Harry Carter: Running a Volunteer Fire Department

By Harry Carter

Let me begin this article by stating one important fact: I am not going to be writing about any sort of firefighting matters. It has been my experience that there has long been a missing link in the world of fire service management. It was simply assumed that the best firefighter would rise to the top and automatically become the best fire chief. This is not what I have seen during my many decades in the business.

Sorry to say, this myth has been perpetuated on an unknowing fire service for decades, if not centuries. The knowledge and skills necessary to be an effective fireground commander are not the same as those that needed to be an effective administrator, and being tough in the face of a raging fire has never readied any person for the day-to-day issues of interpersonal relations, budgeting, personnel management, planning, organizing, and leading and evaluating a fire department.

A volunteer fire department is an organization: the pattern of ways in which people too numerous to have face-to-face contact at all times and engaged in a wide range of tasks relate to one another in a conscious, systematic manner for the accomplishment of mutually acceptable goals.

Quite simply, an organization is a group of guys and gals working together to reach the same goals. You are all fire people working on together on fire-related matters. Hence, you are part of an organization. There will disagreements in your local volunteer fire department, just as there are disagreements in your family. As a matter of fact, I have even portrayed the fire service as a very dysfunctional family. At least, it sometimes seems that way.


As mentioned earlier, being the best firefighter has no bearing on becoming an effective fire service leader. This warning can be applied in no better areas than budgets and finance. One of the great problem areas in running a volunteer fire department is that most people don’t know anything about taxes, budgets, expense justification, and just about anything to do with money (other than asking for more).

Where does the money to run a fire department come from? Depending on the setup in your community, it can come from the municipal budget, a fire district budget, or direct fundraising efforts. Breaking it down even further, we can see that money is raised by taxation, assessment of user fees, funds from other levels of government, borrowing from a variety of sources, or asking people to give you money. A combination of these methods may be used to raise the community’s fire protection revenue. The specifics will depend on the actual identified needs of your community. Each method has its merits, but the wise fire administrator must be aware of the limitations and drawbacks of each system.

This is an area of department operations that is somewhat special. The line officers and the administrative officers should come together to create a proper fire department budgeting system.            


Taxation is the raising of money by a government unit.  The dictionary calls it a “financial contribution raised by levy. To be accepted by the governed, a system of taxation must be equitable, or at least look and seem that way. The system of taxation must yield enough money to get the job done. An insufficient flow of money will create operation problems that can cut into the proper delivery of service to the citizens.

Elasticity allows the funding levels to grow in a way that reflects the growth of income, considers inflationary pressures, and also considers the increasing need for services as a community passes through its growth phases. It is difficult to arrive at a proper level of elasticity, but it is up to the sharp fire administrator to become a part of the process. In this way, the needs of the fire department can be kept continually before the eyes and ears of those in government charged with raising the money. You cannot suddenly appear and begin demanding money. You have to be a continuing player in the budgetary game.

Equity equates with fairness. A good tax is one that is fair to all. If the residential property owners are carrying the bulk of the tax burden while industry and commerce coast along on tax abatements, the system is not fair. The wise fire administrator becomes attuned to the spending mood in the community. The fire department can then tailor its requests to the actual needs of the community. Providing a level of fire protection tailored to the community enables you to factually defend the expenditures.        

You should understand that every decision involving money and government is subject to political acceptability. Public finances is a frequent battleground area, and you will not always get what you ask for. You must have the facts to defend your requests. You will need the figures that outline your plan for the future in terms of reasonable dollar requests, and you will need friends to assist you in fighting for your share of the budgetary pie.

In spite of the best efforts of government to raise enough money through taxes, there are often shortfalls in budgetary allocations. In some cases, separate user fees are collected to help pay for services. A good example of this is the State of New Jersey user fees established and collected for conducting fire inspections. These fees are collected at the local level and forwarded to the State Division of Fire Safety. The state retains 20 percent of those funds for agency expenses and fire code administration costs. Local and county enforcement agencies receive the other 80 percent to assist in funding their operations.

Managing Funds

Just as we devote a great deal of time to preincident planning, we should also devote time to learning and using the budgetary planning cycle.

A brief description of the four phases of the budgetary process follow.

• Formulation. This period involves the whole range of fire department managers, leaders, and followers. Past budgets are reviewed, and brainstorming sessions are held to identify ideas and needs for the upcoming budget year. Solicit suggestions from every part of the organization. Involve as many people as possible in the process. You will end up with a better budget and a greater chance of members’ accepting the completed version.

Transmittal. This phase can be very simple or extremely complex, depending on the type and size of the department and who has the authority to approve the document. If you are a small, independent volunteer fire department, the chief presents the document to the fire department at a meeting, and it is voted on. If you are a large municipal volunteer fire department or one that receives its funding from a Board of Fire Commissioners, more steps are involved.

Be sure you understand the following:

•           Who is to send the budget forward?

•           What information will be needed to justify the budgetary requests?

•           Is enough documentation attached to the budget, in case a question arises and no one from the department is available to answer the question?

•           Who might be hiding in the system waiting to ambush the fire department’s     budget document?

•           Who are your friends in the system?

•           Who is the enemy?

You must remain available to provide answers to any questions that may arise. Never set your budget proposal adrift on the seas of bureaucracy, hoping that it will ride the tide to the snug harbor of the financial officer’s desk. Stay on tops of this process.

Approval. Know exactly how the system works in your community. Somebody has to say yes or no to your request. Hope for the yes, but be prepared for any potential no that may come your way. Have a plan in your back pocket that will help you work with less in case your budgetary justifications are ignored.

Management. Once you have received an approved amount of money to operate your department, the management phase begins. This is the truly hard part. If they cut your request, you have to make do with what they give you. If they give you everything you want, this may be even more difficult than having your request cut. You have to live within the means that you specified. Won’t you look silly if you can’t live on your own budget?

Learning to manage money is vital to successfully running a volunteer fire department. It is an area that can make or break a fire service administrator.

Personnel Selection

To successfully run your volunteer fire department, you will have to get along with people. One place to begin is with your fire department’s constitution and by-laws, which should stipulate the period of service as a probationary firefighter. During this time, you can assess an individual’s performance and compliance with all necessary requirements and attempt to assist the promising potential employees with blending into the organization.

Some people are not team players. A volunteer fire department has precious little room for a bunch of self-serving all-stars whose only purpose is to get as much for themselves as they can. You will need to create some forms that will allow you to document an individual’s performance. If you release a member at the end of the probation period, you must document the reasons for this action.

Leadership and Interpersonal Skills

Perhaps the most serious problem impacting the volunteer fire service is the lack of leadership and interpersonal relationship skills. Some people in leadership roles within the volunteer fire service have never had any sort of formal training in the skills necessary to be a leader.

I am always amazed that people will elect a friend with no identifiable ability to be their leader. This occurs because the normal process of selecting leaders in the volunteer fire service involves some form of an election and no requirement for pre-appointment qualifications. This lack of trained, caring, and considerate leaders is one of the primary causes for personnel upheavals and continuing staffing turnover. Members select totally unqualified people to run their fire departments and then follow them with blind devotion or complain that they do not know what they are doing.

Often, these elected people do not have leadership positions in their regular line of employment. Unless they are required to receive pre-appointment training, they will not have a clue as to how to lead and motivate people.

Leadership Principles

Following is a short list of leadership qualities I have developed during my 30 years of leadership studies:

·                 Be technically proficient. How can you correct the errors you might see if you cannot tell right from wrong and correct from incorrect?

·                 Know who you are. They must know who they are as individuals. If you do not know who you are and what you stand for, you lack substance and have no basis for your personal and moral decisions.

·                 Continually improve yourself. If you are not moving forward, you are stagnating.  This is a primary symptom of that horrible organization disease, “We have always done things this way.”

·                 Know your people: Good leaders get to know as individuals all the members under their supervision, regardless of level. This is a critical foundation for building a solid team and involves mutual respect for individuals and tolerance of differing views.

·                 Look out for your people’s best interests. Having to have everything done your way is not conducive to developing a working team.

·                 Keep your people informed. Most people are reasonable human beings. They respond well to requests for assistance and compliance if explain the reasons for the request.  

·                 Set the example. If you want people to be on time, arrive early, and greet the troops as they arrive; if you want everyone in the proper uniform, set the standard; live the standard.

Ensure your people understand your directives. Making sure that your members understand what you expect allows for a two-way flow of information. Well-trained leaders should consider other leading methods as well. For example, they should strive for a balance between smothering their people with supervision and letting them run amuck.  

Good leaders ensure that their people will train as a group and perform as a team. However, leaders should also know each person as an individual and provide support and nurturing as needed.


Harry R. Carter is chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners for Howell Township (NJ) Fire District #2. He had a 26-year career with the Newark (NJ) Fire Department. He has also had a 39-year career with the Adelphia Fire Company in Howell Township, New Jersey, serving as chief in 1991; he is company chaplain and an active life member. He has a doctor of philosophy degree in business from Capella University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is an adjunct faculty member in the School of Public Safety Leadership at Capella.



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