FOR MORE THAN 30 YEARS, PEOPLE have been predicting the demise of the volunteer fire service. Those who make this prediction usually cite the increasing difficulty to recruit, train, and retain volunteers, as well as response time standards, higher levels of service, demands for new services, and the lack of daytime availability of volunteers. Yet in many areas of the country, volunteers still thrive and deliver quality service at a fraction of the cost. What makes one department successful in its use of volunteers while another fails? Perhaps the answer lies in the ability of the successful department to better prepare candidates to assume the multiple roles of being a volunteer fire officer. This preparation is one indication that the department values its volunteers and is committed to providing the proper leadership that will motivate continued service.
VOLUNTEER COMPANY OFFICER ROLES
The volunteer company officer serves in various roles involving operations, administration, and personnel. Many times, the officer will wear several of these hats at the same time; on other occasions, he may not take a certain role for quite awhile. Either way, the volunteer officer needs to be confident and proficient enough to be able to carry out his duties at any time.
Scene operations for a volunteer company officer can be quite diverse, depending on the department. The officer might have to act as the crew leader for an engine, ladder, or rescue company while keeping in mind that his current crew might be entirely different from the previous run. The apparatus officer always must take into consideration his crew’s experience and skills when making tactical decisions so that each member can contribute to the team. This is especially difficult for volunteers, because very rarely do members get to train with the same apparatus crews.
A company officer also must perform as an incident commander (IC). This may be a temporary situation, until other apparatus arrives, or for the duration of the incident if running as a battalion or shift chief. The IC can “make or break” the outcome of an incident in the first five minutes. The main question he must answer is: “What personnel response will I get from my department?” If this is a daytime incident, you might know you’re short-staffed, so you may have to start additional agencies sooner than normal. However, to help minimize freelancing on the fireground, the IC needs to have assignments ready for incoming apparatus.
The volunteer company officer also can fill a role in the command staff such as scene safety officer, accountability officer, or public information officer. These positions are not always in play, but the company officer needs to be willing to step up and take these roles when needed. Everyone agrees that the safety of our personnel and the public we serve are of the utmost importance. The volunteer company officer needs to approach these roles with a sense of importance and seriousness.
Although operational duties usually get the most attention in terms of what is expected from a volunteer company officer, how the officer handles the administrative and personnel duties that come before and after the incident can make the difference between being a good officer and a great officer.
New and experienced members look up to the volunteer company officer. The company officer has a chance to shape the department as a training officer and as a one-on-one mentor. The officer must share his experiences and skills with his volunteer crew whenever possible. This could be a part of weekly department meetings or in spontaneous one-on-one training sessions whenever a new member has an extra five minutes. However you decide to share your knowledge, make sure you do it with enthusiasm-the members’ enthusiasm will follow.
The volunteer company officer may need to have private conversations to get a member who has gone astray back on track, and there will be situations in which a member’s actions warrant progressive discipline. The key when disciplining any individual is to be consistent among members. Once discipline has been issued, a precedent has been set. Make sure the discipline is equal to the level of the infraction, and be sure to fully investigate every case independently. Respect takes years to build; inconsistent and hasty discipline measures can demolish it in moments.
The attitude that the volunteer company officer portrays through his words and actions has a dramatic effect on the entire department. Because the officer is at the forefront, the members will mimic this attitude. This applies to every function, including performing station duties, loading hose, or conducting annual fire inspections. Therefore, we need to choose our officers wisely. This can be accomplished only with a fair, organized officer process that evaluates an individual on all company officer disciplines.
Departments that continue to vote annually for their company officers and even chief officers can find inconsistency in an overall direction for the department. This practice often leads to a popularity contest that may overlook qualified, well-trained firefighters ready to step up. Contrary to some views, being a volunteer company officer isn’t just riding the front seat; it takes a person willing to fulfill a variety of roles and a commitment to make the department better, both on and off the fireground. It takes a leader.
On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, commander of the all-volunteer 20th Maine brigade, called his subordinate officers aside and explained why his men needed to be ready to stand and fight. The 20th Maine had been given the Union Army’s flank to protect along a ridge called Little Round Top. Although his officers felt there would be little action for their troops, Chamberlain accurately predicted they would be called on to withstand the bulk of the Confederate Army’s charge. Many volunteer Union regiments during the Civil War had not withstood the fierce Confederate attacks, but Chamberlain’s vision inspired his officers and men with a sense of responsibility to themselves, to Maine, and to their country. Chamberlain’s straightforward and simple approach to such a complex situation is accurately portrayed in a scene from the movie “Gettysburg.” His open and participatory leadership style can be used as a model for today’s volunteer fire service.
Without a doubt, it is often harder to effectively lead a volunteer or combination fire department than a department full of career firefighters, because the primary motivation for a person to volunteer is a feeling that belonging has worth. The chief sets the example for others to follow, especially in a volunteer department. He must project honesty, integrity, sincerity, self-control, vision, and a genuine appreciation for the difficult job that his subordinates are being asked to do.
Volunteer company officers need to act as the chief’s liaison or conduit for information and problem solving. Company officers need to be knowledgeable, fair, enthusiastic, dependable, and loyal to both the chief and the firefighters. This leadership is defined by the actions officers take and whether they pursue their roles with passion. Volunteer officers must practice self-discipline and exhibit solid values, and they should keep their finger on the pulse of the department by walking around and talking to the firefighters.
The chief should be optimistic, provide opportunities for officers and firefighters to use their talents, and support involvement in the operations of the department. When faced with difficult decisions, a chief should seek open discussion from the officers and should not expect them to be “Yes” men. However, the officers’ participation in this open discussion comes at a price: Once a decision is made, the chief should expect the full support and loyalty of the officers to make the outcome successful.
The chief also should provide volunteer company officers with opportunities to take responsibility for projects. With this responsibility, the officers should be empowered with an adequate amount of authority to be successful and to gain experience and confidence. In highly productive departments, officers can be empowered to experiment with solutions to find the best answer for their department. This experimentation includes the freedom to make mistakes, adjust, and continue as long as it’s not permanently detrimental. The freedom to fail (without sinking the ship) is one of the best ways to learn, but the chief must be sure this is done in a positive environment that reinforces the learning process and minimizes the consequences of any mistakes.
BECOMING A BETTER LEADER AND OFFICER
There is no magic formula to become a good leader. There is yet to be a pill developed that we can swallow to make us better volunteer company officers. Becoming an effective leader takes years of preparation, dedication, and hard work. The chief and the officers need to work, learn, and practice their own skills while mentoring or teaching other firefighters who will be the department’s officers and leaders of tomorrow. This involves technical and people skills that take real work to perfect. Although some people make it look easy, everyone has to work at these skills; the best make it look “natural.”
Technical skills for a volunteer company officer include being proficient in the basics: firefighter I, II, and III skills plus one or more specialty skills such as extrication, haz-mat operations, or investigation. The better volunteer company officers also hone their networking skills by observing new methods and meeting new people. Learning new things includes looking, seeing, and talking about “other solutions” to common fire service issues. Learning opportunities include local and state fire schools; the National Fire Academy’s state weekends; outreach classes or Volunteer Incentive Program (VIP) courses; Company Officer Development (COD I, II, III, and IV); and incident command (not just NIMS, but the “bread and butter” of ICS that should be used on every call). At these opportunities and at conferences such as FDIC, there is value in taking hands-on training and classroom courses that challenge your conventional thinking.
The fire service is constantly evolving. If a physician can “practice” medicine or a lawyer is in the “practice” of law, then, of course, a fire officer can “practice” the science of firefighting. If this is not true, why do we hold a post-incident analysis or tailboard discussion on what went right or what went wrong at an incident? Practice includes the freedom to fail and the capability to try new techniques. These discussions are a way for us to identify and correct our weaknesses, evaluate new methods, and learn from our mistakes. The three major questions that should be addressed include
- Did everyone come back from the run okay?
- Did the fire go out? Or, for other emergencies, was the outcome successful?
- Did we cause any unnecessary damage?
Everything else is a learning and training opportunity-what could have been done to improve our performance?
Finally, the volunteer company officers need to constantly “practice” their people skills. This includes becoming a good listener-especially when people come to you with problems. It also means becoming a mentor or teacher for others. You are an officer because someone once saw your potential and invested time to help you learn and prepare. Mentoring also includes valuing the individual skills and talents of your people and remembering to say “thank you” for the contributions they make to the operation of the department.
There is no easy way to develop the skills that make a great chief or volunteer company officer. But departments that invest time and energy to develop personnel will excel; those that don’t merely get by. Developing great leaders and officers demands commitment and perseverance, balanced with family and personal time, to provide an atmosphere conducive to perpetuating the volunteer fire service in your community.
ROBERT R. RIELAGE, CFO, EFO, MIFireE, is chief of Wyoming (OH) Fire-EMS. He previously served as fire marshal of the State of Ohio, was a member of the State of Ohio Security Task Force, and was a delegate to the National Governor’s Association for Homeland Security. Rielage served for 27 years as an assistant chief of the Colerain Township (OH) Fire Department. A graduate of the Kennedy School of Government’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage has a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is the immediate past president of the Institution of Fire Engineers.
TODD RIELAGE is a captain with the Chesterfield-Union Township (IN) Fire Department and serves as the department’s lead fire instructor. He also is a career firefighter with the Fishers (IN) Fire Department, where he is a member of the Fishers Tactical Rescue Team. He has a bachelor’s degree in education from Anderson University.