VOLUNTEERS CORNER: WILL THE STATUS QUO KILL YOUR DEPARTMENT?
BY LUKE STEELE

Published in Fire Engineering Magazine, April 2006.
Reprinted with Permission

A couple of years ago I wrote about the "Department within the Department", describing a condition at some Volunteer Fire Organizations that occurs when a small group of individuals realize that the parent organization's attitude toward professionalism and training leaves much to be desired. For this situation to occur there has usually been a failure of leadership from the top down and most of the people who serve have collectively become complacent or worse, arrogant. A bias toward shortcuts and half-measures has taken firm root for the group as a whole. I described this inner department as "a core of serious and committed individuals who depend on each other, embrace the brotherhood concept, and train/work together seamlessly". If you have one of these "teams" in your department then I bet it is largely responsible for whatever professional image the fire department has, namely because they're always the ones doing the work.

At the time, I thought that this was a somewhat workable solution to an otherwise hopeless situation, a way to give the people who actually care about little things like professionalism and community service some source of pride. But the reality is that there will come a day when the "pros" in your department don't show up. Some rare alignment of the stars will put them all on vacation, at Grandma's, at work, or somehow unavailable. Will a few untrained (untrainable?) members led by an incompetent officer destroy everything that you have worked for?

It won't be the routine trash fire that does you in. It will be a slightly technical situation that requires a little bit of thought and/or some retained knowledge. Unfortunately, the only thing that your people on scene will know is that they've got to do something... NOW. The "Incident Commander" won't have a plan or any resources to provide him a plan, but he will be acutely aware that he actually has to take charge and do something. The situation is ripe for the first half-baked idea to be implemented with little or no regard for injury or collateral damage. Heck, they might even get away with it. The victim might be too naïve to understand that these people he thinks are rescuing him are actually going to worsen his injuries or subject him to extreme danger. The homeowner might be too distraught to realize that he should not have lost his home, wedding pictures and all, because of a kitchen fire. Knowledgeable people at the scene (i.e. firefighters or EMS or LE) might just shake their heads, roll their eyes, and then keep their mouths shut because public release of the details just makes us all look stupid. One thing will be for sure: within a few days, every public service organization within 50 miles will have an embellished account of what your guys did, and anything professional that your department has ever accomplished will be totally irrelevant.

That's if you're lucky. If not, then you will field calls from Emergency Management, Department of Insurance, local news organizations, and everyone who ever had a grudge against you or your department. Some ambulance-chasing Attorney will be on the evening news talking about the permanent injuries his client received and how someone must be held accountable. That "someone" will be, in southern terms, "all y'all". You will most assuredly lose your community's respect, and if you screwed up bad enough you could lose your department. If you're a Chief Officer or if you can be shown to have played a direct role in the joke that your department has become, you could lose much, much more. If you think that's not possible then training manuals aren't the only things you're not reading.

So how do you identify this demon and exorcise it? Note that if you're part of this problem you will not be able to recognize it, much less do anything about it. However, the fact that you opened this magazine and have read this far is a strong indication that you are not the enemy. So since it's just us, we can be candid:

Training: Most states have a minimum number of training hours required to remain a firefighter in good standing. Thirty-six (36) is the number I hear frequently. If more than ¼ of your people are right at or barely above that number then you have a problem. If your officers are counting meetings not dedicated to training or other non-training events as training toward that goal then you've got a real problem. If those officers are falsifying records or creating bogus training in order to keep people on the roster to meet local or state requirements, then you're already there.

Think about it: 36 hours is three hours a month. If you're serious about this job, you know that that's not enough to make you a consistently competent firefighter, much less cover extrication and any rescue specialties your department does. If you have people that are having trouble exceeding that goal and complaining about how hard it is, then get rid of them. Period. They're a liability, and the potential cost of their presence far exceeds any possible benefit. They're the ones that will show up late for training and leave early after making sure their name is on the list. If they do manage to get caught in a practical evolution, they won't have gear, they can't get sweaty, or they already know how to do this. Great. Tell them to show you how much of an inspiration they can be to the rest of the troops. Explain that they need to either don their gear on or turn it in, whichever is easier. If you just walk away from the excuse, be prepared to hear the same one from additional "participants" the next time you train.

Line Officers: Your department should have a guideline that requires line officers to either be certified firefighters or actively working toward certification with a timetable that they either meet or turn in the red hat. If your department's officers are chosen based on the "good old boy" network or the number of years that they've watched television at the FD then tag, you're it. It's time to think consequences: when firefighter Newbie dies because Captain Clueless sent him into a collapsing structure, are you going to have the stones to tell the press that the officer's only qualifications were Brother-in-Law/Retiree's son/consummate butt-kisser?

Training requirements for officers should be a superset of the requirements for the troops. In case you didn't know it, these people are responsible for the lives of your team and the people you swore to protect! Like it or not, these officers are going to be the ones who set the standard for professionalism in your department. If they have a casual disdain for training or PPE or authority, the people under them will follow their lead. Certification is a start, but it only indicates that you have a minimum level of competence - a good fire officer recognizes the weight that rests on his or her shoulders and strives to never be trapped by ignorance. Experience is experience only if you set out to learn something new every day and go to bed secure in the knowledge that your team is stronger today than it was last shift. If the officers in your department don't understand the responsibility that goes along with the hat, then it's time to put them on track to quickly get there or clean house. Never forget that incompetence in command almost always insures incompetence at ground level. Stupid is as stupid does, and if your "Captain" doesn't have the brains to get in out of the rain, it's a safe bet that the guys with him don't know how to operate the umbrella.

Chief Officers: Tough position... The buck stops here, where the rubber meets the road, and a thousand other worn clichés to describe a job that is a combination of technician, manager, politician, and nanny. However, some Chiefs make their job near impossible by creating command structures and unwritten "rules" that are destined for eventual disaster. If you're a Chief and you know in your heart that the above discussion about Training and Officers is true, then you have created for yourself a job that no sane person would want. Forget NIMS and Span of Control for a moment: if your Assistants and Captains are not competent to work in your absence, then it's a one-person ball game. It's also one you're going to lose no matter what a Titan among men you are. The challenge is somewhat like fighting terrorism: for the good guys to "win" they have to be right every time, and as long as they are it's not news. The first time they're wrong, a bomb goes off somewhere and Peter Jennings is talking about a failure in the system. The more "good guys" you have on your team the better the odds are that'll you'll continue to win. If your officers are napping at the gate, prepare for casualties.

So if you recognize your department here, it's time to change priorities. Tell Joe that you realize he probably won't bring sis to Thanksgiving dinner, but this officer thing is just not working for him. Tell Ben that you appreciate his 50 years of service, but you need someone in his Captain's slot that has the energy to make those evening classes at the Community College. Set clear requirements and more importantly, set a level of expectation for performance, training, and professionalism. Expect complaints and predictions of dire consequences. Be prepared to weather criticism and lean times, but also be prepared to properly train and integrate a new group of recruits untainted by the cynicism and unjustified arrogance of the guys they're replacing.

Yeah, yeah, I hear you. That's suicide, you can't expect that level of commitment from volunteers, all the old arguments. That's a cop-out, the old "we've never done it that way" excuse and that's all it is: a poor excuse for inaction. Why don't you try turning your department into something that people take pride in being a member of? Accomplish that and you will attract people you never thought were interested. Help your people to comprehend that this isn't a social club but a dangerous job where incompetence is deadly and you'll start to see a realization that training could save their lives, not just make them more valuable to you. Most importantly, your team has to understand that this is not a hobby, but a community service of the highest form. If they learn this job and bust their cans to be the best at it, one day they will be the difference between someone living and dying. It's up to you and the real firefighters on your team to turn the light bulbs on.

Spend some time in neighboring departments and you'll find that all organizations are not created equal. If yours does not measure up, it's time to find out why and put a plan in place to correct the problems. If you're a member of the "Department within the Department", you've been falling down on the job too. You and your buds should focus your energy on getting everyone you can onboard and on making life downright unbearable for those who refuse to share the vision of a tight, competent group of professionals prepared for any task. And unbearable means unbearable: make it crystal clear that if they don't want to be part of the solution, then they're part of the problem and the problem will be solved.

The negative to this is that if you succeed, then you won't get as much nozzle or hydraulic tool time as you used to - instead you'll be the encouraging voice creating confidence and competence. The positive is that while you're visiting Grandma you can take that post-turkey nap without worrying if some untrained idiot is in the process of destroying everything that you worked so hard to build. Officer or not, you should constantly preach training practice, and teamwork. Most importantly, make sure that every team member understands that when you say "Everybody Goes Home", that what you really mean is "Everybody Goes Home Proud". In a job with little or no financial incentive, pride and accomplishment go a long way.