The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: Leadership, Continued

Photo by Tony Greco.

By Thomas A. Merrill

In my previous article, I covered a variety of leadership traits that all quality professional fire officers should embrace to be a more successful leader in the firehouse and on the fireground. Remember, a leader need not be an officer, but certainly all good officers should be good leaders.

Let’s continue on this leadership journey. The volunteer fire service is in need of good, solid, competent leadership on all sides of the organization—administrative and firematic. Fortunately, there are countless resources out there authored by proven leaders from the military, the business world, and the fire service, but we can learn only so much from them. Our challenge is to actually apply the lessons they pass on to us.  If you focus on using them in everyday firehouse life, leadership success will follow. Following are some additional leadership lessons that are time tested and battle proven.



Good leaders need to support the membership. Endeavor to provide your members with the resources required for them to do their job effectively. Membership will become demotivated and disenchanted if it appears that their requests and recommendations are falling on deaf ears. In addition, leaders need to support membership by “rolling up their sleeves” and jumping into the work detail—helping wash the rig or sweep out the truck room floor. Don’t ever ask your members to do something that you aren’t willing to do yourself. Support your members!



Support the membership by listening to what they are saying about the organization. When members talk, focus on what they are saying and do not interrupt. Maintain eye contact with them and, when they are finished talking, paraphrase what they told you to show that you understand what they are saying. A good leader can demonstrate support for the team even if they cannot do something for what the team is asking by maintaining clear and open communication with them. See below and listen up!



Yes, the nasty “C” word! So often overlooked and downplayed by leaders in organizations everywhere; how many times have you heard the expression “lack of communication”? Humans are horrible at communicating with each other. Good communicating is easy, and yet leaders fail miserably at it all the time.

Using the above example (where members ask for something that the leadership cannot or will not do), an effective leader will take the time necessary to communicate with the team that you considered their request and reached a decision. Even if your decision was not to their liking, the members will appreciate that they received an answer and that their input was valued and considered. When leaders do not provide adequate feedback, members feel slighted and ignored, and that leads to hard feelings.

It’s worse when a leader lashes out or mocks an idea brought forth by a member. Leaders need to understand that their mannerisms and voice inflections play a big role in encouraging team unity and team involvement as well as suppressing it. Even if the idea is “off the wall” and leadership knows it cannot be done, it’s best to show consideration and communicate nicely why it cannot be done. Remember, the next idea the members bring forth may actually be a very good one; if the members have been mocked, yelled at, or made to feel unappreciated, that good idea will never be brought up again, and the organization suffers the consequences.

Vague communication also inhibits a leader from inspiring his team. Your people want to know what is going on; if an officer embarks on some type of secretive, need-to-know style of leadership, rumors, gossip and lots of false information can spread like wildfire through an organization. It’s understandable that certain things need to remain private and confidential, but whenever and wherever possible, keep the membership informed. Your membership will appreciate open, honest, and transparent communication from their leaders.

Many prominent leaders recommend over-communicating with membership. In volunteer organizations, it can be difficult to ensure every member hears important information and updates. Your members obviously have jobs and family commitments and are most likely not at the firehouse all the time. To help rectify this, I employ what I call the “triple communication” method. When I had to relay important information, I would do it three ways: I announced it at our department’s monthly business meeting, I reviewed it at the start of our weekly drill (what I call “housekeeping items”—quick tidbits of important information I cover in a few minutes), and I reviewed it in our monthly department newsletter. Granted, some members might get the information three times, but others might only get it once. However, nobody could accuse me of keeping him uniformed. Communicate clearly and openly!


“Explaining the ‘Why’”

This effective communication and leadership trait works much better than “because I said so.” People naturally resist change if it’s simply thrown at them. Be prepared to answer questions and explain why things are a certain way or why changes are to be implemented. Include your people and make them feel part of the process by soliciting feedback; when changes must occur, explain the why. In other words, explain what you are doing and why you are doing it. This is important when a long-standing way of doing things or a long-standing procedure or practice is modified or eliminated. Members might still be upset, but they cannot say that they did not have input, and they certainly cannot say nobody told them it was coming or why it was happening.  

Explaining the Why can generate needed support and gain team buy-in that is critically important when moving an organization forward harmoniously. Explain the why!



Strong leaders possess strong situational awareness. They are aware of the mood and the overall atmosphere in the organization and are in tune with not only what is happening in the firehouse but in their local and national fire service as well. It is unacceptable for leaders to have their heads buried in the sand; this reflects very badly on them when they say things such as “nobody told me” or “I didn’t know.” When they say things like this it makes them appear out of touch with the membership. Be aware!


Showing Interest

Inspire those around you by having an interest and caring about your people as well as what inspires and motivates them. Learn about their job, their family, and what is going on in their life. Leaders who care and who are interested earn the respect of their team, which builds department cohesiveness. It also gains support for the leader.

A strong leader must also show interests in the entire fire service, yet I consistently see so-called leaders who seem bored or bothered and acting completely disinterested in their profession. In no way do they inspire their membership. They also do damage to their reputation inside the firehouse. Good leaders need to be fired up and interested in the fire service as well as the doings on in their own department.

Remember, you are volunteering to do a job that can kill you and those under your command. You are volunteering to lead people into harm’s way and do incredibly dangerous work. You owe it to them to be interested in what is happening in the fire service. As the legendary Fire Department of New York Chief Vincent Dun said, “There are no new lessons to be learned from a firefighter’s death or injury. The cause of a tragedy is usually an old lesson we have not learned or have forgotten along the way.”

Being interested makes you better informed and more prepared to take care of your people. Stay on top of things by reading, subscribing to fire service trade journals, and pay attention to what is going on in our fire service. Leaders are readers! Be interested!


Staying Positive

Nobody likes “Negative Nellies.” It’s not always easy, but people look to their leaders to inspire confidence and maintain a positive attitude even when times are tough. The rank-and-file can be down and upset, but strong leaders raise them up. Ditch the negativity in front of the troops because it’s contagious and will affect the environment in your firehouse. Accept that your members are going to complain, but it’s wvwn worse when the leader complains! Be positive.


Being Humble

All good leaders are humble enough to accept that which they don’t know. They also have the courage to recognize that there are always people who might know something they don’t; who have a skill set above their own; and who understand that by ditching their ego and actually listening, an organization can flourish. If something goes right, the troops get the credit. If something goes wrong, it’s the officer’s fault and they seek ways to correct it and ensure it does not happen again. When you were being open and honest with a member and did not have an answer to their question, get that answer. Remain humble.


Being Passionate

It is often said that a leader with great passion and limited skills will always be more successful than a leader with great skills and limited passion; this is 100-percent true. Why? Because people feed off enthusiasm. If a leader in the firehouse is not enthusiastic and simply “goes through the motions,” it affects the members, and soon they are performing at a mediocre level and become lackadaisical—even lazy—and that directly impacts safety and operational preparedness of the entire organization. Be passionate!


Being Visible

People want their leaders to be around. As an officer, be seen doing the work expected of you. Officers cannot disappear for weeks at a time. Yes, your family and your job come first, but your members are expecting you to do the jobs expected of you. If you don’t, your reputation suffers.

Let senior leaders (chiefs, commissioners, presidents) stop in and meet with members wherever they socialize in the firehouse. Support them, listen to them, communicate with them, explain the Why to them, be aware of what is going on in the firehouse, demonstrate your genuine interest in them, exude positivity, personify humbleness, and show your passion. Get the idea?

For an organization to flourish, solid, effective leadership is paramount. It’s possible that at some point, either in your professional or personal life or even in your department you have experienced leadership that was lacking, stifled, and demotivated to an entire organization. Apply leadership lessons passed on from successful leaders who thrive in well-respected organizations. You will not only move your department forward in a positive direction, but the department will now be staffed with a more supportive, harmonious, and professional membership committed to providing a professional level of service.


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: More Thoughts on Leadership

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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