The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: More Thoughts on Leadership

Photo by Tony Greco.

By Thomas A. Merrill

Leadership is a subject that gets a lot of attention. Books on leadership are flooding the market. Countless courses are offered and many prominent military, political, and fire service leaders are available to discuss this subject as well. The fact that there is so much leadership material available and that so many people are engaged in talking about it must mean that there is a tremendous demand for it. This demand is made evident based on the amount of e-mails and phone calls I receive discussing leadership issues and problems in the volunteer firehouse. As such, our volunteer fire service is craving good, solid leadership.

All firefighters can learn to be a good leader. Remember, leaders need not be department officers. That being said, ALL department officers should strive to be good leaders. Solid leadership is required from all areas of an organization, from the firematic officer side to the administrative officer side. It’s important that leaders exercise good judgment and strive to lead their department in a positive manner; otherwise, so much of what I call “wasted energy” is invested in leadership quandaries that van truly bog down an organization and prevent good work from getting done. It can also cause good people to leave.

Leading volunteers can certainly be challenging. As a matter of fact, it can be much harder leading volunteers than leading members in any paid organization. Volunteers obviously have other things competing for their personal time and the fire department is not putting food on their table or paying their bills. While volunteer officers can certainly order their members to do things, that style can grow old and tiresome after a while, especially if done in a nasty or disrespectful manner. Members may simply decide to stay home and not attend the department work detail, fund raising event, or worse yet not respond to the emergency call. The goal in good volunteer fire department leadership is to inspire your people and make them want to participate and be at the firehouse and on that emergency call, not force them.  

All the great books and training classes regarding leadership list many similar traits that all great leaders possess; Not all these great leaders are from the fire service, either. Indeed, the traits of great leaders are learned from successful military leaders, business icons, and even respected politicians. If fire service leaders—especially the officer—work to apply these traits, success will follow.

However, leading is not that easy. Hard decisions are made and people won’t always agree with you, but if you listen to people, understand them, treat them well, and communicate effectively, you will find less conflict and more harmony within the halls of your volunteer firehouse.

Let’s discuss of those “must-have” traits that are employed not only by good leaders but successful fire department officers as well.



The subject of my most recent article, ownership is an attitude that any leader in any organization needs to embrace. A true fire service leader takes ownership of the fire service, his department, his firehouse, and himself as a professional firefighter. He also owns whatever tasks and duties he is delegated. On any team—in any organization—all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader. When a leader embraces the ownership mentality, there is never anyone else to blame when things go wrong. He owns everything in his world. The leader must acknowledge mistakes, admit failures, and take ownership of those failures. On doing so, he can then focus on developing a plan to overcome the failure and move forward. An organization flourishes and members become highly effective leaders by taking ownership in their volunteer fire department.



A leader is also consistent. He cannot pick and choose when he will put on the leadership hat. Officers in any organization are assigned various jobs and duties. Some of these delegated jobs might seem unimportant, boring, or mundane. In fact, the officer might not even want to do the job to which he is assigned. Nonetheless, it is vitally important to do so. Sometimes you find officers and firefighters start off doing their required job regularly and thoroughly. However, after a while, they grow bored or less interested in doing a good job, and they begin taking shortcuts or, worse, they no longer do the job as thoroughly as it should be done.

A good leader will do the jobs for which he is responsible in a consistent and regular manner, all while maintaining a positive attitude. The rank and file does not want to hear an officer complaining about being in charge of the radio receivers, the community events, or hose inventory. They want an officer who is happy in his wok and someone who they can count on to take care of his responsibilities in a consistent and proficient manner.



All leaders should expect to be tired. Simply, if you are doing your job as a leader, you WILL be tired. I am not saying you need to go days without sleep, but this means you will go to those dreaded middle-of-the-night calls, you will put in long hours at the firehouse to accomplish jobs, or you might be planning a drill or working on department minutes (remember, leaders are on both sides of the organization) at home after you get the kids to bed or come home from work. Yes, being a good leader means you will be tired.


A Positive Example

All great leaders have learned to lead by their own personal example. How can you expect new members to rise out of bed to answer that alarm in the middle of the night when you fail to do so? How can you preach the value of hardcore training by not participating in hardcore training? Learn to lead by the power of your example, not by examples of your power.



All officers and leaders need to develop an organizational plan that works for them. Our families and the jobs we have that feed them come first, but when a member takes on an officer’s role, he is saying that he has the time management skills necessary to get the required work done. Find a system that works for you and strive to be as organized as possible. A professional officer is an organized officer.



Integrity is one of the traits identified in every book about leadership. Why? Because it is so universally important. Unfortunately, it is still not recognized and embraced by everyone. Recognize that your overall character is important to gain respect as an officer and leader in your fire department. Remember, as an officer, your people are watching you all the time; they pay attention to what you say and how your handle yourself. That’s just the way it is in any organization. Loosely defined, integrity is how you act when nobody is watching you. It means you do the right thing, always. It certainly is one of the most critical traits for any officer to possess. Once it’s lost you may never get it back. Don’t think for a moment you can be a successful officer or a successful leader without it. An officer without integrity is doomed to fail not only as an officer, but as a leader as well, and a leader without integrity is certainly not a professional in any organization.



Coupled with integrity, honesty is equally as important. Don’t ever think your people won’t know if you lie to them. Similar to losing integrity, once you are branded a liar, it sticks to you forever and your people will lose all trust and confidence in you. It’s okay to not have an answer to a question. It’s okay to not know how to do something. It’s NOT okay to make up answers and pretend to be something you are not. Be upfront and honest with your membership at all times, and don’t ever lie to them. 



Closely aligned with honesty is trust. All good leaders are trustworthy. Your members must know that you have their backs at all times. They need to know that when you tell them you will do something or get an answer for them, you will follow through and do it. They need to know that you do not engage in rumor-mongering. Make no mistake, they know if you are talking about a member behind his back then you could undoubtedly talk about them behind their back as well. Learn to gain your members trust, and, more importantly, work hard to maintain it.

I will discuss several other “must-have” leadership traits in my next article. These traits will be expected of any competent fire service officer. For now, I hope you will reflect on those listed here. Don’t just read them; embrace and employ them, and I guarantee that you will be well on your way to being a much more effective and professional fire service leader.


THOMAS A. MERRILL is a 35-year fire department veteran and a former chief of the Snyder Fire Department in Amherst, New York. He is a fire commissioner for the Snyder Fire District. He served 26 years as a department officer including 15 years in the chief officer ranks. Merrill recently completed five years as chief of department. He has conducted various fire service presentations throughout the Western New York area as well as at FDIC. He also is a fire dispatcher for the Amherst (NY) Fire Alarm Office. He can be reached at


The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: Ownership

The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: Succession Planning

The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: Becoming a Better Firefighter 

The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: Take Five Minutes

The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: Theft Management



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