BY JACK CASNER
Transitioning from an all-volunteer to a combination department is one of the most difficult decisions a department can make. However, in many cases, it’s the correct one and usually is long overdue. The job of a volunteer chief is becoming more and more difficult and time-consuming. Many people stay in the position for the prestige or power; their focus is not on the department’s mission but on their personal success. Meanwhile, the department falls to pieces.
A good friend once told me, “Some people would rather be chief than be right; the good ones would rather be right.” I keep this slogan on the wall in my office to remind me to keep my eye on the ball and to stay focused and grounded. As the demand for services from our department continued to grow and the number of qualified competent officers continued to diminish, the senior officers of the department went to the department membership and said, “Here’s the deal: If we don’t get people to start stepping up to the officer positions, we are going to have to hire someone to run this place.” Keeping the organization’s members in the loop is key; don’t lie to your members, and don’t paint the picture better or worse than it actually is. Make truth your guide; nothing more, nothing less.
If you have been honest and upfront about the seriousness of your department’s situation and personnel still don’t respond to train and educate themselves for officer positions, no one can say you were sneaky and did this for yourself or some other ulterior motive. Make sure you are not doing this for yourself; you should be doing it for the good of the department and to keep the organization operating effectively.
Stay focused on your organization’s mission. Ask yourself, “Is this the right thing for the people in the department and for those to whom we are providing services?” If the right thing to do is to hire staff, then bite the bullet and go to your town administrators and inform them of the situation as well. Many politicians don’t have a clue about what goes on in a fire department; it’s up to the department’s command staff to keep them up to speed. Remember, if your department fails in its mission and you haven’t told anyone that there is a problem, the chiefs and officers will be the ones with the problem when something horrible happens. So again, be honest and open.
Once you decide that the department has to hire staff, first do a needs assessment. Ask yourself the following question:
Where is the department not meeting its mission? Is it in
-the training division?
Answering these questions will help you start thinking where you should start. Our department’s greatest need was in administration; we focused our hiring efforts on a career chief.
First, we developed a job description. There are a gazillion samples to look at, cut and paste, and play with. The description should definitely be town- or city-specific. Don’t use a generic job description. Hiring staff is a huge step in your fire department, so take your time and be methodical and thorough. Show the politicians, the municipality and its employees that you know what you want and need.
Our job description for fire chief (Figure 1) is not the only model available. In our description, the chief reports to the town manager; the fire marshal reports to the chief. This reporting relationship streamlined our operation, but it might not work for all departments, since some fire marshals insist on maintaining their autonomy, which doesn’t always make sense from an operational standpoint.
Before you finalize your job description, decide what your chief’s salary will be. Look at the salaries for your municipality’s chief of police, public works director, finance director, and similar positions; demand a comparable salary. Since this person will be responsible for protecting people’s lives, don’t skimp on the salary! Remember, you get what you pay for; if the position’s salary starts out low, it will always be low.
Next, figure out how to make the relationship between the career and volunteer personnel work. Will the city or town charter need to be changed to allow for hiring this person? In our case, we had to change the charter to allow for a municipal fire department. We hired only the chief, and there was no municipal department prior to this transition. Consequently, a volunteer organization and a municipal department are working as a team.
Then address the relationship between the municipal department and the volunteer organization, which, hopefully, is a legitimate nonprofit corporation of some sort. Will the volunteer corporation sign an agreement to provide fire protection for a set time and a set amount? That is the route we chose-a five-year term, which will allow us to review concerns at that time. At the five-year point, we will continue to operate as we have been as long as the town/city or the volunteer corporation doesn’t have any changes to the agreement and there are no items of concern to address.
Our municipal department has five full-time paid employees: an administrative assistant, a fire marshal, two deputy fire marshals, and the chief. In addition, there are occasional part-time employees. The full-time chief also is responsible for the volunteers in the organization.
If you are going to hire full-time staff, the same steps can be followed. There will be other things to consider: Will paid personnel be union or nonunion? Will you attempt to comply with National Fire Protection Association 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Publicby Career Fire Departments; NFPA 1720, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments; and other standards?
When it comes to the selection process, I am a firm believer in hiring the volunteers first, if they are qualified. Don’t just hire volunteers because they have been there for 20 years. If you’re hiring an administrator, hire the most qualified person: a well-rounded individual who is honest, capable, and trusted by the majority of the department. If this person is a troublemaker as a volunteer, he will be trouble when he gets a paycheck-it’s that simple.
As you move in that direction and determine your department’s needs, get people involved within the department. If it is inevitable that you need to hire staff, it’s not the end of the world-it’s reality. The volunteer fire service continues to be pulled in many directions; demands don’t get easier with each passing day. If your department’s response times are increasing and the number of people turning out at calls is declining, tell the department members that if this doesn’t improve, measures will have to be taken to address these concerns, including hiring people. This is going to cost some taxpayers money, so remember why you’re in this process-to deliver a service to the people you serve. Although this process takes months to complete to do it right, the proper outcome will be achieved.
Figure 1. Town of Cheshire Position Description
Position Title: Fire Chief Classification: E-5
Department: Fire Date: 11-09-00
Position Objectives: Chief executive and administrative officer with sole command of municipal fire services department. Responsible for fire suppression, equipment, and apparatus.
Reports to: Town Manager
Supervises: All paid employees and volunteer firefighters of the Cheshire Fire Department.
Job Location and Equipment Used: Work is performed in the office at fire headquarters and at fire and emergency scenes. This position requires use of office equipment to prepare budgets and monthly reports, to monitor expenditures, to prepare purchase recommendations, to issue orders, to maintain vehicle maintenance and firefighter training records, and to conduct departmental training. General computer knowledge. Out of fire headquarters, this position will require response to fires and other emergencies and direction of suppression operations as incident commander. The position will require adjustment to various exterior and interior climatic conditions depending on season and various environmental conditions, such as noise levels.
The above duties describe the most significant duties performed and are not to be considered a detailed description of every duty of the position. Other occasional and related duties may be assigned.
Desired Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities:
Thorough knowledge of fire-suppression principles and practices of public and municipal administration. Thorough knowledge of OSHA and NFPA standards. Thorough knowledge of state and local fire and safety codes. Ability to plan, organize, direct, and evaluate the operations of the department. Ability to read and interpret regulations and building plans. Considerable ability to establish and maintain effective working relationship with paid employees, volunteers, town and state officials, and the general public. Well-developed leadership and personnel management skills. Knowledge of equipment and facilities operation, maintenance, and planning. Oral and written communicative skills. Understanding of bylaws, rules, and regulations of the Cheshire Fire Department. Ability to produce and manage operating and capital budgets. Knowledge of collective bargaining procedures.
Minimum Experience and Training:
Bachelor’s degree in fire science, fire administration, or public administration preferred. Associate’s degree in fire science, fire administration, or public administration required or an equivalent of education and experience including at least 10 years of experience in a fire department composed of paid and/or volunteer firefighters. Minimum of five years of experience at a captain level or equivalent or above. Valid Connecticut CDL license or Class 2q. Certified Fire Officer Level I required. Certified Fire Service Instructor I required.
May be required to reside in the Town of Cheshire within 12 months after appointment. Must be available in case of serious fires or emergencies. Physical ability and agility to climb ladders and stairs wearing protective clothing and enter fire or emergency sites with emergency personnel. Medically qualified to wear self-containing breathing apparatus. Ability to maintain any required certifications.
JACK CASNER is a 19-year veteran of the fire service and chief of the Cheshire (CT) Fire-Rescue Department. A graduate of several Connecticut Fire Academy courses, he is a certified fire officer I, fire service instructor I, and safety officer.