From a financial and staffing perspective, a combination fire department provides the best bang for the buck, but the management troubles that may present themselves can spell trouble for the most veteran of chiefs.
The combination fire department usually provides the best bang for the buck when viewed from a financial and staffing perspective. However, the management troubles that could present themselves when trying to lead a combination department can spell trouble for the most veteran of chiefs.
Typically, as cities, townships and other municipalities grow, so does their fire department. This is often seen through a transformation from a volunteer to a combination department and sometimes to an all-career fire department. This growth process can take place over 40, 50 or even a 100 years.
Geographic location, call volume and type, and resource allocation are typically the driving factors behind the success or failure of a combination fire department. A large metropolitan fire department can provide superior services to its population largely due in part to those factors.
Its leadership also embraces diversity, equal involvement and similar standards, regardless of whether its members are career or volunteer. Managers and leaders of organizations must look towards these other departments that are ahead of them in the development curve; we can learn what to do—and what not to do—from them.
Department leaders everywhere must embrace diversity and equality and enforce equal expectations for a combination fire department to survive. Often this means enforcing policies and enacting procedures that treat volunteers like employees.
In turn, volunteer members are afforded benefits similar to a paid employee. These can include vaccinations, retirement benefits, health insurance, stipends, uniform allowances, etc. In today’s economy, where budgets are being cut and staffing is hard to find, we must make every dollar and every minute of member availability count.
Chiefs will be challenged to lead these diverse organizations, so they must look to their company officers for insight and suggestions on how to maintain or improve morale, provide incentives and keep members active and enthusiastic about the fire service and their organizations.
Maintaining parallel educational standards for both career and volunteer members is also key in leading a successful combination department. Using NFPA 1021 as a guideline, chiefs must ensure their leadership team members are all trained to the expected level, thereby creating a seamless union of leadership that will be equally respected by the membership.
This can be a challenge, especially for the volunteer membership, as college-level classes on nights and weekends will take them away from their jobs, families and other interests. Chiefs must remain steadfast in their commitment, leading by example and never stopping their continual pursuit of professional and educational growth.
Chiefs will undoubtedly tip-toe through many complex situations when managing combination fire departments. However, if they remain steadfast in their expectations and goals and provide a clear vision, they’ll become leaders of solid, progressive and successful organizations.
The combination fire department will always provide the best bang for your buck. Being able to manage it is quite a different story. This is the challenge we face as fire chiefs and company officers, and it’s the reason we must lead by example and continually pursue personal improvement.
The opportunities and areas for impeccable service delivery are clearly evident with a combination department. Now it’s our job to take advantage of them and provide the quality service our communities deserve.