You’ve finally been selected as the new chief of your volunteer organization. Most of the members (especially your buddies and pals) supported you. “Wow,” you say to yourself, “I did it.”

Now comes all the good stuff—you know, the perks. When you drive by in that car with ail the cool equipment, people will know it’s the chief. You’ll be fitted for the uniform, get a new badge, and have authority.

That’s when the real “fun” starts. No, I’m not talking about the calls; they’ll take only about five percent of your time and energy. I’m talking about the “people stuff.” Although those who are not volunteer chiefs think it’s “a piece of cake” to be a volunteer chief, we know differently.


As the chief of your volunteer department, one of your greatest challenges will be to evaluate and correct (when necessary) department members’ performances. Delivering “constructive” criticism is a very delicate business. The issue must be presented forcefully enough to effect a change in the member’s behavior and yet diplomatically enough so as to avoid resentment and not undermine the member’s confidence.

As an example, your department’s most active driver (in many cases, the apparatus wouldn’t have gotten out unless he responded) drives a bit on the “wild side,” and some concerns regarding his behavior have been brought to your attention. The challenge here is for you to correct the safety issue while at the same time making the individual feel that he is of great value to the department ( so he’ll keep responding). You can do this best perhaps in a one-on-one meeting during which you first present the member’s positive contributions to the department. Make sure the points are genuine. Don’t waste his (or your) time with fabricated fluff; he’ll see through it. anyway.

Once you’ve presented the positive aspects, bring up the issue of concern—his unsafe driving. If the member accepts that your concerns are justified, reiterate your confidence in him, and schedule a follow-up meeting to reevaluate the issue and ensure that the required change has occurred.

If, on the other hand, the member denies that his driving is a problem (this is the “fun” part) or gets annoyed at you for bringing it up, attempt to go beyond the reactive response and provide some very specific examples that show how his performance caused a problem or could cause potential problems and ask how you can help to eliminate any obstacles that may be interfering with resolving the situation successfully.

Assist your members by putting together a plan for correcting the problem. The plan could be presented verbally or. for severe cases, in writing. It must clearly outline your concerns about the member’s performance, the ways in which the problems have been affecting the individual and organization, the actions necessary to correct the behavior, the period of time that you will allot for correcting the problem, and the time at which you will review the situation again. The proposed plan also should reiterate that the individual is valuable to the organization while, at the same time, stating firmly what the consequences will be if the behavior does not change.

Hopefully, you’re making progress with this member now. If you still are not getting through, however, you must get specific in your intentions to fix the problem—period. Clearly tell the member at this point that his future in the volunteer department depends on his rapidly changing the undesirable behavior.


Many obstacles may get in a volunteer chief’s way when attempting to implement the above steps to correct personnel behavior detrimental to the department, especially if the chief must proceed to the latter steps. Among these obstacles are the following:

  • Lack of authority. In many volunteer organizations, the chief has limited authority and actually may have to confer with a governing body before taking action. In this case, to ensure the board’s support, it is essential that the chief brief the board prior to taking action. Consulting with the board also can serve as an opportunity to ensure a fair resolution to the issue. Failing to brief the board may result in the board’s refusing to support the chief, which could create an embarrassing situation (and an ineffective resolution).
  • Loss of popularity. Let’s face it: In most volunteer fire and rescue organizations—no matter what the chief’s qualifications may be—the chief still must be elected by the majority of the department’s members. If the chief takes disciplinary or corrective action
  • on his own, some members (those who disagree with the action) may not support him any longer. The members may even go so far as to work against the chief.

Many times, however, no matter what approach the chief uses, his action will upset someone. Therefore, a volunteer chief should base his decisions on the facts; be fair; take the actions that are best for the organization; and, most importantly, act in the best interests of those he serves—the public. In other words, if the chief’s action will improve the fire-rescue organization for the public’s benefit, he should take the action.

  • InternaI conflict. As mentioned above, the chief probably will upset someone should the volunteer member involved disagree with the manner in which the issue was handled. Some internal conflict is inevitable no matter which approach the chief uses to correct personnel problems. The chief can do only so much to manage the conflict. The chief must remember that this is a personnel issue; therefore, the organization’s rules regarding that area must be followed. Also, it generally is beneficial to the organization if the matter is not discussed publicly (which means almost anywhere, including the fire station). Chiefs should not waste time dwelling on such issues, even if they have become “tailboard talk.”

As already stated somewhat tongue-incheek, personnel matters constitute the “fun” stuff for volunteer chiefs, and they will require a significant amount of your time. These matters might include dependency issues (drug, alcohol, etc.), sexual harassment and related behavioral issues, failure to follow policy and procedures, ineffective performance by subordinate officers, and other “real-world” situations that quickly can put you in the “hot seat.” Serving as a volunteer chief can be quite challenging because of the culture and dynamics of the volunteer fire-rescue service. A volunteer department can spend all the money it wants on apparatus, equipment, and facilities; however, the key to its overall success is “the troops.” If the chief is not successful in redirecting inappropriate behavior and allows it to exist without trying to change it, eventually the entire organization will be affected by operational and morale problems (poor scene performance. poor training and activity turnout, and poor emergency call response) in the short term. The situation will be resolved in the long term by the troops’ selecting another volunteer chief. To paraphrase an old saying, “The top of the ladder is a nice place— but very lonesome.”

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