The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: Preparedness

By Thomas A. Merrill

Chances are your neighbors and friends know you are a volunteer firefighter. However, they really do not think of you as strictly a volunteer. In their mind, they think of you simply as a firefighter. Most likely, they take great comfort in the fact that you live nearby. Not only are you most likely considered trustworthy but also competent and dependable. They believe that you will be able to help them out in their time of need. They could care less if you are volunteer or paid.

Your neighbors and friends don’t understand or necessarily care about all the different job classifications we might have in the volunteer fire service–structural, interior, non-structural, fire police, social, administrative. All they know is you are a firefighter and in their mind that means you can be counted on to help them if they ever need your service. But what if you were only fooling them? What if it had been awhile since you last went to drill? What if it had been some time since you last practiced the variety of tasks that fall into your job description? What if tonight, in your neighbor’s hour of need, you failed them because you were not prepared?

Whenever I teach a training class in my department, I like to remind the firefighters that their neighbors have this vision of them being well-trained, well-equipped, and well-prepared to help them out in an emergency. Certainly those calling for help expect the responders to be prepared. No matter what their skill level and proficiency really might be, everybody expects them to be fully prepared.

Be honest with yourself. Are you prepared? Can you confidently and competently perform to the level expected of you? Can you help your neighbor? Or are you only fooling people by wearing that department T-shirt and boasting that fire department sticker on your car?


It is totally understandable and acceptable that the volunteer fire service can categorize members in a variety of ways. Different tasks and duties can be expected of members based on tenure, interests, training, age, and a variety of other factors. As volunteers, you certainly can choose to be more of a social member than a real active member. You can also strive to just meet your department’s minimum requirements. However, the professional volunteer firefighter vows to do more than just the minimum required. They embrace their role and work hard to improve their skills. Whatever category they fall into, they train and are prepared to do the job expected of them.

If you are an outside (non-structural or exterior firefighter), be prepared to quickly tap a hydrant, throw a ground ladder, change out self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) bottles, and get power to the lights and fans without struggling. Be prepared to get any tool that is called for. It’s embarrassing when firefighters circle a rig, opening and closing compartment doors, looking for a specific tool. I call that the “dog chasing the tail.” Not only is it embarrassing for the firefighter but it also wastes precious time.

If you are a driver, know the rig! Know how to drive it safely and responsibly. You might not put the rig in pump at every call, but boy, when water is needed, that is not to time to try and remember how to do it. At that auto extrication call, know how to get the jaws ready and light tower working at night. Drivers do not just drive.

Certainly, if you are an interior structural firefighter, then you know you are expected to be able to don and doff your gear and SCBA quickly and competently, advance a hoseline, and carry a resident in peril down a ladder. Even if you really cannot or haven’t done it in years, your residents believe in you. They think you can. How devastating it would be to fail them? Again, they only know the term firefighter. They don’t give a rip that you decided to skip the live fire and smoke evolutions or SCBA drills. When their house is burning or their loved one needs you, they expect you to rise to the occasion.

The point is, whatever your role or title is in your department, be prepared to live up to the expectations associated with it. Not only is the public expecting this, but your fellow firefighters are as well.


So how do we get ourselves prepared? How do we best meet the expectations of our neighbors, friends and residents? How do we measure up to the title we hold in our department? My simple answer is to be into your “job.” You volunteered to serve, so learn as much about whatever your role is. Develop the attitude that training will continue throughout your career. Just because you are a life member or have many years in the fire service does not mean you get to pass on training. Never stop training. Take advantage of every opportunity to improve your skills. Work to perform your job role competently and confidently. That equates to a professional firefighter.

No matter what your role is in your department, you owe it to your public and your fellow firefighters to be as thoroughly trained and prepared as possible.

Are you prepared? I guarantee that your neighbors think you are.

Tom MerrillTom 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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