Combination Fire Department Cohesiveness

By Chief Jeff Cash
The society we live in is changing every day. New technologies and equipment hit the market all the time. Just like the world is always changing, so is the fire service. Who would have ever thought 20 years ago that mobile data terminals would be in apparatus? 
But even with this constant change, one thing about the fire service has remained the same ‒ the perceived difference in career, part-time, and volunteer members in combination departments. With the changing lifestyles in our country today, everyone wants to be accepted for who they are, not just tolerated. They want to be treated as equal. The same sentiment holds true between the division of career and volunteer members. All three types of departments ‒ be it career, volunteer, or combination ‒ have their challenges, but a combination department is unique due to the different issues they face. 
So how does a Fire Chief effectively lead a combination department? The term equality immediately comes to mind.
Expectations: The Fire Chief has to set high expectations for all members of the department, and the expectations have to be the same whether it is a career or volunteer member. An emergency situation does not see the difference, so why should the expectations of the Fire Chief be any different. Without high expectations of all members, the department will suffer.
Qualifications: Set equal qualifications in your department for all members. If you want your career staff to hold certifications, require your volunteers to as well. When individuals hold the same credentials and have been through the same training, mutual respect is developed. The same holds true in requiring qualifications for promotions. You must promote based on qualification and departmental needs, not on the buddy system. 
Uniform: Uniforming your personnel will make a huge equality statement. If you’re buying Class A uniforms or duty uniforms for your career employees to look professional, you need to be doing the same for the volunteers. Most importantly though, make sure you are not passing down old personal protective equipment from the career or part-time staff to the volunteers. It will make them feel second rate, just like the turnout gear. Looking equal makes people feel equal.
Authority: Give your officers the authority to act. It doesn’t matter whether your members are career or volunteer. If you put an individual in a leadership role, they need to be able to make decisions even if that means a volunteer officer telling a career member, like an apparatus operator, what to do.
Lead Evenly:

As the Fire Chief, you must lead evenly. If you have to discipline a career member for a mistake or accident, you must do the same for a volunteer member. A policy violation or safety violation should be no different for any member, and the discipline should be similar. 

Input: As a Fire Chief, you should be gaining valuable input from all employees. If you’re forming training committees, building committees, or truck committees, you need to include as much staff as possible from across the members’ realms. If possible you need to make an equal number of career members to volunteers; it will help the entire department with “buying in” when both sides are included in big decisions.
Time: Time is one of the most valuable assets that you as a Fire Chief have to give. You have to make time for your volunteers. They may not be able to train at the same time as your career staffing. You must make the effort and time to train and meet with these individuals when they are available. Remember they are in your department because they want to be, not because of a paycheck. So go out of your way to make time for them.
Yearly Evaluations: All members need a yearly performance evaluation. A performance evaluation helps the members see how well they performed throughout the year. It will also help to set future goals and objectives for them. Your volunteer members may one day become career staff, and a yearly performance evaluation can help lay the ground work for their future.
These tips are just a few of the many items that a Fire Chief will need to complete in order to effectively lead a combination department. Will it answer all your problems? No, but it will be a good foundation towards the equality of your firefighters.
The most important asset you have as a Fire Chief is your people. Notice there was no differentiation when I said people. It doesn’t matter whether the members are career, part-time, or volunteer in your combination department, you have to depend on them all. NFPA established a firefighter standard with 1001, and it doesn’t have an asterisk for volunteers. If a star baseball player goes down with an injury, the game must go on. Your back-ups have to be trained, look, and act the same when put in that injured player’s position. Your firefighters should be treated the same, because they could be put in that starting role at any moment’s notice.
Chief Jeff Cash has been in the fire service for over 35 years serving in both the volunteer and career sectors. He has served as the Fire Chief of the Cherryville Fire Department, a combination department in Cherryville, NC, since 1986 and is a North Carolina certified Firefighter, EMT, Rescue Technician, Fire Officer, Arson Investigator, Fire Code Enforcement Officer, and Instructor. He is a Past President of the North Carolina Firemen’s Association and serves as the North Carolina Director to the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC). He sits on the NVFC Executive Committee, represents the NVFC on the NFPA 1021 Committee and the IAFC Safety Health & Survival Committee, and has testified before Congressional committees on fire service issues on two occasions.  
*Photo courtesy of Shutterstock