The Future of Leadership in the Volunteer Fire Service


The fire service has continued to respond to more varied and complex emergencies. Many departments experience growing pains from increased call volumes and new and increased training demands, and development and transitioning of leadership are challenges. Many volunteer departments have seen the dramatic change that can occur when elected chiefs and appointed officers result in frequent realignment of organizational priorities and capabilities.

Recent research on leadership has just started to come to terms with the broad characteristics of leaders and the behaviors that make them effective managers of their organizations. In many ways, leadership is like firefighting tactics-the right leader has to fit the group of people and situation for success, just as the right tactics have to fit the fire attack for the best outcome. It doesn’t work if you put class A foam on a class B fire.

The volunteer fire service has a long history of leaders who have risen to the challenge based on the local circumstances, whether appointed, elected, or hired by their municipality. In some volunteer departments, the chief is chosen by the department members based on his perceived capacity for leadership and on the number of years of service, availability, training, and personality. These same factors can be used by boards, councils, department members, and hiring committees to choose department leaders.

The growth, breadth of scope, and increasing demands on the fire service require volunteer leadership that can meet these changing modern requirements. The criteria used in the past may not be adequate for future leaders.


Early leadership theories focused on the characteristics that separated followers from leaders. As leadership theory has evolved to include additional factors, several classes of leadership theory have emerged.

Great Man and Trait Theories (1840s-1940s)

It is assumed that some people have an inherent ability to lead and certain qualities that make them better suited to be leaders.1 These individuals are perceived as natural leaders. The volunteer fire service has traditionally supported this theory by having the “greatest” person elected as the leader of the department with a simple election.

Contingency and Situational Theories (1940s-1950s)

The environment or situation determines the style of leadership best for the circumstances.2 Both leaders and followers have input into the outcome of the situation. This theory presents itself in the fire service when otherwise successful leaders find themselves in situations where their decisions and leadership were not effective-for example, the chief who is great at fighting fires but struggles with managing nonemergency personnel.

Behavioral and Participative Theories (1950s-1960s)

These theories focus on the actions of leaders and hold that leaders are trained, not born.3 By learning, people can develop the characteristics of leaders. Participative leadership suggests that leaders take into account input from others and help group members feel more involved in the decision-making process. (3) However, the leader still controls the right to allow the input of others. On a fire scene, a participative style may not be the best during a rapidly changing and evolving emergency. Participative leadership can be very effective in the daily operations of a volunteer fire department, where each member of the department can become a stakeholder in achieving collective goals.4

Management and Relationship Theories (1970s-present)

These theories are based on the role of a supervisor in a group, the organizational structure, and the performance of the group. Leadership uses a system of rewards and punishments to encourage success.5 In businesses, for example, when employees succeed, they are rewarded or compensated; when they fail, they are punished. Relationship theories rely on the connections between leaders and followers, and leaders focus on helping followers to achieve their highest potential. As the fire service evolves to become more modern, there will be a shift toward the role of a chief as a manager, building relationships and earning the respect of firefighters to accomplish tasks.6


In today’s volunteer fire service, we’re seeing a shift in the expectations placed on leaders. These expectations come from our department’s membership, our communities, and our governmental elected officials. The role of a volunteer chief as a “greatest” person or trait leader is shifting toward the role of a chief as a manager of the department, a developer of talent, and the creator of an environment that encourages the active participation of community members. A modern volunteer chief has to be able to switch gears and leadership styles to effectively manage a department.

To firefighters, these leadership theories may seem to be management fluff and psychobabble, but there are often circumstances that show this transition taking place. The organizational structure of many departments, as defined in by-laws and other organizational charters, was defined long ago, during a time when leadership and organizational theories were not as advanced as they are today. For example, how many departments with elected chiefs have changed chiefs and officers every few years? Have you ever seen an election where someone became chief because there were no other alternatives? Have you ever seen a chief who was great at fighting fires but who lacked the management abilities to run the department efficiently? The transition of many departments from a socially focused organization or club to a more modern service provider is also evidence of this shift taking place. Mission and vision statements, goal planning, and strategic plans are all management tools typically used by professional managers that modern fire departments are using to lead them into the future.

Imagine this scenario: A new volunteer joins his local department with hopes of serving the community, having some excitement, being part of a team, and becoming a trained firefighter. He enters the fire service proud of the commitment he is making. After a few training sessions, the volunteer sees that the organization itself is disorganized and resistant to positive change. The chief is a good firefighter and loyal to the community, but he has difficulty dealing with complicated internal department issues. Small personnel problems are not addressed and eventually grow to the point where all firefighters are affected. After learning that the department is not exactly what he had hoped it would be, the volunteer finds another way to spend his precious free time. How did this happen? Why is our most critical emergency service having these challenges? It comes down to leadership.

It is a challenging time where it is more difficult than ever to find volunteers. Training demands require a greater commitment from the few volunteers who step forward, and these volunteers are making a significant investment of their own time and energy in the department. Volunteers desire to be a part of a well-organized, positive environment in which they can grow and develop to reach their own goals in the fire service. We need skilled, proficient, and developed leaders to manage an environment of which volunteers want to be a part.


  • Evaluate your leadership style, and compare it with some of the leadership theories mentioned. What works well in your department? Where does your department sit on this spectrum?
  • Identify both the formal and informal selection processes in your community for fire department leadership, and make sure that they are aligned with the priorities and needs of your community-not just for today but for 10 years from now as well. It can be challenging to move the big wheel, and today’s decisions could be tomorrow’s improvements.
  • Learn management skills by identifying management tools to help manage your department’s strategic planning in the form of long-range planning, giving a purpose to the organization with a mission and values and using goals to reach milestones that can help align individual efforts.

Firefighters/Department Members

  • How do your department’s members view the leadership theories applied in your department? Do the style and theory used by leadership match the needs of the membership?
  • As you grow and develop in the fire service, learn from the leaders in your department. Leaders aren’t just chiefs and fire officers. They can be anyone who has a positive influence on your organization. Don’t just learn the technical aspects of firefighting; learn how they deal with people on all levels.
  • Be a positive influence for change by seeking opportunities to develop management skills. Seek projects in the department to manage, and learn how to work in teams to accomplish project goals. This can be as simple as joining a committee or volunteering to lead fund-raising activities.


  • Ask each other how leaders are developed in your department. Identify ways to help leaders be trained and give potential leaders opportunities to learn.
  • Review the process for choosing leadership in your department. Does this come down to one person’s opinion, or is there a fair evaluation of the person’s leadership and management ability on all levels?
  • Be receptive to changing the leadership selection methods. Just because it was “good enough” for the 1920s or 1930s doesn’t mean that it will be the right method for the future.
  • If it’s the right process for your department and you have a line of great leaders waiting to take you into the future, stay with what has been working for you! But, don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal-the best service you can provide for your community and stakeholders.

Will your department be ready for the paradigm shift? It’s coming.


1. Kirkpatrick, SA and Locke, EA. (1991). Leadership: Do Traits Matter? Academy of Management Executives, 5(2), 48-60.

2. Sims, HP, Faraj, S, and Yun, S. (2009). When Should a Leader Be Directive or Empowering? How to Develop Your Own Situational Theory of Leadership. Business Horizons, 52(2), 149-158.

3. Griffin, RW and Moorhead, G. (2011). Organizational Behavior: Managing People and Organizations, Tenth Edition. Mason, OH: South-Western.

4. Fielder, FE. (1996). Research on Leadership Selection and Training: One View of the Future. Administrative Science Quarterly. 41(2), 241-250.

5. Northouse, PG. (2010). Leadership: Theory and Practice, 5th Edition, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

6. Muffet-Willett, SL and Kruse, SD. (2009). Crisis Leadership: Past Research and Future Directions. Journal of Business Continuity and Emergency Planning, 3(3), 248-258.

NATHANIEL J. MELBY, a 15-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Campbell Fire Department in French Island, Wisconsin. He is the president of the La Crosse County Fire Officers’ Association. A Wisconsin-certified fire instructor, he has a B.S. from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, has an M.B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and is an ABD in information systems at Nova Southeastern University. He received the Chief Fire Officer designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence in 2011 and the member grade designation from the Institution of Fire Engineers in 2012. He has developed and taught graduate and undergraduate courses in management and technology at multiple universities and has a full-time career in technology management for a large global enterprise.

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