“THEY’RE JUST TRYING TO RUN OFF THE VOLUNTEERS!”

I’ve had the pleasure of working with a few volunteer fire departments across the country as they transitioned from an all-volunteer service to some type of combination system. During heated discussions on creating a combination system, one of the most common accusations I hear from place to place is, “They’re just trying to run off the volunteers!” Sometimes this fear might be warranted, other times it may not be exactly true. Another interesting commonality among transitioning departments is the mysterious appearance of Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, M.D. This little book has been around for awhile and is an easy read that describes how people manage change. When our department went through “the transition” some time ago, we, too, all received a copy to read. Surprisingly, we found it contained some valuable lessons that could be applied to our challenges.

The book tells the story of four mice who live in a maze. Each day, they make their way through the maze to their cheese. This process continues for some time until one day, someone moves their respective stashes of cheese. Each of the four mice handles this change in different ways. Now, in any of the cases, moving the cheese was not necessarily a bad thing. It was simply a new order of things. In some cases, the cheese may have actually been moved closer; but this didn’t matter to some of the mice because it was not where the cheese had always been. One of the mice complained and protested the moving of the cheese and refused to change. Others who adapted to the moving of the cheese soon found the change actually made their work easier. Unfortunately, the mouse that refused to change soon starved to death and was no longer a part of the maze.

This is an interesting parable when applied to the “running off the volunteers” accusation. A facilitator hearing these and other fears expressed must ask, “Is this true, or are these concerns really just a reaction to the movement of their cheese? If you have ever played the “running off the volunteers” card or know someone who has, ask yourself, “Is this truly the case, or is this just a new order of things?” You should consider some simple concepts to determine if this accusation is actually valid. For the purpose of this discussion, we’ll equate the “running off the volunteers” concept to cheese, not in a demeaning sense but rather as a reference to save words.

STEALING VS. MOVING

The “running off the volunteers” concept can be valid, although in my experience it is very rare. In most cases, the proposed changes are simply an attempt to improve the service delivery. Some of the common triggers that draw the cheese reaction are listed below.

• Establishing firefighter and officer training standards.

• Implementing department response standards, such as time out and on-scene.

Going to a duty crew concept as opposed to responding by pager from home.

Replacing elections for officer selection with a competitive process based on qualifications and ability instead of popularity.

• Integrating smaller fire companies into a larger department configuration.

• Integrating fire and EMS agencies into a combined system.

Throw any of these ideas out on the table in a meeting and chances are it will draw some cheese. Some folks may not come right out and say it, but you can bet they have cheese in the backs of their minds. This is a completely natural and healthy response to change. The challenge is to work through the hard questions and determine if your cheese is being stolen or just moved.

It is a fact that there are some chiefs and government leaders who truly are interested in ending the volunteer system. They may even present a volunteer-friendly front; but behind closed doors, they have an agenda loaded with cheese. Luckily, such strategies are rare. In most cases, there is a frustrated chief struggling to meet increasing call loads with decreasing or static resources. Next to the chief, there is usually a town manager, an administrator, or a mayor who just wants the issue to be handled and disappear. The same goes for the council or board members, who are typically interested in quality service, keeping the tax rates down, and cutting down on the phone calls they receive complaining about service. These government leaders sometimes approach the issue only because the department failed to make the transition on its own; and internal disagreements seep out in the form of phone calls to board or council members and hit the press, painting a less-than-rosy picture of the volunteer fire department and its chief.

If you think you might have a case of cheese in your organization, put the leaders to the litmus test to identify their true intentions.

SERVICE LEVEL NEEDS

One of the tougher concepts to grasp is that local emergency services decisions are really quality-of-life decisions made by the local government designed to meet citizens’ expectation of service. Sure, the locality could have a fully paid department, if the voters want to pay for it. But, in most cases, when shown the bill for such service, the citizens will opt for a less expensive option. That is what the volunteer system brings to the table-low-cost labor that, when deployed properly, meets citizens’ expectations for service. It is important for the department leaders to ask the citizens to define their expectations so the organization has a target. This is how our customers describe what good looks like. Without knowing these expectations, we’re just throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks and measuring success by staying out of court and the headlines.

When you hear people asking these questions about service levels, it’s a good thing that will ultimately help to sustain the volunteer system in the long run. Some members will get uncomfortable when the service currently provided doesn’t meet the citizens’ expectations and become defensive about their service, and then out comes the cheese issue. Remember the reason we are here in the first place: to provide service (well, at least that should be the reason). It is only logical to seek out performance goals aimed at meeting customer expectations. Thus, discussing service levels does not mean cheese.

WILL PROPOSED CHANGES IMPROVE SERVICE?

This question applies to sending to the scene in a timely manner qualified people who are prepared to deliver quality service. One of the common distractions in these discussions is that some seem more worried about their cheese and have transferred the service level focus from the citizens to the organization itself. I mean that the organization’s main priority becomes taking care of the organization and its members instead of taking care of the citizens. A good monitor to keep you in check is to write out the question, “How does this discussion or initiative improve our service to the citizens?” on a big poster and place it in the room during the meetings. This helps keep the focus where it’s supposed to be. Even if the proposed change may have a perceived negative impact on the volunteer component as a whole but will improve service to meet delivery needs, isn’t it the right thing to do? Taking care of the citizens first is not cheese.

RUNNING OFF VS. CREATING A NEW KIND OF VOLUNTEER

When more than a few of the common cheese triggers are considered, it is likely that this may be the signaling of a new kind of volunteer. Some may argue this is in fact running the volunteer off. But the fact is that the volunteer fire service simply must learn how to transition if it expects to survive. You can look at the business world and see classic cases in which companies have transitioned over the years and continue to be profitable today. Those that anticipate customer needs and expectations and change to meet them are ahead of the curve and will come out ahead of the competition. Organizations that accept the status quo and fight to stay in their comfort zone soon box themselves out of the market and go out of business. How can the volunteer fire service expect to survive without transitioning?

As customer expectations and requests for service increase, you will have to change your organization. You will likely have to start running duty crews because you simply will not be able to get to the station fast enough and safe enough to meet the response goals. You will have to be trained as a professional and keep up your skills on a regular basis. At some point, you will have to reconsider electing your leaders because by doing so, you’ve set them up for failure. How can you make tough decisions that may not be popular when you have to get reelected annually? Yes, these concepts may be a big departure from the way we used to do things. But if we have any hope of surviving into the future long range, we need to anticipate needs using short- and long-term planning and reinvent our service to meet needs in a proactive rather than reactive manner.

WHERE DO YOU FIT IN?

If you are one of those members in the organization who is quick to throw the cheese at meetings, hopefully you will at least ask some hard questions before you rush to judgment. Sure, your department actually might be interested in ending the local volunteer fire service, but chances are that’s a myth. I’d be willing to bet it is simply trying to answer some hard questions about cost-effective service delivery. As volunteer fire departments, we actually have the upper hand in these discussions in that we bring cheap labor to the discussions. If we can find ways to capitalize on that benefit, coupled with providing equal or better service, it’s an easy win at the political level.

The challenge to the volunteer fire service is, Will we be able to change to meet this challenge? This question falls to each of us as individuals-are we willing to change and open our minds to new ideas? Are we willing to admit these are ideas that may challenge everything we think we know about fire service delivery? Or are we doomed to forever guarding our “cheese”?

EDDIE BUCHANAN began his fire service career in 1982 and serves as a division chief with Hanover (VA) Fire & EMS. He is the author of Volunteer Training Officer’s Handbook (Fire Engineering, 2003) and serves on the Board of Directors for the Volunteer/Combination Officers Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He lectures regularly on training issues throughout the country and serves as an adjunct instructor for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. He has been a Hands-On Training instructor and speaker at FDIC.

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