Volunteer Fire Department Leadership: The Nine Keys to Success

By Joe Maruca

Writing for National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)

Leadership of a volunteer fire department isn’t about standing in the front yard of a burning house with a portable radio telling people what to do; this is emergency incident management. But all too often, fire department leaders are chosen for their emergency incident management skills, under the mistaken impression that how well a person manages an emergency incident indicates how well she or he will lead a volunteer or mostly volunteer fire department.

Leadership is about much more than emergency incident management. It is about providing a clear and positive vision for the fire department; communicating that vision to the firefighters, community, and elected officials; and then working every day to make that vision a reality. This is work a fire chief must do between fires and other emergencies – during the time the department is training, recruiting, planning, budgeting, preventing and solving personnel issues, and preparing.

Yes, a calm, clear head under pressure at the scene of any emergency is critical, but the best fire chiefs will make sure that they are not the only person capable of managing an incident. The best leaders design and implement systems that don’t rely upon them to personally handle every situation. Moreover, they know their own limits and rely upon their officers and firefighters to fill in for their weaknesses. They’ve developed a department environment where people are valued for their strengths and skills, not beaten down for their weaknesses. This results in a strong team. If the chief isn’t strong in one skill or knowledge, they tap someone who is to step up to assist.

Strong fire department leaders understand and accept that that their job is about serving the community and serving their firefighters. As you rise through the ranks and take on a greater leadership role, you take on more responsibility for the success of the department and the safety of your citizens. Strong leaders make sure their staff has the tools and knowledge to accomplish the mission. Chiefs work for their firefighters, not the other way around.

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In fact, of all the resources that a small-town fire department needs, the volunteer firefighters are the most valuable. While your station, your trucks, and your budget need attention, they are secondary to the needs of the people in your department. Without the people, the rest is without value. Leading people is most important.

The Keys of Effective Leadership

In my experience as a fire chief, and as someone who has spent a lot of time listening to members of small fire departments from all over the United States (and beyond), I have found that there are nine key elements of excellent volunteer fire department leadership. They have helped me improve in my role; they are worth your consideration as well.

  1. Accountability. Fire chiefs must hold themselves accountable to the same standards and procedures they set for the members of the department, otherwise they lose respect and authority. If you require your firefighters to pass an annual skills test or physical exam, you as the chief better be first in line and pass the test.
  • Forward-Thinking Mindset. Great fire department leaders can’t afford to become emotionally attached to the past – things like old trucks, favored vendors, outdated standards and tactics, and the big fire of yesteryear. Nostalgia that hinders progress is your enemy and will prevent you from seeing and leading into the future. Yes, there is always a place for tradition and honoring the past, but these are best left to the pictures and plaques on your walls or Web site, and through reminiscing at social events.
  • Empowering. Delegating is a crucial skill that fire chiefs and department leaders must have and practice. Delegation is how a leader demonstrates trust in his or her firefighters and officers. In today’s world, staff must be empowered to take action, otherwise the chief gets overwhelmed with unfinished tasks and departments fall apart. Delegation is an excellent empowerment tool.

Delegating requires that you clearly state what you want done, why you want it done, who is empowered to do it, where help or resources can be found, and when it must be done. It is also appropriate to provide some guidance or vision on how to accomplish the task, although avoid the temptation to micromanage. On the fireground, training, rank, and preplanning take the place of explaining who, why, and how. It is the in-between tasks that require the most leadership and a more businesslike (as opposed to paramilitary) approach.

It is important to remember that even when leaders delegate, they are still ultimately responsible for the outcome of the project. If the project fails to meet expectations, good leaders take responsibility, find a solution, and coach their staff for the future. They work from the assumption that they didn’t explain or delegate the task properly or the department didn’t provide the needed training or resources. The fastest way to lose volunteers, lose authority, and create low morale is to blame people when the real issue was lack of training, lack of resources, or poor direction.

  • Respect. As a department leader, it is important that everyone on the department feels you respect them as much as everyone else. You must make it clear that everyone is equally valued, has an important role to play, brings vital skills and knowledge, and that they have your confidence. If members think that you don’t like, respect, or trust them, they will either leave or start to undermine the department. If others think that leadership disfavors someone, they will take sides, resulting in morale problems, distrust, and people tearing each other down.  

In combination departments, it is critical that department leaders are not seen as favoring either the volunteers or the career staff. Both have important roles to play and there is nothing to be gained from pitting one group against the other.

  • Humility. Fire chiefs must be prepared to listen to their members, accept their feedback, and find ways to improve. If they tell you that you aren’t supporting them, then you aren’t. Avoid the “you don’t know how much I do for you” argument; it will drive people away or cause them to undermine you and the department.

Being open and receptive to member feedback is especially important as there is often a disconnect between how department leaders view things and how rank-and-file volunteers view them. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) conducted a survey in 2020 of current and former volunteer firefighters to find out why volunteers leave. Twenty percent of department leaders said that inflexible training was a reason people left their departments, but only seven percent of former volunteers agreed. Forty-one percent of department leaders said volunteers left because they could not juggle training, duty squads, and other department commitments with their jobs and family life, but only eight percent of former volunteers agreed. Meanwhile, the biggest reason former members cited for leaving (22 percent) was that the department atmosphere was full of cliques and groups that exclude others, and 30 percent of current non-leadership volunteers agreed with them.

“The 2020 EMS Trend Report” produced by Fitch & Associates and the National EMS Management Association found a similar disconnect between leadership and members. For instance, 70 percent of EMS medical directors described themselves as being engaged with the field providers they oversee, but only 21 percent of field providers reported having an EMS director they felt was engaging with them. If leaders don’t see the problems (or their role in the problems), then they can’t do anything to correct it.

  • Transparency. There can be no secrets. Successful leaders share their knowledge and information with everyone in the organization. Yes, there is a small set of confidential and legally secret information that needs to be locked in a file cabinet, but 99 percent of all that goes on is not protected by privacy laws.

Everyone in the organization should know or have access to the budget, how the promotional process works, preplans, policies and procedures, who gets paid what and why, the chief’s schedule, as well as all of the technical information about your equipment. When you demystify these topics, the rumors die and people do better at their jobs. Organizations that are full of secrets and whispering have poor morale, volunteers who fade away, trouble recruiting, employees who undermine the mission, and low engagement. Making this information public builds trust with firefighters and the community.

  • Integrity. Fire and EMS chiefs are the face of their department. On-duty and off-duty, everyone is watching. They need to understand and accept that how they behave is how their firefighters and EMS providers will behave. How they are seen by their community will determine the reputation of their department. Departments with excellent reputations are able to recruit new volunteers; those with poor reputations won’t attract the new members they need. Great leaders actively manage and protect the reputation of their department.
  • Principled. Leading by example is how a chief becomes respected, trusted, and followed. He or she must demonstrate knowledge and skills. They must have the courage to speak up against dangerous or unjust practices, to insist all members are equal and well-treated, to ask for help when they need it, and to accept feedback from their members and community. They can’t be complainers. They can’t gossip about their members. They must be honest. Attitudes are contagious.
  • Strategic. Taking a long-term strategic view and planning for the future are critical roles of a chief officer. They must bring a vision to the department and the community. Status quo, or doing what we’ve always done, isn’t a vision. It won’t motivate or inspire volunteers to do more training or improve how they do the job. It won’t recruit new volunteers. It’s hard to break through all the day-to-day administrative issues and emergency calls to focus on the big picture and the long-term plan, but this is an essential role of a successful fire or EMS chief.

Leadership doesn’t necessarily come naturally, but it is something you can learn. Great organizations and their leaders teach others to be leaders. For instance, the Disney Corporation created the Disney Institute for the sole purpose of teaching leadership, and now it even offers its leadership classes to anyone who wants to learn to be a leader. There are thousands of colleges and organizations that successfully teach people to be leaders. You should take advantage of one or more of these programs to learn the skills you need to lead.

Another source of leadership training is the NVFC. There are a number of leadership programs available in the NVFC Virtual Classroom, and they also have an excellent guide for fire department leaders titled “Volunteer Fire Service Culture: Essential Strategies for Success” that can be downloaded for free at www.nvfc.org. The International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Volunteer & Combination Officers Section also offers a variety of leadership training opportunities on its web site.

Being a strong leader is a dynamic state. Just as the fire service continues to evolve, so, too, does the position of the fire chief. Great leaders learn to evolve and adapt to meet the current and future needs of their department and their community.

Joe Maruca is chief of the West Barnstable (MA) Fire Department, a combination fire department on Cape Cod. He served as a volunteer firefighter from 1977 until becoming chief in 2005. He is a director of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and represents the NVFC on the NFPA 1917 Technical Committee. Joe is a retired attorney and Of Counsel to the Crowell Law Office in Yarmouthport, concentrating in the area of estate planning.

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