The Professional Volunteer Fire Department, Part 12—The New Member

By Thomas A. Merrill

Most volunteer fire departments are excited to welcome new members. Far too many volunteer departments are struggling to attract new recruits and find their numbers dwindling. This fact has been well publicized and a lot of effort, resources, and money have been thrown at this recruitment problem over the years with mixed results. So, when you do get that new member, what are you doing to properly introduce them not only to your firefighting world but also to your individual fire department as well? The professional volunteer fire department should develop some type of formal orientation program designed to introduce new recruits to your proud profession and also use it as an opportunity to establish expectations, review rules, set policies, and get them properly prepared for their new adventures as a firefighter.

The days of welcoming a new member by simply throwing some old turnout gear at him and telling him to start responding to calls are over. A new member may find his head spinning and being completely overwhelmed with all he is confronting during those first days at the firehouse. He probably doesn’t know a 2½-inch from an extinguisher, a truck from an engine, or a halligan bar from a crow bar. There are mandatory programs that need to be explained to him. He finds himself surrounded by a large group of people and may not know a single soul. He may feel intimidated and even unwelcome and uncomfortable as he comes into the firehouse.

Even if the new member has some type of family history with his new department, and his father was a past chief or an uncle, brother, or sister is a firefighter in the department, or if he has been hanging out there since childhood, most likely he will find it is a far different experience now that he is an official member. It needs to be explained to him that no matter what his past experiences are—in his personal life and his fire department affiliation—there are certain expectations now that he is a firefighter and a member in the fire department.

Consider creating a formal orientation program. Just as most employers do this for new employees, you should do it for new firefighters. Some departments provide a multipart, indepth program that provides members with information on everything from how to don their turnout gear to initial fire attack procedures to how to properly staff the raffle booth during the annual field days.

Other departments, such as my own, put a more simple program together that still conveys a lot of important information. More formal training and instructions will come as they attend the weekly drills and various meetings, but before a new member can respond to calls, they sit through a recruit orientation program that covers various department rules, reviews, programs, and policies that outline his roles, responsibilities, and expectations as a new member.

The program can be as thorough as you want, but no matter what program you embrace, the important thing is to design and implement it in such a way that the new member is not only properly prepared and confident to begin responding but also feels welcome in his new department. Some of the information certainly may have been previously provided when they expressed interest in joining. But, this is a great time to review it again and emphasize the important points. Various department rules can be discussed. Standard operating procedures can be handed out and reviewed. Take the time to review the chain of command and discuss the respect that should be extended to line officers. His role as a new member should be explained, and he should leave the meeting with a clear understanding as to what he will be doing when he responds to those first calls.

In addition, discuss fire service history and heritage. Give him a brief history of his new department and certain milestones and accomplishments it has achieved over the years. Make him proud right off the bat that he has chosen to become a member of your great organization. Make sure he embraces and understands that he is now part of a special profession and, as a firefighter, he is held to a certain level of public trust and behavior.

Walk him through the firehouse, pointing out the various offices and important areas he will need to know. Begin to acquaint him with the apparatus, but keep it simple. Explain the basic use of each rig and how it is positioned at an incident scene. Even if the new member has been to the firehouse before or was raised there as a kid, it is still important to conduct a tour and discuss the rigs in terms of today’s firefighter. This is also another opportunity to remind him that, as a new member, he is no longer the responsibility of somebody else when at the firehouse; he needs to act accordingly.

The program should also give the member his new gear along with instructions on how to properly don it and take care of it. He can also receive other equipment such as his alerting radio and be given instructions on how it all works.

No doubt, that there is much to cover, and if it is not done properly, it can be confusing and even overwhelming. Break it down into a few sessions, and enlist others to assist. Keep your program within a manageable time frame; we broke it into a few sessions, enlisted various officers to help out, and allowed the new member to complete its different parts as his time schedule allowed.

For example, one part of our program requires the new member to familiarize himself with the equipment carried on the apparatus and to understand the different responsibility for each rig. He is allowed to do this on his own time by contacting the apparatus officer and arranging for the lesson as time permits for both of them. He is given a form that the officer signs when completed, ensuring his progress is tracked and monitored.

Some departments accept new members only once or twice a year to make running an orientation program easier. Other departments have a mentor program where a senior member is assigned to watch over a new member. The new member is taught to stick with this mentor—or “buddy” —like glue and go to him with questions or concerns. Often, the mentor is really a chief officer, but in busier and larger departments a mentor program may be a good idea.

Get the new member’s name on his gear locker right away and have his name nicely printed on the folder you give him which contains all the important forms and documents you review. Also, issue his department key right away; I believe that such gestures help provide a warm, welcoming environment and let the member know you value his membership. If your department issues T-shirts, hats, or jackets, issue it right away to personalize his new experience and make him immediately feel like a member of the team.

Other things that can be done to extend a warm welcome to a new member is to have the chief of department sit down with and personally welcome the new member to let him know that his membership is appreciated. The chief should learn a little bit about him, his family, his job, and what enticed him to join. This is a great opportunity for the chief to reinforce some of the department’s core values and some of the other important information already provided. Tell him to invite his family to the firehouse so he can become acquainted with it and to meet the members. Let him know that family is an important part of the volunteer fire service. Again, even if the chief knows the new member or the new member has a family connection, a personal welcome and greeting is extremely beneficial and professional.

If your department uses texting or pages for announcements, send out welcome message, informing the general membership that a new member is in the ranks. My department likes to welcome him “to the family” and, because the new member is given a pager, he will also see this message, making him aware that we are glad to have him. You can also post the new member information and add a little bit about him in your department newsletter, Web site, or message board.

The new member may be shy and intimidated at those first meetings and drills, so introduce him to the group. Encourage your members to reach out and personally welcome new members as well. Senior member should be at the front of the welcome wagon. All of these gestures create a nice welcoming environment for the probie and can put them at ease.

A new member can easily be overwhelmed, confused, and even feel unwelcome when he is first accepted into a volunteer fire department. The professional volunteer fire department should take the steps necessary to help acquaint him with the fire service and his department, establish expectations, and make him feel welcome and accepted.

 

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 tamerrill63@aol.com.

 

 

Author

  • THOMAS MERRILL is a 35-year veteran of the Snyder (NY) Fire Department and a fire commissioner. Previously, he served 26 years as an officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks and five as chief of department. He is the author of “The Professional Volunteer Fire Department” column. He is a full-time career fire dispatcher.

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