The Professional Volunteer Fire Department

In my discussions with the public, I am asked many times whether I am a professional or a volunteer firefighter. I take exception to that. I politely explain to them that there are paid firefighters and there are volunteer firefighters, but all firefighters-including volunteers-can strive to be professional.

In the dictionary, there are various definitions for the word “professional,” including “characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession” and “exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace.” Shouldn’t these definitions apply to volunteers as well as paid firefighters? For years, I have been preaching that a volunteer fire department certainly can be professional.

No doubt, there are some paid fire departments that cannot be considered professional, while there are many volunteer fire departments that are nothing but professional. “Professional” means much more than being able to handle emergency calls proficiently and adequately (although that certainly is a large part of it). Also, being considered professional has nothing do with the age of the fire equipment or the firehouse, how many responses a department makes, or how much equipment the department has. So, what makes the department professional?

Being “Professional”

“Professional” has everything to do with a department’s attitude, appearance, commitment, and dedication. It also has to do with how its members approach the job, prepare, and train as well as take care of equipment. This includes how a department treats not only the public but its own members as well. It also has to do with member behavior on and off duty. All of this plays into the equation of the professional firefighter, and volunteers certainly can meet these criteria as can paid firefighters.

The professional volunteer fire department drills on a regular basis. You cannot use the excuse that because you are a volunteer you don’t have the time to drill regularly. In today’s fire service, that is unacceptable. In fact, there are more potential drill topics than there is time to do them all. And, as we have heard many times, the fire doesn’t treat volunteer firefighters any differently than paid firefighters.

The professional training drill is well organized and ready to go on as scheduled. Members attending the drill should not find their time wasted while officers scramble around trying to get things set up or-worse yet-deciding at that time what the drill topic should be. In most volunteer fire departments, members usually come to drill after working a full day. They rush home from work, (maybe) have time to eat a quick dinner with the family, (maybe) have time to rush through homework with their kids, and then rush off to the firehouse. Or, they give up their Saturday or Sunday morning to drill at the firehouse. They are owed well-prepared and pertinent drills, which will eventually help lead to quality fireground performance.

Professional Fireground Performance

Quality fireground performance is an important trait of the professional volunteer fire department. It should handle the emergency call calmly and efficiently. Although you cannot possibly prepare for all emergencies, there is no excuse not to be prepared for the routine emergency response; I put most fires in this category. Ask yourself, is the apparatus running order clearly defined? Are apparatus roles and responsibilities at emergency scenes clearly identified and communicated to the membership? Are the tools clean and in good working order? Is there a strong working agreement with neighboring departments, and are we acquainted with their apparatus and equipment? Are plans in place ahead of time to account for short staffing or that dangerous building in your district requiring special equipment or tactics? It is one thing to think you have taken care of these items, but you must also clearly communicate them to the membership. The ranks in most volunteer fire departments can fluctuate greatly; new members will come in and tenured members will go. It is important to review all of this important information regularly.

Another issue that can impact a department’s professional reputation is poor radio communication, especially inappropriate and unwarranted transmissions. Train members on the importance of radio discipline, transmitting only pertinent and important information in a clear, calm, and concise manner. There should also be no unnecessary radio traffic, no babbling, and certainly no nasty or mean-spirited transmissions. Even if a member makes disparaging radio transmissions, the other professional firefighters on the call must strive to remain focused on proper radio procedures and not respond.

Do you, as the fire chief or fire incident commander, yell and scream when you are actually confronted with fire? Or, are you calm, poised, and in control? The latter portrays a professional image.

Sometimes, as volunteers, we often get more help at the scene than we might need. Four or five members may be needed on the interior to perform emergency medical services (EMS) work, while the other responding members assemble outside, ready to help if needed. How do we expect these members to behave? Are they laughing and joking around in full view of the patient, concerned family members, or neighbors? While waiting, your firefighters are going to make random conversation as they stand around ready to assist, but they must understand that their behavior will impact the department’s reputation. At a fire scene, members should show compassion and refrain from overzealous behavior when mopping up. Remember, laughing loudly, joking, smoking, or swearing while someone is having a really bad day pre-sents anything but a professional image.

Even off-duty behavior is important and impacts the department’s reputation. Once somebody knows you are a firefighter, in his view, you are a firefighter 24/7. Just being a firefighter elevates you to a higher standard, and we all must work together to uphold the standard.

Actions Speak as Loudly as Words

Every action you take, every word you utter is made as a firefighter. Every time you are out in public and at every community event you attend, you are representing your fire department. Like it or not, how you act impacts the reputation and professional image of your department.

In my travels with my fellow volunteers, we often wear our department T-shirts or job shirts in public. Many times, while we sit in airports waiting for our flight, people feel compelled to chat with us and bring their kids over to talk to us, no doubt because firefighters have a reputation of being warmhearted and friendly people. Now, imagine the damage we can do to that reputation if we act inappropriately or are rude and nasty.

If your volunteer department is like mine, there is no shortage of shirts. They are a wonderful way to advertise our departments and our profession. But, what do those shirts say? What image do they portray? Can they be considered professional with a neat, clean logo? Or do they offer some disparaging comments or drawing? It is bad enough if you are wearing the shirt in public, but what if a call comes in and you show up at someone’s house wearing it? This does not portray a professional image; it could actually diminish the confidence people have in our abilities and lead them to believe we lack compassion and concern for their problems.

Appearance also affects a department’s professional reputation. As volunteers, we are often alerted to respond to calls while working around the house or doing something else that might not have us looking neat or clean. We cannot wear uniforms all day just in case we get alerted for a call. However, there are certain things that we can do to help identify us as firefighters and present a more professional appearance not only to the citizens we serve but to other responding agencies such as law enforcement.

Keeping a department T-shirt or sweatshirt in your vehicle is a quick way to cover up and present a decent appearance. In cooler weather, keep a nice department jacket handy to throw on. Some members don their turnout pants at EMS or other calls to cover up the bathing suits, gym shorts, or tattered jeans they are wearing. My department created inexpensive membership cards, laminated them, and placed a lanyard on them for us to keep in our vehicles. We can throw the cards on quickly if responding directly to the scene to properly identify us as firefighters. We must understand that when a call comes in, we are considered on duty, and looking clean and easily identifiable as a firefighter helps create a respectable and professional image.

Inside the Firehouse

Professional behavior does not apply only to training and call responses; it also applies inside our firehouses. It starts the minute any member of your local community expresses an interest in joining your department. Is your process for bringing them into the membership organized and efficient? Does a member or a committee sit down and discuss with them your department rules and expectations? What about after you formally accept the member? Do you just throw equipment at him and tell him to show up, or does someone or a group of members mentor him on expected behavior and other important department roles? Create a formal orientation program to start off new members in their volunteer firefighting career. My department developed a booklet that we handed out to interested parties, which outlines how our department operates and details expectations and requirements. If the interested party formally applies, he meets with a board representing a cross section of the department. The board reviews the booklet in greater detail and answers any questions the candidate might have.

Once our new member is accepted, his first night on duty involves a formal orientation program, he’s issued gear and equipment, and he’s given another review of the department policies to ensure he understands and accepts them. This formal step-by-step process leaves a positive impression on your new member. Even if he does not join the department or he is with you for only a short time, he gets that you run a well-organized, proficient, and professional operation.

The fire service is the greatest profession in the world. Our ranks are filled with hard working, dedicated, caring, and extremely competent members. At all times, strive to be a “professional” firefighter, whether you are paid or volunteer.

THOMAS A. MERRILL is a 33-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.

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