The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: Get the Word Out

By Thomas A. Merrill

In my conversations with firefighters, I often hear a similar complaint. Disgruntled members lamenting the fact they were not informed about a new tool, new standard operating procedure, relocated equipment, or some other new protocol or procedure in the firehouse. “I didn’t know” or “Nobody told me” is a common phrase uttered throughout firehouses. There are a number of steps that can be employed by fire chiefs to help keep their members well informed and up to date on department events and operations. Good communication practices certainly are one of the trademarks of a professional volunteer fire department.

Getting the word out and keeping members “in the loop” has many benefits. A well-informed firefighter not only feels important in their department but also valued and appreciated. The members are also better prepared to do their job and do it with more confidence. Open and clear communication limits rumors, speculation, and second-guessing and paints the picture of a transparent organization.

Recognizing that volunteers are very busy, with life taking them in many directions, it’s important to spread the word using a variety of methods to ensure members receive it. It is equally important to repeat certain things from time to time for reinforcement. The very nature of the volunteer fire service dictates that members may not be around to hear the message or that they might miss the meeting or drill when the new information is discussed. Some members don’t like to read, so they may ignore the posted notice or company newsletter article. Using different means to communicate ensures increases the chances that all members receive the information. Fortunately, there are many proven ways to get the word out.

A posted notice is still one of the most basic and easy-to-employ methods to communicate new information. A spot should be designated in the firehouse where members know the latest important information will be posted so when they stop into the firehouse they can give the board a quick glance to see what is new. Firefighters should be directed to get in the habit of checking the announcement board for the latest important updates.

Another idea–and, again, these can all be used together to ensure the messages is received at least once–is to publish a monthly department newsletter that highlights department activities. The chief can have a monthly column where he can keep members updated on a variety of matters including new purchases, relocated equipment, and even introduce new members to the membership by officially welcoming them in print and writing a brief bio about them.

On a side note, officers can contribute to the newsletter as well and discuss tactics, current fire service events, and other fire department-related matters. This is a great credibility builder for officers and shows they are engaged and interested in not just general fire service events but their own department matters, as well.

Most fire chiefs deliver a report at the department’s monthly business meeting. Again, even thought the information might already be posted or in the newsletter, the chief can again review it at the meeting to ensure all members have received it. If they had already received the information, at least now it has been reinforced.

Using e-mail is yet another great tool to deliver info. Judging by how often I see our members (and not just the younger members anymore, either) with their head buried in their smart phone checking their latest e-mail, e-mail informational updates are received quickly and fairly often. A good idea is to create a general e-mail address for all department members and have it linked to the member’s personal e-mail. Subgroups can be created as well so that information can be passed only to an officers group or a truck committee group, for example.

Lots of departments have an official Web site, and this also provides a great opportunity for a chief to get the word out. A “members only” area can be created that contains all sorts of information pertaining to the department’s operations. The chief can get the word out by updating this section, as well.

With any of the written communication methods, try to keep the information short but to the point. Often time people will simply skim over the notice or article, and if it is long they may miss important information. Don’t barrage members with countless e-mails, either, as they may start ignoring them or time constraints may prohibit them from reading the e-mail as thoroughly as they should. A weekly e-mail update is a good idea unless there is a compelling reason to do more.

As I said earlier, I think it’s important to repeat information from time to time to help get the word out. That serves two purposes: It drives home the point and it also informs new members who might not have been around when the message was originally delivered. Several years ago, we were struggling to have our firefighters correctly pack the crosslays on our pumpers. We had adopted a new method that required forming a loop on the last length packed, and for some reason our members either forgot to make the loop or they put the loop on the wrong length of hose. My monthly column in the department newsletter consisted of a series of bullet points highlighting current department events. Starting with the first bullet point, and continuing every fifth or sixth bullet point, I simply wrote: “Remember, when packing the crosslays the loop goes on the last length packed.” A few months later I did the same thing. And several months after that, I did it yet again. I received quite a bit of kidding from my members, but they got the message. To this day, everybody knows how to pack the crosslay. I had successfully gotten the word out.

Finally, don’t forget to communicate with the public either. In previous columns we have discussed how social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is a great way to enhance your department’s professional image. Don’t forget there is still a large part of the community who may not use trendy social media outlets. There is nothing wrong with also using the traditional tried, tested, and successful methods of communicating, like sending press releases to your community newspapers. Some chiefs like to send out a yearly letter or informational brochure highlighting department accomplishments over the past year. They can use this opportunity to explain department operations, needs, purchases and even introduce department members. These practices serve to better engage departments with their community.

It’s important to share information with our members. We cannot move equipment around, place a new tool in service, or establish new rules and ways of doing things without properly updating the membership. Employing good communication practices contributes to well-informed and highly motivated firefighters who develop a feeling of ownership with their department. A well-informed firefighter can also enhance the department’s professional image. Get the word out.

Thomas A. Merrill is a 30-year fire department veteran in the Snyder Fire Department, which is located in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks, and recently completed five years as chief of department. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the town of Amherst fire alarm office. He can be reached at


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