TRANSITION TO A COMBINATION DEPARTMENT

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
-administration?
-line firefighting?
-daytime/nighttime drivers?
-the training division?
-fire prevention?
-firefighter safety?

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.

Reporting Relationships:
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.

Essential Functions:

  • Prepares and recommends fire services policies to the town manager.
  • Implements approved fire services policies to ensure compliance with OSHA, NFPA, and other regulatory mandates.
  • Plans short- and long-term departmental goals.
  • Directs the operation of the department and administers purchase of supplies; maintenance of records; and the repair, maintenance, and replacement of equipment and fire buildings belonging to the town.
  • Supervises paid employees and all volunteer firefighters, ensuring maximum productivity and safety.
  • Responds to serious fires and other emergencies and serves as incident commander.
  • Oversees the fire marshal and fire inspectors to ensure investigation of cause and origin of fires and to ensure inspections of buildings in compliance of fire prevention codes.
  • Prepares annual town departmental operating and capital budgets and appears before Town Council to present and defend budget requests.
  • Enforces rules and regulations of the department.
  • Supervises recruitment and training of new firefighters.
  • Reads and interprets laws, ordinances, and regulations.
  • Serves as official town spokesperson relative to fire protection, rescue services, and hazardous-material responses.
  • Serves as member of staff plan review committee to provide comments on proposals submitted to Planning and Zoning Commission.
  • Supervises all departmental training related to fire prevention, suppression, investigation, equipment maintenance, and hazardous materials handling.
  • Serves as member of Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC).
  • Conducts public meetings or issues public notices to disseminate information to citizens of fire hazards in the community and departmental activities. May make presentations to schools and civic groups to develop and maintain good public relations.
  • Serves as chairman of departmental management team (FOB).
  • Performs other related duties, as required.

    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.

    Special Requirements:
    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.

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    TRANSITION TO A COMBINATION DEPARTMENT

    13

    TRANSITION TO A COMBINATION DEPARTMENT

    VOLUNTEERS CORNER

    In rapidly growing communities, one of the biggest decisions is whether to add career personnel to the fire department. This transition to a combination fire department is a major change and requires detailed planning, cooperation, communication, and strong leadership. If there is concern about the ability of the volunteer fire service to provide adequate protection and alternate delivery systems are inevitable, departments are best advised to prepare for the change. While there is no easy road a chief can follow to guarantee a smooth transition, there are steps you can take to pave the way.

    Sometimes problems can be addressed without major changes in operation, but in other cases the only choice is to add staffing. Community and fire department leaders must understand the basic concept of a combination department and how to integrate career personnel into a traditional volunteer system. Decision makers must know the advantages and disadvantages, the potential problems, and the benefits. The community and fire department must understand and support the concept (even though some individuals may be opposed to the idea).

    REASONS TO SWITCH

    Approximately 25 percent of the fire departments in the United States are some type of combination department. There are many advantages to a combination fire department. According to Managing Fire Services, edited by John L. Bryan and Raymond C. Picard (ICMA, 1979), “…combination fire departments provide generally equivalent fire protection services at a lower cost than fully paid departments.” They also can provide a quick response with a large labor pool.

    A community may want to supplement its volunteer fire department after what it considers an inadequate response by its volunteers. For example, it may find that daytime responses are inadequate, since most volunteers are away at their full-time jobs. Or it may opt for a combination department in response to public pressure to improve services or demands for increased service levels, particularly for EMS, hazardous materials, and fire prevention.

    MAKE CHANGES GRADUALLY

    Keep in mind that each community and department has its own culture, resources, employees, history, and leadership. When making the transition, think through changes in advance and design them to address the problems identified. For example, if daytime response is a problem, schedule career personnel during the day.

    Departments can view the change as an opportunity to deviate frorrv long-standing fire service traditions and adapt to the changing responsibilities of a fire department. Job descriptions for career personnel need not be limited to just “firefighting.” Hire personnel with the understanding thar they will have additional responsibilities—inspection, public fire education, and plan review, to name a few.

    When establishing a work plan, make the transition a gradual one. Take into consideration existing personnel and service levels. Be loyal to the volunteers to gain their cooperation. Any plan will need political and marketing strategies: You must sell the idea of change to politicians, appointed officials, community leaders, citizens at large, and individual volunteer firefighters.

    DEVELOPING QUALITY PERSONNEL

    Probably the most important task is selecting the proper people. For career positions, select from the volunteer ranks. This shows confidence in existing volunteer personnel and gains their support. When selecting personnel, do more than consider potential firefighting skills. Communication skills, personality, and the ability to get along with others also are important qualities to look for. Then direct your efforts toward personnel development.

    Support your people with specialized, quality training. Career firefighters have more opportunities to attend various programs; volunteers often cannot spare the time from their full-time employment. Career firefighters will benefit from attendance at the National Fire Academy, conferences, workshops, and seminars. Establish standards and challenge the career firefighters to meet them. This will indirectly train your volunteer firefighters: Career firefighters can share what they have learned, and your volunteers will be motivated to improve their levels of training to keep up.

    TRANSITION TO A COMBINATION DEPARTMENT

    Since the department is deviating from tradition, this is an excellent opportunity to improve its professionalism. In addition to required firefighting training, encourage your personnel to seek higher education.

    COMMUNICATING HONESTLY

    Be honest with the career firefighters. Don’t lead them to believe that there will be mass hirings and unlimited promotion opportunities. Don’t promise them what you can’t deliver. Tell them the plan —that they will be part of a small core of firefighters who will provide services to the community. Make sure they understand the need for volunteers and their role in supporting the combination fire department.

    As is their right in many states, the career firefighters will be interested in organizing a labor union. This creates and solves many problems. On one hand, a labor agreement is a negotiated settlement that allows both employee and employer input to solve problems; issues are addressed and policies established. On the other hand, unions can create divisions within the department and an “us vs., them” atmosphere. Also, union bylaws may contradict fire department goals. If firefighters do organize a labor union, create an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual trust, not confrontation.

    Communicate with existing volunteers. Use all available channels to” reach the “official” and “unofficial” leaders of the department. Talk to all affected people and answer as many questions as possible. Don’t be afraid to use an unofficial channel of communication—the rumor mill —to get the true picture. Convince all personnel that the department can provide for everyone’s needs and that both groups can coexist.

    TRANSITION TO A COMBINATION DEPARTMENT

    SOLVING INEVITABLE CONFLICTS

    Some problems that arise during the transition include scheduling of career personnel and leave days; compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act; station, apparatus, and equipment maintenance; uniforms; and training standards. Solutions depend on the department’s culture and the type of combination department it is. Expect such problems and consult other combination departments to learn from their successes and failures.

    Regardless of your best efforts, conflicts between groups are inevitable. One area that creates the most controversy with no clear-cut answers involves chain of command and “who’s in charge” issues. Career firefighters often resist taking orders or receiving direction from part-time personnel. They cite training levels and years of experience as reasons. The argument is not valid in the beginning, since new hires come from the volunteer ranks. However, as time passes, career firefighters have more opportunities to gain experience and to attend training programs.

    The best way to address this problem is to accept the chain of command as a constantly evolving matter of policy that considers the training and experience of the individuals. In addition, establish standards for both career and volunteer officers. Personnel can better accept orders from people whom they feel have received proper and sufficient training and have achieved a standard of excellence in the profession. In many cases the people who demonstrate that they deserve such authority will receive it. Regardless of the formal chain of command, personnel will seek direction from those that they respect most.

    Some organizations prefer to isolate career and volunteer firefighters as a solution. This certainly prevents much conflict and allows independence of both groups, but it also may stifle the organization’s growth: Separation severely limits communication between career and volunteer personnel, and communication is essential to problem solving.

    WORKING AS A TEAM

    The fire service depends on teamwork. If both groups are to operate together on emergencies, they should work and train together during times of less pressure and stress. Career and volunteer firefighters can develop a healthy respect for each other and learn to work out their differences. While individual goals may vary, the purpose of the organization is to provide the best possible service with the resources available. This requires all personnel to work together as a team. All must be convinced that it is their responsibility to make the system function at its highest level. Those that choose not to cooperate have no place in the department, whether career or volunteer. Don’t let a few disrupt the whole.

    There is no singular method to introduce change. Self-imposed change is easier to accept than forced change, and the stronger the force, the greater the resistance. In turbulent environments, there is a greater need for support. If your organization is investigating the possibility of changing from a volunteer to a combination fire department, be prepared. You must have a plan. As part of the plan, begin with basic communication and try to eliminate all surprises. Use the concepts of team building and consensus management. Hopefully all involved parties will recognize the need for transition and offer their support, cooperation, and assistance to make the transition to a combination department a smooth one.