Transitioning to a Paid Chief

By JIM PIDCOCK

In volunteer fire departments across the country, many factors lead to the need to hire a paid chief to manage the operational and administrative tasks of a volunteer or combination fire department. Reasons may include, but are not limited to, a population increase in the fire district; changes in hazards; increased work load; public demand; legal considerations; lack of volunteer leadership; or, simply, no qualified candidates for the chief position.

Local governments charged with delivering fire and EMS services, whether in a municipality or a fire district, must provide the best service possible to taxpayers while remaining fiscally responsible. This article addresses the potential obstacles a volunteer department may encounter when hiring its first paid chief and some issues the department may have to deal with while making the transition.

WHO DECIDES ON THE NEED FOR A PAID CHIEF?

Determining the need for a paid chief may come from many different sources; the volunteer membership or the governing body (GB) in charge of fire and EMS services (district board, town council, elected officials) may have determined this need for a long time. An individual may be vying for the position or have political motivations. Regardless of where the determination comes from, all parties should be involved in the decision-making process from the beginning.

Most volunteer fire departments have a long, proud tradition of being staffed exclusively by volunteers. Additionally, the chief is often one of the most trusted people in the department, if not the whole community. Deciding to replace this volunteer position with a paid employee will undoubtedly bring out many emotions, good and bad. Different philosophies will emerge, and factions may form within the department. The goal is to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Developing and maintaining open lines of communication between the volunteers and the GB are paramount to accepting this transition. Understanding and honoring the fire department culture will go far toward volunteer buy-in of the new position; the GB must understand that, to avoid losing the volunteers, it must include them in the process. Hold as many interdepartment and public meetings as necessary to answer all questions. In some communities, forming this new position may even require a special election. Form a committee with GB members, volunteer leadership, current paid staff (if applicable), and the public (taxpayers) all represented to study the necessity of a paid chief, develop a job description, create a selection/hiring process, and hire/welcome the new chief.

This group should also address any issues surrounding potential changes in the organizational structure and the roles of the officer corps. The volunteers and the GB may be unclear as to how the new chief fits into the organization on an operational and administrative level. Firefighters will want to know who is in charge and who gives that person his authority. Develop and define a grievance process so members do not feel powerless to deal with a potentially heavy-handed leader. Having a clearly defined organizational structure from the beginning will alleviate any confusion or misinformation about who is running the show. Once again, including the volunteers in the development process can help to facilitate a positive outcome.

DEVELOPING A JOB DESCRIPTION

Once you have decided to hire a paid chief, appoint a “hiring committee” to develop a job description and hiring process. This sounds simple, but you should not overlook it or take it for granted. This committee should consist of representatives of the GB; volunteer leadership; and existing paid staff, if applicable.

A volunteer chief’s responsibilities can be very different from those of a paid chief. Volunteer chiefs are often merely operations chiefs; they may only have the responsibility to be the top manager or in command of fire department calls and training. They may have very strong leadership abilities, yet lack administrative skills. They may have years of firefighting experience but no knowledge of how to balance a budget or no desire to attend meetings with the GB.

The paid chief, however, will not only have to be an operations chief but also administratively responsible. His job may involve creating a budget, managing different divisions of the department (paid and volunteer), overseeing administrative staff, developing training, attending meetings, performing human resources management, and many other functions. He will also be expected to have high visibility within the community. Everyone must understand the paid chief’s job description.

The hiring committee should develop a comprehensive job description based on the fire district’s needs. Relative qualifications may include experience, education, employment history, medical and psychological evaluation, years of service, and so on. Clearly outline the position’s expectations, responsibilities, and job functions as well as a description of salary and benefits.

DECIDING ON A SELECTION PROCESS

Volunteer departments traditionally operate on a paramilitary foundation; a democratic process determines acceptance of members and officer positions. Although this practice is often sufficient for the volunteer structure, it is mostly inadequate for hiring a paid chief. However, ignoring these same traditions can cause tremendous misunderstanding and strife within the ranks of a group that selects its own leadership. The fire service cannot thrive or even function properly without trust and respect; asking volunteers to trust and respect someone they do not even know may become a political and operational disaster. Likewise, automatically assuming that the current volunteer chief is the best choice for the paid position is generally foolish. Including the current chief or other volunteer members in the pool of potential candidates for the newly formed paid chief position is an acceptable compromise, provided that the hiring process is taken seriously.

The governing body should work closely with the volunteers to alleviate these potential conflicts. The fire department members have spent years and even decades identifying and promoting their leadership from within; they know whom they trust to lead them; they often have a comfort level with their current officer corps and chief. Although this system may have flaws within individual departments, simply bringing in someone new and demanding that department members trust and respect him immediately is going to be a tough sell. Developing a comprehensive job description and hiring process will allow all sides to feel good about the person chosen as the paid chief.

The hiring committee should consult with other departments and fire service professionals and use their experiences as a guide. Often departments close by have recently gone through the same transition; interview these tremendous resources. Find out what worked well for them and what they wish they could have done differently or avoided altogether. This process takes time and effort. Open communication throughout the process is paramount. So is patience.

WELCOMING THE NEW CHIEF

Once you have hired the new chief, the transition begins. This is no time to stand back and leave it to the chief to figure out the department workings on his own. The existing staff should be ready and willing to help him become part of the organization. This will lead to a successful transition.

As stated above, the fire service is built on a foundation of trust and respect. It is also said that respect cannot be demanded—it must be earned. With this in mind, all department members must take the necessary time to learn who the new chief is and what he stands for. Remember, this person may have come from a completely different type of organizational structure, in a different position within that structure. He may be feeling some insecurity or apprehension about how he will be accepted within the organization. His leadership abilities will be on display for all to see, and he will need the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his management style. Give him time to prove himself as a strong leader and manager. Do not impose undue scrutiny or criticism unless you are prepared to be held to the same standards.

IF YOU ARE THE NEW CHIEF

If you are the new chief, be prepared for some push-back or skepticism from the membership. Having an open-door policy and open lines of communication are critical during this time. Take the time to listen. If you are an urban or “city” firefighter/fire officer moving to a “slow” department after your retirement, recognize the different challenges your new position poses. Do not impose your rules and philosophies right away; what you think the department needs when you first arrive will undoubtedly change and be modified as you spend time as chief and learn about the department. Be proud of your years of service and your experience, and plan to share this part of you, but do not hide behind it or become complacent. Be prepared to have many new and exciting experiences with this brand new group of peers.

 

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This is obviously a broad outline of what to expect, and each individual department will have its own experiences, but taking a proactive approach to these potential issues will help the transition process. The value of consulting with other departments that have undergone this transition cannot be overstated, nor can involving the current volunteer membership with the process. If it is important enough to determine that your department is ready for a paid chief, then it is important enough to take the time to do it right.

JIM PIDCOCK is a 25-year fire service veteran and a firefighter with the Carbondale and Rural (CO) Fire Protection District. He is a Colorado State Firefighter 2 and a New Jersey State Firefighter 2. Pidcock is also a former assistant chief of training with Evergreen (CO) Fire Rescue and a former lieutenant, captain, and assistant chief with Lawrence Road (NJ) Fire Company.

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