Juggling Hats: Managing a Volunteer, Combination, or Small Career Department

Managing a volunteer, combination, or small career department is not easy. Customer expectations and call volumes continue to increase while leaders are faced with more and more unfunded mandates, flat or declining revenue, greater training and certification demands, staff availability challenges, recruitment and retention concerns, vision casting, and organizational succession planning responsibilities.

To address these challenges, fire service leaders juggle multiple “hats” as they attempt to meet the needs of their organizations and personnel. During a single day, department leaders may find themselves filling the role of emergency responder, accountant, human resource director, legal expert, politician, cheerleader, marriage counselor, and sometimes even boss. Volunteer and paid-on-call leaders do all this while also working a “real job” and trying to meet their own family needs.

The passion to serve can quickly be overshadowed by the demands and the fatigue associated with the workload. Many quality fire service leaders have opted to leave their organizations because of the overwhelming load. Others who have the potential to serve in leadership roles refuse to step up and take on the added responsibilities because they deem the cost to be too high. In either case, a community’s emergency response capabilities are weakened.

This article looks at a few of the more challenging issues department leaders face and provides some insight and resources for chiefs and command officers.

Human Resources: Recruitment and Hiring

Human resource management (HRM) is a contemporary term used to describe the management and development of employees within an organization. The term was first coined in the 1960s when organizations began to place greater emphasis on employee motivation, performance evaluation, recruitment, and selection. The overarching goal of HRM is to increase the effectiveness of the organization through hiring, training, and maintaining quality employees.1

HRM is arguably one of the more important hats a fire service leader wears. When talking with fire service leaders, many say that today’s volunteer/paid-on-call emergency services are struggling. Attracting and maintaining members are increasingly difficult, thereby leaving few personnel who are trained to respond to emergency calls. As I interact with volunteer/paid-on-call fire service leaders, I typically ask the question, “How many personnel do you have responding to an emergency at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday?” The answer is consistently, “Two or three.” They normally counter with, “However, that number increases after 6 p.m. and falls off again after 6 a.m.” This variation in staffing makes emergency operations very challenging and increases significantly the risk for responders and those needing assistance.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that the number of volunteer firefighters per 1,000 people protected has shown a steady downward trend since 1986 (8.05 in 1987 to a low of 6.37 in 2011). This reduction is significant in that 85 percent of fire departments are staffed mostly by volunteer firefighters. Recent positive news indicates that in 2015, a 3.4 percent increase was realized in the number of volunteer firefighters from the previous year. Whether this trend will continue has yet to be seen. There are currently about 815,000 volunteers serving in the U.S. Fire Service.2

Attracting, selecting, and maintaining the right members are critical. Fire and emergency services members hold a unique trust in the eyes of our communities, and it is imperative that we have members who not only provide quality services but also are above reproach. Because it is difficult to attract volunteers, fire service leaders need to be careful about falling into the mindset that considers a warm body better than a vacant position. Although you may have a name to fill a slot on the roster, a poor employee can do immeasurable harm to the organization and its reputation.

Excellence attracts excellence! A department’s current members are its best (or worst) recruitment tool. People want to be part of a winning team. How the current team members look, act, and function will define the organization’s respect level and determine whether others want to be part of the group.

Once potential members have expressed an interest in joining your organization, their next step will be to research it. They want to know who you are and what you do so they can begin to evaluate whether the organization would be a good fit and worth their time. The first stop in this investigative process is the organization’s Web site or social media page. Information on these electronic sites must be relevant and up to date. Along with your social media footprint, the branding message sent by the appearance of your facilities, equipment, and uniforms also plays a role in recruiting members.

When potential members apply to the department, you need to determine whether they will be a good fit for the organization and the organization a good fit for them. This analysis begins with the application process and continues through the interview and background checks.

The employment application should be designed to obtain all necessary personal data without seeking potentially discriminatory information. Include information related to references, applicable training and education, and a waiver to allow the department to check the candidate’s background, including driving and criminal histories. Consider as “red flags” background discoveries such as theft, driving under the influence, numerous motor vehicle citations, use of illegal substances, violence, and unexplained questions from the past. During the interview, you can obtain information such as the candidate’s reasons for joining the organization, what he considers the best and worst parts of the job, and the skills he will bring to the department.

Candidates’ motivation for wanting to be part of your department will vary from person to person. It may be an interest in emergency services, a desire to contribute to the community, or family history. Knowing what motivates them will enable you to ensure that their objectives are being satisfied and that they sustain their enthusiasm about being a valued member of the organization.3

Human Resources: Leading the Team

Leaders need to make it easy to work for the organization, but this does not mean that they should not expect a great deal from members. Successful organizations require much from their team members. Leaders need to project a positive and an enthusiastic attitude toward the department and the work their team members do while simultaneously working to challenge, stretch, and build them as individuals. At the end of the day, the goal is to have the members head home saying, “I can’t believe I GET to do this!” (3)

Performance management is a process for establishing a shared understanding about what members are to achieve. To ensure that your members perform at their best while maintaining a high level of motivation, you must establish a level of performance management. It may be expressed as a base level of training/certification, attendance at meetings and drills, response to a certain percentage of calls, or a variety of other established standards. Clearly articulate the goals, and establish metrics for measuring success. The nature of the volunteer/paid-on-call environment necessitates a level of flexibility relative to changing conditions or challenges that arise in members’ lives. Members should be able to think of their leaders as coaches who are there to help them achieve success and to meet their motivational needs for being part of the organization.4

Annual performance evaluations are not common in the volunteer/paid-on-call environment. In many cases, they are avoided because they might make volunteering feel too much like a “real job.” There is also a fear that a critical analysis of a member’s performance might serve as a demotivator and cause the member to leave the organization. Although some of these points may be valid, a well-thought-out and relevant tool can go a long way in helping guide performance and having members meet their goals.

As a leader of a volunteer/combination department, I found that a “self-evaluation” tool was immensely helpful. The one-page, checkbox form allowed the members to rate themselves in a variety of areas including teamwork, dependability, communication, quality of work, and job knowledge. My officers rated the member using the same form, and the two would then meet to compare thoughts. The form also had questions about how the department could better use the members’ skills and abilities, the members’ goals, and how the department could assist them in meeting these goals. Through this process, our officers learned a great deal about the members and how to help them. (4)

Members who join volunteer/paid-on-call/combination departments do not want to be a problem or a weak link. They have a high drive for achievement and are willing to work hard to accomplish the organization’s mission. As leaders, we need to harness this drive; and as we help them to be successful in their inner motivation, they help the organization be successful in serving those we protect. To accomplish this, however, we need to talk to them—more importantly, we need to listen to them.

Strategic Planning

The fire service leader must also be a planner and critical thinker. Often, we get so covered up by the day-to-day workload of managing our organizations that we forget to step back to check the compass to make sure that we are still headed in the right direction. The bottom line is that no leader can effectively manage an organization by being reactive or running from one crisis event to the next. Strategic planning is a well-thought-out and deliberate study that looks at the decisions we make today and how they will likely impact the organization’s future.5 The strategic planning process encourages leaders to take a 30,000-foot view of their organization so they can more clearly see the global picture. The process revolves around a series of fundamental questions:

  • What does our community need us to do?
  • What are we currently doing?
  • What is needed today, and what will likely be needed in the future?
  • What would a blueprint for action look like?
  • How will we know if we are on track to meet our community’s needs? To begin looking at these questions, a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis is extremely helpful. Dividing the analysis process into these four categories helps the planning team to more easily focus on key areas of the organization.

A planning team carefully selected by the leader should conduct this analysis. The team should be comprised of dedicated and diverse team members who can set aside personal agendas to conduct a critical review of the organization. A good working group size is eight to 12 members.6

Document the information gleaned from the analysis in bullet-point format. Do not let the team get discouraged as weaknesses begin to emerge. All organizations, regardless of size, funding level, or member makeup, have weaknesses. The key is to identify them so they can be understood and addressed.

The opportunities portion of the analysis should look primarily at areas external to the department. Consider and discuss opportunities for expansion, new programs, collaborative relationships, greater efficiencies, and revenue enhancements. The threat analysis identifies future concerns that have the potential to negatively impact organizational stability and continuation of the mission.

As the SWOT analysis unfolds, action items naturally begin to emerge. This is where the process becomes fun. These action items become the goals that address the issues identified through the SWOT. Goals need to become written plans that include an outline of the objectives needed to accomplish the goal, a time frame for completion, and the persons responsible for the various areas of work. Limit timeframes for goals to about three years. With today’s fast-paced and changing work environment, plans that extend beyond three years tend to lose efficiency. (6)

Finally, celebrate with the entire organizational membership the successes achieved as the goals are accomplished. This enables everyone in the organization to monitor progress and helps to generate excitement, buy-in, pride, and a sense that the department is moving in a positive direction. (6)

Managing the Money

The next step is to figure out how to fund the goals identified. Financial management is a step in a much larger planning, management, and performance framework. The budget is not a planning tool; it is the tool that allows the plan to be accomplished. View the financial funding process as a comprehensive package that is more than a single-year procedure.

The basic tenet of financial management is that expenditures cannot exceed revenue. If you need to increase expenditures to accomplish the objectives, you will likely first need to increase revenue.

Revenue in a government organization is typically generated through a variety of sources such as taxes on property values; fees for service, licenses, and permits; and fines or singular revenue funds such as special service areas or Tax Increment Financing Districts. Leaders need to keenly understand how revenue is generated and how the income lines up with the needed expenditures. They need to always be looking for ways to generate revenue and ensure that they are maximizing revenue options based on the needs of the organization. Money makes the plan happen, and leaders need to become experts in ensuring that the dollars needed are generated.

Once dollars are generated, you must make these funds work for the betterment of the organization. A good example is the development of apparatus sinking funds (e.g., savings accounts) that allow departments to self-fund purchases rather than borrow the money and then make interest payments to the lending institution. Sinking funds require an analysis of the likely life expectancy of the apparatus. A compounded percentage multiplier is added to the original purchase price for each year that the rig remains in service. This will provide an estimate of the replacement cost at purchase time.

As an example, a new fire engine costing $500,000 in 2018 with a life expectancy of 30 years will likely cost $2,160,971 in 2048 using a 5 percent annual multiplier. This would require the department to make annual contributions to the sinking fund of $72,032 to purchase a similar replacement unit in 2048.

Once equipped with these numbers, departments can determine options related to shortening or lengthening the apparatus life expectancy, purchasing preowned apparatus, having an apparatus refurbished, or any number of other options. The keys are understanding the future costs and beginning to make plans instead of running blindly ahead and expecting that it will all work out. Like apparatus, large capital items such as self-contained breathing apparatus, extrication tools, cardiac monitors, and similar equipment can be managed through a sinking fund system.

Financial planning of this nature not only secures the operational future of the organization but also passes a financially stable legacy on to future leaders.


1. humanresourcesedu.org. (n.d.). https://www.humanresourcesedu.org/what-is-human-resources/.

2. Haynes, HJ, & Stein, GP. (2017). U.S. Fire Department Profile – 2015 [Research Report]. Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association.

3. Hybels, B. (2004). The Volunteer Revolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

4. Haigh, CA. “Rethinking the Annual Performance Evaluation,” Fire Engineering; Aug. 2018.

5. Wallace, M. (2006). Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence (Second Edition). Tulsa, Oklahoma: PennWell Corporation.

6. Haigh, CA. ”The Art of Planning,” Fire Engineering; Aug. 2016: 67-71.

Craig A. Haigh, a 35-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Hanover Park (IL) Fire Department and a field staff instructor with the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute. He is a frequent partner with the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute’s Firefighter Life Safety Research Center and the Skidmore College First Responder Health and Safety Laboratory. He is a published author and a national speaker. He has a BS degree in fire and safety engineering and an MS degree in executive fire service leadership. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, a nationally certified paramedic, an accredited Chief Fire Officer, and a member of the Institute of Fire Engineers. He was named the 2012 Illinois Career Fire Chief of the Year.

Rethinking the Annual Performance Evaluation

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