4 ‘Musts’ for Volunteer Fire Chiefs

By John Buckman III, Fire Chief Editorial Advisor
Reprinted with permission from Summer 2015 issue of Fire Chief

Retaining and recruiting an adequate number of volunteers has long been a challenge.

In the days of Benjamin Franklin, a volunteer fire department was a fraternal organization made up of brave individuals who risked their lives much in the same way we risk ours today. Yet there weren’t many rules, nor much discipline; as a result, many of the buildings burned to the ground because of the infighting between companies and the lack of training as much as the construction.

Today, the response challenges in communities where fire departments are staffed with volunteers require a professional organization that meets professional standards. This inherently creates conflict within the organization.

The competition for one’s time is significant. Work and family demands seem greater, and there are more options for socializing and relaxing — and even for volunteering. How fire department leaders handle this volunteer staff requires a new attitude.

I have met many volunteer fire chiefs while conducting courses in all 50 states and Canada, and through that experience have formed the opinion that there are four common ‘musts’ to creating a thriving organization staffed with volunteers.

They are:

  1. Conflict within your organization must be kept to a minimum.
  2. Your organization must be fun to belong to.
  3. People must like who they volunteer with.
  4. Leaders must treat volunteers’ time with utmost respect.

It is not impossible to run a volunteer-staffed fire department, but it does require a change in methodology. Communities are different today than they were yesterday; increased population, traffic, commercial development and subsequently more demands are placed on the fire department.

Leadership must protect volunteers from and defend them against elected officials.

It is not impossible to meet the public’s expectations, but the leaders must be reasonable. Don’t overpromise and underdeliver. Be proactive in explaining to your community the capability of your staff.

It is a special individual who has the dedication, perseverance and commitment required to give freely of their time at a moment’s notice to help their neighbors during an emergency. Take good care of them.