VOLUNTEERS CORNER: PROFESSIONAL VOLUNTEERS
BY LUKE STEELE

Published in Fire Engineering Magazine, March 2003.
Reprinted with Permission

Find a mirror and look at it: Do you see a professional firefighter? Regardless of whether youíre paid or not, the criteria are the same. The chance of dying in the line of duty (2001 being a horrendous exception) is the same. Still, I contend that there is a much higher degree of professionalism among the career service than among the volunteers. I make that statement even though Iíve been a volunteer firefighter for 20 years, am educated way beyond my usefulness, and teach firefighting for my home state. Iíve been in a lot of fire stations, career and volunteer, and with precious few exceptions, the story is the same: The vollies donít get it.

I donít pretend that this is true in all cases, and have been to career stations where the captain was egotistical and dictatorial. However, in those stations, you typically have the same breakdown of the chain of command accompanied by the petty insecurities that run rampant any place where the boss is an idiot. Just as in the business world, that "leader" finds it impossible to retain good people and subsequently difficult to do his job properly. Except in the rare case where incompetence goes up the line, this situation does not last long.

Some volunteer departments also defy this conclusion, with training requirements and officer standards that prevent "placeholders" from having an effect on operations. Uniformly, the leadership of these teams is dedicated to excellence and sets an example from the top down of how to do the job right. New people get a consistent message from Day One, and would-be applicants figure out long before theyíre permanent that there is no room for people who are not committed to the team.

Look around the room at your next meeting. Do you see a group of fit, dedicated people with focus? Is there camaraderie and mutual respect? Or is there an undercurrent of petty issues and jealousy that lies just below the surface of every discussion? Is there an honest discourse of what works and what doesnít, or is the prevailing rule, "Weíve never done it that way"?

My observation is that the career service avoids a lot of this trivial-mindedness. Officers are chosen for the most part because of ability and knowledge, and they are smart enough to realize that they donít know it all. The best officers surround themselves with other competent professionals they can depend on to do the job properly. Different opinions are weighed validated, and, if they work, incorporated. Each member of the team is valued for what he brings to the table.

Contrast that with some volunteer departments in which officer selection is based on seniority or nepotism; lack of firefighting tactics is not an issue. Two years of experience 10 times is not 20 years of experience! Since these officers donít care much for training, the message gets passed down the line fairly quickly. Newbies recognize early on that there is no penalty for not training, and randomly scheduled training sessions are routinely postponed or ill-attended. This mode of operation is a recipe for disaster: sooner or later, a clueless captain will condemn to death a clueless firefighter by assigning him a task that neither individual had the knowledge to know was stupid or irrelevant.

And then thereís the Brotherhood/Respect/Honor thing. Any of your retirees die recently? Did your department post an honor guard at visitation? If so, did the members grouse and complain about the duty or just not show up? Did you put an engine in the procession, or was it "too much hassle, and if we did it for him, weíd have to do it for everybody"? Where is the respect for the years of service? Where is the brotherhood?

Take another look around that room. If you go down in a fire, how many of your team members have the strength, skill, knowledge and dedication to make a competent rescue effort? Do you have the strength, skill, knowledge and dedication to save one of your own? Does your department have enough trained and competent people to make a well-planned attack? Some departments have gone to an unofficial "department within the department", a core of serious and committed individuals who depend on each other, embrace the brotherhood concept, and train/work together seamlessly. Interestingly, this "team" always seems to be on the attack line, is always doing the extrications, is always part of the solution. The secret is they know what in the hell theyíre doing! They know how to get dressed quickly, how to find the problem quickly, how to solve it quickly. While the other people are taking their SCBA masks off to put their hoods on ("Hey, itís been awhile - anybody could have forgotten that"), the ventilation is done, the line is in, and the fire is out. If one of "the team" goes down, his teammates will know, regardless of the fact that the "Captain" outside is still trying to figure out which side of the clipboard those funny little brass tags snap onto.

Are you a professional? Do you have what it takes to step into the void when a brother or sister or child or invalid needs you to survive? If you do, are you willing to get the training and develop the teamwork so that your sacrifice wonít be in vain? Or are you a half-hearted, half-assed "redneck with a red light" who joined the department with the goal of doing as little as you have to stay in? Take another look at that mirror: Are you part of the solution or part of the problem? If itís the latter, you need to seriously examine your motives for being there and whether or not youíre up to the task of straightening it out. If youíre an officer, you need to face the cold hard fact that youíre in command. Others will examine decisions you make with the benefit of hindsight and without stress. If your command decision results in the death or injury of one of your people, can you justify it? Can you live with it?

Regardless of whether youíre career or volunteer, this job requires a professional. If you canít be one, then you are putting the lives of your brothers and sisters, as well as your own, at risk. The old attitude, "You canít expect too much, weíre only volunteers", doesnít work in court and it doesnít work in life. Volunteer fires burn just as hot as career ones and kill people the same way. Firefighting is not a hobby, and if youíre treating it that way you need to look for a new one.