone who is an officer one day and a firefighter the day after the election.

What happened? Did that person suddenly lose all of the experience and knowledge necessary to be an officer? It is possible that the department realized during that officer’s tenure that the individual was not as well qualified as was previously thought. But more likely, especially in the case of a chief, that person created some friction within the ranks (or within the officer corps itself), enough to lose the subsequent election.

OFFICERS SHOULD BE LEADERS AS WELL

Do volunteers want officers who lead and make decisions based on their education, training, and experience? Or do we continue to designate officers based on their ability to develop and maintain a consensus large enough to keep winning elections? If we look to the career department for guidance, we see personnel promoted on the basis of qualifications: experience; progression through the ranks; demonstration of knowledge and skills through testing and interviews; and, increasingly more often, education. Once promoted, the person holds that rank until he is subsequently promoted, leaves the department, or engages in some behavior meriting demotion or dismissal.

So why can’t it be the same in the volunteer service? We respond to the same emergency situations and fight the same fires with the same hazards. Most volunteer or combined departments require minimum levels of training, including specialized training in hazardous materials awareness and handling, emergency medical response and treatment, and technically difficult rescues (e.g., trench or confined space). Many volunteer de-partments have specialized response units such as squad and truck companies and require additional training for these units.

So where is the problem? Training is the same as or comparable with that of the paid service (it’s exposure over time that is the substantive difference for most paid personnel). It seems to be in the way we make officers and the ever-present election process. And unfortunately, volunteer departments do elect people to positions for which they are not fully qualified.

Many departments have significant budgets, yet we elect people who have no training or education in finance or budgeting to be responsible for those budgets-for example, new apparatus can range from $100,000 to almost $1 million. Financing means negotiating with experienced financial managers often more concerned about their profit contribution and year-end bonus than helping the fire department save money. It is estimated that every firefighter’s personal protective equipment runs more than $1,000. When added to equipment maintenance and repair, station maintenance, utilities, fuel, petty cash expenditures, and so on, the amount of money managed by these people is way beyond what is expected of the average homeowner.

Fire departments that present budget requests to a governmental agency are expected to submit budgets that are every bit as sophisticated as those submitted by any of the other governmental units. Often, that means program planning, fund accounting, expenditure allocation, resource deployment, depreciation schedules, contingency funds, capital replacement funds, and reserve fund investment. Budgeting may include calculating transfer and intangible costs as well as the net present value of services rendered.

We place people in management roles (and I include line officers in this group) who have no management training or experience. At times, they discipline a member. What training do they have in this area to avoid legal liability? Are these people handling the situation in a professional manner or just doing the best they can? The latter doesn’t cut it anymore. We have people who have no human resource training or education responsible for recruitment/membership. Invariably, the people least equipped to carry out this responsibility are the ones who volunteer for it. You know what I mean: The person with the sour attitude is the one responsible for the orientation of new or prospective members.

SOLVING THE PROBLEM

What do we do to solve this problem? Consider the following as a starting point for discussion:

  • Establish qualifications for line- and administrative officer-level positions that are comparable to what might be expected in the local government paid service. Notice I said comparable, not exactly the same, although I don’t rule out using the same criteria as a neighboring local government jurisdiction.

  • Give current officers an opportunity to meet those qualifications within a reasonable period of time. Community colleges and regional training centers usually offer the education needed.

  • End the process of electing officers, with the possible exception of chief of the department. For all other officers, once an individual has achieved the qualifications for officer, he should retain that position until he fails to maintain the qualifications through ongoing training and education, is promoted to the next level, or leaves the department. Promotions to officer-level positions can be validated by having the chief or board of directors confirm that the candidates meet the criteria.

  • Don’t be afraid to establish lots of officer positions, particularly at the lieutenant and captain levels. Banks learned a long time ago that titles are inexpensive but go a long way toward motivating personnel to work hard to achieve the qualifications for a given position. Someone might ask, What happens if we have no firefighters and our lowest level in the department is lieutenant? That’s a wonderful problem to have. Consider the level of qualifications of your personnel. If that is too disconcerting, limit the number of officers; however, have a sufficient enough number so that people won’t be discouraged because they have the qualifications but there are no openings.

    So, it’s not perfect. It’s a starting point for volunteers to begin moving in a new direction-one that will enhance their credibility with city and county managers, paid personnel, and even members of the community.

    STEVEN A. SAVIA, CMC, is a founding principal of The Sage Group, a professional management consulting and public policy research firm specializing in serving local government organizations, and is a member of the Bay Leaf Volunteer Fire Department in Wake County, North Carolina. Among his fire service-related training credits and certifications are basic firefighter training, basic and advanced Red Cross First Aid, CPR, driver/pump operations training, fireground command, EMT, petroleum/oil firefighting, high-rise building fires, managing fire services, municipal fire administration, and chief officer training. He teaches a variety of firefighting strategy/tactics and administration/management subjects. Savia has a B.A. from George Mason University and an M.A. from Florida Atlantic University and has pursued doctoral study in public policy at the University of North Carolina. He is a past national chairman of the Institute of Management Consultants.

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