BY SHARI LENTSCH
Some might say it was inevitable. As a community grows, changes, and evolves, so should its fire department to best serve its citizens. Those who live as a part of a volunteer fire department will likely tell you that volunteer departments as well as paid departments can achieve this evolution. This may be true in some cases. This is our transition story—a department with a history of proud loyal volunteers making the evolution from an all-volunteer to a completely paid fire department.
Our hearts, our intentions, say that there’s no match for volunteers who want no greater reward than serving their community or citizens. However, life moves quickly and as jobs change, families change, and even our economy changes, the ability to respond as often as a volunteer would like changes as well. What remain are only our good intentions for what we would like to do for our volunteer department and the unfortunate reality of what we’re really able to commit to doing.
BACKGROUND AND HISTORY
Bellevue is a community in east central Nebraska, just south of Omaha, bordered to the east by the Missouri River. Our population is a bit more than 50,000. Our response area is 44 square miles. We have mutual-aid agreements with most of our surrounding communities; many of those departments are volunteer as well. Our fire department is emergency response only and includes both fire and emergency medical services (EMS) with transport responsibilities. Several area private ambulance services cover EMS transfers. Prior to 2010, there was no hospital within the borders of Bellevue, and patient transports typically went to a community hospital to the west of the city. Traumas, strokes, and a few other specialty services were transported to Omaha. All patient transports were approximately 15 minutes or less. Call volume averages roughly 3,500 fire and EMS calls per year; close to 83 percent of the calls are for EMS.
Bellevue has four fire stations. Volunteers were assigned to a station based on the geographic locations of their homes within the city. They carried pagers and responded from their homes to the station when there was a call in their station’s area. Historically, the apparatus at all four stations were similar—a tanker, a pumper, a weed truck, a utility truck, and two squads. A truck resided at the main station, and the other three stations had an aerial. Also, a part of the fleet was a heavy rescue/air truck, a hazmat response vehicle, and various trailers for specialty responses such as mass casualty and hazmat. All four stations had similar vehicles to attempt to maintain some level of continuity for volunteers as they responded to various stations.
Members elected department officers annually. Although this gave many the opportunities to hold leadership positions, it made it difficult to move the department forward, as each officer had his own agenda for the future. As early as 2005, our fire department realized that it was becoming harder and harder to “answer the call” with volunteers. While we boasted of having one of the largest all-volunteer forces in the country (around 150 people at that time), a core group of responders emerged from the group. Evening and night responses were not typically an issue, but daytime calls became more and more difficult to staff. Most often, members who were retired from their regular jobs responded to the majority of those calls. Several committees were formed over the years to create plans for how the department would function in the future. Unfortunately, because of the ever-changing leadership and leaders’ differing goals, none of those plans were ever put into place.
In March 2008, the Nebraska State Legislature passed LB 1096, a measure that mandated that first-class cities with a population of 37,500 or more citizens have a full-time paid fire chief. The volunteer fire department strongly opposed this measure. The general consensus of the members was that hiring a full-time chief would spell the end of the Bellevue Volunteer Fire Department (BVFD), its members, and the proud tradition the volunteers had built for decades. Despite efforts to stop the progression, a full-time chief was hired and was slated to begin with the department in January 2009. The chief came to Bellevue with more than 25 years of experience as a career firefighter. He had retired from his position with the Omaha (NE) Fire Department (OFD) as an assistant chief. Having grown up in Bellevue, he was familiar with the city’s geography and the administration.
The volunteers were completely shaken by the turn of events. What would the new chief do? Would he completely dissolve the volunteers and hire all paid firefighters? Would he eliminate current volunteers and outsource response to a private entity? Would he lobby to merge our department into the larger OFD? Morale was at an all-time low. Fear of the unknown was rampant, and rumors flew.
In January 2009, the new chief came on the job and did something that no one expected—nothing. He was very cordial and friendly in his approach to the department and its members. He made no changes to the policies, procedures, or officers and personnel for the first months of his tenure. Instead, he spent his time getting to know the system and the personnel and to identify the key players and the “workhorses.” In his words, “Everyone is a superstar player when the new coach comes in. I want to see who’s still working hard when the newness is gone.”
After his first few months, the chief began encouraging the volunteers to help create a plan to improve response times and personnel response to calls. By allowing the volunteers to come up with their own ideas and holding them accountable for the results, he created an atmosphere of shared responsibility and a common goal for improvement. As time went on and plans were created, attempted, and discarded, it became apparent that despite the best efforts, it would not be possible to accomplish the goals set out for the department with the current volunteer structure. In 2009, plans were being laid to transition from an all-volunteer department to one with some measure of paid personnel.
The decision to make the transition from volunteer to paid raised several questions. First and foremost, how would we accomplish a successful transition using the personnel we currently had as volunteers to accomplish our goals? The plan was to retain those volunteers who wished to remain active, transitioning them from volunteers to part-time employees. The pay for the part-time personnel would be low initially, but since they had all been doing the job for no pay previously, even minimal compensation was a welcome improvement for those dedicated individuals. Moving forward, many details were pushed to the forefront as it became apparent that certain items needed to be addressed immediately to accommodate 24/7 personnel coverage. Some of those items included the following:
- The four fire stations were not equipped for 24/7 occupancy. Not only were there no sleeping quarters, but sprinklers would have to be installed and major remodeling would have to be done to allow crews to sleep, eat, and live at the stations.
- The chief made it a priority to ensure that personnel would be protected with adequate workers’ compensation should an on-the-job injury occur. This included creating a workers’ compensation policy that would cover an employee at his regular full-time job’s pay instead of the part-time wage.
- Hiring of command staff to run the shifts became a priority. In January and February 2010, an assistant chief and an EMS supervisor were hired as full-time staff. Both came from within the ranks of the volunteers, making it an easier transition for personnel. The plan was to hire battalion chiefs next.
- We researched how to schedule individuals for shifts, how to staff each apparatus, and how many persons we needed per shift. Using the county’s GIS mapping system, the command staff determined the locations of the highest volume of calls and positioned personnel and apparatus based on that mapping. In the end, it was determined that 20 personnel per shift, in 12-hour shifts, would handle the call volume for our system. An engine or a truck crew was assigned to each of the four stations; in-service medic units were housed at two stations with medic units available to be put in service at the remaining two stations.
- A ranking system was created with input from existing personnel. This initial ranking system was based on points relative to a variety of criteria that included time with the department, certifications and college education, officer positions held previously, attendance at training and meetings, the number of calls each person responded to as volunteers, and continuing education. This ranking system dictated the order in which personnel selected their shifts.
- A scheduling software program created for the department made much of the shift assignment task self-service. Personnel could choose which shifts they would work each week based on their certifications and open positions. The “scheduler” remains an integral part of our system even today.
- Determining how many shifts personnel could work and still remain part-time (setting minimum and maximum numbers of shifts) and how to handle calling people back for a large-scale incident were determined prior to starting shifts.
On April 25, 2010, at 0600 hours, the BVFD officially transitioned from a completely volunteer organization to a part-time paid fire department. Our first call occurred at 0752 that morning.
FIRST THREE YEARS
It has been a little more than three years from our transition to the time this article was written. We’ve had expected trials and tribulations, but we’ve also grown, evolved, changed, and learned. When laying the groundwork for this transition, we intended to create a “bridge” somewhere in between an all-volunteer organization and a full-time career department. Since the day of the first call, the following changes and improvements have been made to the system as we learned to streamline to make our system more efficient:
- Three suppression and one administrative battalion chiefs (BCs) were hired in May 2010. They work 24-hour shifts, ensuring that a BC is on duty 24/7.
- In May 2010, a new hospital opened its doors in our response area. The Bellevue Medical Center is a full-service hospital near the center of our community. The timing of the opening of the hospital could not have been more ideal. Not only were our transport times greatly reduced, but an EMS crew can also immediately be available for another call while still in the territory.
- Three captains were hired in March 2011. Each is assigned to a BC; they also work 24-hour shifts and are assigned to an apparatus for their 24-hour shift.
- Two EMS assistant supervisors were hired in October 2011. They work 10-hour shifts and cover all EMS training, protocols, inventory, equipment maintenance, and EMS supply restocking of the stations. Both are paramedics and licensed EMS instructors.
- Of the original 150 volunteers, approximately 120 transitioned to part-time suppression personnel. The others opted to take “support” positions or resigned. These paid support positions were for people who for one reason or another couldn’t or didn’t want to commit to suppression shifts. Support positions include everything from air bottle maintenance to station maintenance.
- A number of additional personnel have been hired since the original inception of the paid shifts. The majority of the personnel hired since our transition have previous experience at other departments.
- A formal EMS training and continuing education program for our personnel was started in July 2010. The training follows the National Registry-required curriculum for renewal of our providers’ certifications. Additionally, in a cooperative agreement with a local university, our providers can attend a formal 48-hour EMS refresher each year at no cost to the department.
- Formal fire training began in April 2011. This includes lectures and hands-on practical sessions. Through federal grants, we have now trained all our personnel to the Firefighter II level.
A FURTHER TRANSITION?
Since the inception of the part-time shifts, some items have continued to be challenges. Many have been resolved as we have progressed; others we anticipate will be ongoing issues. It was estimated initially that the model chosen for our department’s transition would sustain itself for three to five years. At approximately the three-year mark, it became evident that it would again be necessary to evolve, this time toward full-time suppression personnel.
• Turnover: Since we established ourselves as a career organization, many of our personnel have left to join full-time career departments. During our last 15 years as an all-volunteer organization, five individuals left for full-time departments. In the three years since our transition, 42 individuals went on to full-time positions elsewhere. Filling these positions consistently is a challenge; we continually have to hire and train personnel.
• Training: Our unique scheduling model allows for a great deal of flexibility for personnel to work their minimum number of shifts. However, with varied, constantly evolving shifts, it is difficult to provide the same training to all personnel without the benefit of set shifts. In addition, keeping units “in territory” and available for calls while providing training can be a challenge. The use of Webcams and video conferencing has become standard for our department.
• Management: Having three BCs, all with different management styles managing a model such as ours makes it a challenge for personnel to know what each chief expects. In a traditional paid system, BCs have a shift they supervise consistently, making it easier to know and work with the assigned chief’s management style. Our best solution for this issue is to have a strong command staff that communicates effectively and does its best to be consistent in managing our personnel.
• Organization: In any growing organization, odds are good that personnel will organize and eventually unionize. In our case, this occurred in 2012. For individuals who have never worked with unions and the negotiating process, it can be very challenging. Both management and unions strongly agree that safe working conditions and fair treatment are high priorities, but the way in which we ultimately arrive at that end can often be a process in and of itself. The newly formed union successfully negotiated a contract with the city in 2012.
CONSIDERING A TRANSITION?
What advice can we give to departments that are on the cusp of transition? Following are lessons we’ve learned along the way:
- Have goals clearly in mind. No matter what happens, make sure those goals are still in front of you. Regardless of what obstacles you face—response times, training goals, or employee satisfaction—focus clearly on your goals.
- People were more afraid of not being a part of the change than of the change itself.
- Don’t forget your roots and where your organization came from. The “old-timers” who started as volunteers and are still around today have immense value. Don’t shut them out during the process. Do your best to keep them informed and involved in some way.
- Your personnel are much more likely to buy into a plan if they have some ownership in decisions in the initial stages. Best laid plans don’t always work as we hope. Allowing the opportunity to try different options helps to build trust and eventually support for the right plan.
- When you hire your command staff, hire the best team you can find for the spots you’re filling. Having a strong leadership team at the front of your organization will keep employees focused on where the organization is going. Having a command staff that complements each other and works together provides a great example for your suppression personnel to follow.
- Never stop learning and evolving. Staying flexible and discovering a better way to do something are regular occurrences as we move forward. Our system is a very dynamic organization.
- We were fortunate to have the support of our city in our initial transition and will be fortunate to have it again as we move forward to full-time personnel. The mayor, city administrator, and city council have been supportive in the entire transition process.
- Having a strong fire chief who is a visionary led us in the right direction while encouraging growth, and he keeps us focused on our goals.
● SHARI LENTSCH is EMS supervisor at the Bellevue (NE) Fire Department.
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