USING VOLUNTEERS IN INSPECTION PROGRAMS
In many suburban communities, fire suppression often is handled by volunteer companies, and support services such as fire prevention/inspection are provided on a regional or countywide level. The function of the fire-life safety inspections traditionally has been separated from the suppression aspect. According to Don Manno, a National Fire Academy instructor, it was not uncommon for a “suppression” fire officer to make it clear to a new firefighter that the “prevention bureau” was made up of department members who “couldn’t make it” in suppression. This attitude that there is no glory in the prevention bureau has trickled down and spread throughout fire departments. These bureaus, in the words of Carl Holmes, former assistant chief of the Oklahoma City Fire Department, “often were havens for light duty personnel…a place to house the blind, crippled, and crazy!”
In suburban and rural communities with volunteer companies, the county government often provides fire prevention-related services. In larger career fire departments, personnel can be transferred to the fire prevention bureau to create additional manpower as required. Career engine company personnel can assist as well. Some are assigned to the fire prevention bureau because physical limitations no longer enable them to perform firefighting duties. In either case, the assigned personnel may find their new duties unpleasant or consider them unrewarding.
THE VOLUNTEER ALTERNATIVE
In comparison, county or regional fire prevention bureaus exist to help volunteer organizations and are exclusively fire prevention-oriented. Those employed in these bureaus clearly know their duties, allowing for a clear, concise mission focus without interference.
Using volunteers in a fire prevention bureau is similar to using civilians. except that the volunteers can lend their fire service knowledge to the job.
Programs using volunteers for limited inspection duties have been successful due to the presence of appropriate career support The bureau is responsible for providing support, guidance, and leadership to volunteers in the program. A department in Oneco, Florida, expanded fire prevention services without the need for additional departmental funding. Volunteers within the department assisted in the inspection process, with successful
Such an arrangement benefits volunteer companies and career fire prevention bureaus, given today’s circumstances of increasing codes to enforce without new dollars to do it.
The program allowed the Manhasset-Lakeville Fire Department, Company 4, in New York to preplan target hazards while on routine inspections, explains President William Fuller. Preplanning previously had not been done in a systematic, organized manner. Through inspections and disciplined scheduling, preplanning and updating have become a regular part of the process. The inspections also have made the community aware that the fire department is made up of volunteers. Some community members assumed it is a career department. This new awareness has made the community more responsive to fund-raising activities and recruiting campaigns for volunteers.
MAKING THE PLAN WORK
The plan can work well, however, only if both “sides” buy into the program. Participatory team evaluation and planning are musts. One problem area identified by Ray Nieves, division chief, Fire Marshal’s Division of Loudoun County Fire-Rescue in Virginia, is that “the career employees can see the volunteers as a potential threat to their growth and promotion.” Another potential problem is the attitude of the volunteers. They can be fiercely independent and may be reluctant to accept the mandated training, guidance, and direction. Failure to manage and appropriately market these areas can cause the project to fail.
For the purpose of this article, let’s assume there is an interest in using volunteer company personnel for inspection duties.
Success best can be ensured by establishing open communication between the involved parties and setting specific, clearly defined objectives. Most of the objectives will require some cultural change and organizational commitment. The following proven objectives can be used as guides when considering implementing a volunteer-integration program.
- Set a plan. It sounds simple, but it is a critical point. A formal plan (or map) makes the direction in which the project is running clear to all involved. Both agencies must be committed. In a volunteer company, the commitment may come in the form of a vote by the entire membership. In the career fire prevention division, the employees must be involved in the commitment process. This commitment is vital to build a foundation that’s not prejudiced with regard to volunteer/career issues.
- Set objectives. The goal is to use volunteer company members in a county or regional fire inspection program. The objectives are the steps the agencies will take to institute the program. They identify the “who,” “what,” ’’when,” “where,” and “why” of the proposed program.
- Educate all parties involved. “Buying in” to the program by the involved personnel, as discussed above, is part of the education process. Additional steps in educating all parties (career and volunteer) include cross-agency education. Volunteer personnel should spend quality, structured time to fully understand the entire fire prevention operation. Career members should attend planned volunteer company activities, such as drills and meetings. The planning of quality learning time is an important step in ensuring a full understanding of each agency.
- Develop a chain of command. Determine the roles and responsibilities of all parties. What role does the volunteer chief play? Who determines and distributes assignments? Under what and whose authority are the personnel operating? Who is responsible for quality control? These questions must be answered clearly; there should be no gray areas. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the state code identifies the fire marshal’s power as being equal to but not greater than that of a chief (volunteer or career). Such a scenario has made it necessary for Loudoun County, Virginia, to clarify the “authority” issue: The marshals have authority before and immediately after an incident; the chief has authority during an incident.
- Establish training standards. This area may be perceived as a threat by volunteers, but it can be managed simply. Obviously, qualifications must be established to ensure that local and national standards are met. In Nassau County, New York, a basic assistant fire inspector course is offered and requires only 40 hours of training. In that county, the volunteer inspector does no more than issue certification permits. Each community must determine how much it wants to accomplish and then match the training requirement to the objectives. Consider the time the volunteers (as a group) have available to train, and develop or identify a course that matches the need.
- Program training delivery and scheduling. This segment involves the finalizing of the program and personnel scheduling. A single instructor may be used for all courses, or different individuals can teach various subjects. Regardless of which plan is followed, designate a course coordinator or lead instructor so that it is very clear who is primarily accountable.
- Program implementation. Once the plan is set, roles are defined, and training is established, implementation is the next step. At this point, bring the entire team together for final clarification —and finally, kickoff.
- Quality control. You will need a system of checks and balances to ensure that a quality project is being delivered. Career fire prevention personnel can accomplish this in various ways. In Loudoun County, Virginia, a supervising assistant fire marshal reviews 10 percent of all inspection reports. Site visits to ensure code compliance and to discuss the service provided are part of the evaluation. This visitation and report review generally have ensured excellent product delivery.
Include on the task force career prevention leaders, volunteer company leadership, rank-and-file personnel from both agencies, and “nonfire” community business leaders. This team will set direction, standards, goals, and objectives relating specifically to the community. Involve the county volunteer association and union leadership, where applicable.
As a part of training, consider standards for qualifications to participate in the program. The qualifications should be similar to those required for career fire prevention personnel. Background checks and a standard interview/assessment process will ensure the quality of the volunteers and the program.
Another factor to consider is that when dealing with volunteers, evenings and weekends generally are the only times training can be scheduled. Although convenient for the volunteers, the career personnel (if involved in the training) may run into scheduling and personnel cost issues.
Implementing this kind of program is a challenge for any executive fire officer. “Selling” the program to career prevention and volunteer firefighting personnel entails an extremely sensitive balance. Implement all aspects, therefore, with the sensitivities of both groups in mind and with the needs of the public in focus. If the career and volunteer leadership successfully can establish and maintain communication, the other steps, including training and scheduling, will be managed more easily. While developing the program can be challenging to the volunteer company and the fire prevention bureau, the results will ensure that the community’s fire safety program constantly is being monitored.
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