Company Officer Leadership: Slaying Two-Headed Dragons

(OK, one of them at least.)

If you've been involved with combination departments for any length of time, you've witnessed some great benefits associated with them: career staffing to ensure response when volunteers aren't available, volunteer staff who are members of the community they serve, etc.

But there's a two-headed dragon, if you will, that seems to be constantly in the background.

To understand this issue we need to understand the reason most combination departments are combination departments. Most started out as all volunteer departments, that overtime have seen the community they serve grow to the point where the volunteer staff has trouble meeting that community's needs.

So, as a natural response, local government officials decide that to serve the community, some paid staff must be added. Sometimes that means staffing during the day when volunteers are at their place of employment; sometimes it's 24-hour coverage to ensure a consistent response.

Great, sounds like a logical response to meet the community’s needs.

Unfortunately, that's when the two-headed dragon pops up. It doesn't show up because anyone invited it. It just shows up, and it can be a destructive beast if not controlled.

I'm talking about the vicious circle of decreasing volunteer response. It seems to be natural that as the paid side of the department grows so does the number of times the volunteer responders are cancelled en route to a call.

As those cancellations grow, it's also natural that the volunteer staff will start to not respond to the normal calls because the paid staff "is just going to cancel me anyway."

To further complicate things, the second head of the dragon speaks up: paid staff say because they never see any volunteers on calls, the department obviously needs to increase paid staffing to handle the call volume.

If left unchecked, or unaddressed, this two-headed beast will destroy a combination department. Some will say this is a good thing and that an all-paid department best addresses a community's needs; others will argue that the volunteer system is the backbone of the fire service and the community and "if we hadn't hire any paid staff to begin with, we would be fine."

That's another dragon to be dealt with at another time. What I want to talk about is how we slay the first two-headed dragon.

As department leaders, we must take a stand against this dragon early in the fight. If not, it will feed on itself and continue to grow until it's unmanageable.

We have to explain our expectations of all department members up front. We want volunteers to continue responding and we want a team attitude in the firehouse and on scenes. We also want paid staff to serve the community's needs when they're on duty.

So how do we get there? As a member of combination departments, as both a volunteer and a paid member over the past 29 years, I have witnessed combination systems that deal with this issue well, some that struggle and some that give up the fight and cut the volunteer head off the dragon.

I honestly hate that last option because we may lose our departments' histories and in many cases our ties to the communities we serve when it happens.

So how do we encourage our volunteers to keep responding even though they may get cancelled or have a reduced impact once on scene? Step one is to ask the paid staff why they're cancelling the volunteers to begin with.

What I generally hear is, "It was a simple EMS call, and we only needed a couple of people, not a bunch of volunteers on scene."

My response at times has been, "OK, so can you explain why you took the EMS unit and an engine to the call with all the paid staff instead of leaving some back at the station for the next call?"

Then somehow, there are surprised reactions when no volunteers respond to a structure fire because "The paid staff think they don't need us, so they can handle this," and the paid staff respond, "We never have any volunteers on scene when we need them."

Can't we come up with a way to serve the community and each other without this dragon in the middle?

Here's an idea for all the company and chief officers out there whose responsibility it is to slay this dragon. Step up!

When you hear a response and know it's going to feed the dragon, pick up the radio and change the response. Make sure the volunteer and paid staff are on the same page as to what it means to be a combination department and that we're supposed to be there to help each other.

I don't care if you’re paid or volunteer; once you put the jewelry on your collar, it becomes your responsibility to manage the department, or at least your section of it. Take your responsibility seriously and make sure the way you manage serves the community, not one head or the other of this dragon (or your ego).

You always knew you'd be a dragon slayer; you just didn't know how many you'd be asked to face or how many heads it would have.

Always be safe and lead with passion.

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