Everyone knows that to be the fire chief of New York City or Los Angeles is a big and difficult job. However, some of our Metro colleague’s may not appreciate that being the fire chief in a combination or completely volunteer department is also challenging and at times difficult.
When you’re in a big department, you have big problems, but you also have a lot of staff and other resources to help you solve those problems. In a volunteer or combination department, we have the same problems or challenges, just not the same frequency. Let’s examine some issues.
Recruitment and Retention
In smaller agencies, this is becoming a big issue. Volunteerism is down across North America because people live busy and fast-paced lives. Additionally, we have increased and regulated requirements for firefighter training standards, thereby leaving chiefs with the requirement to dismiss people who aren’t keeping up with their training.
It takes leadership and collaboration to recruit people, getting them in the door and then keeping them interested and involved so they stay. In a fully paid career department, it’s easier because you have money to offer; the volunteer or combination chief needs to be a student of Abraham Maslow to understand the needs of their firefighters. Each person has their own hierarchy of needs and the fire chief needs to be part counselor, part psychologist and a full-time listener.
With an urban career department, there’s typically a city attorney, human resources and a personnel director, a wing at city hall with people who are well versed in the issues. The volunteer chief may be faced with complex personnel issues that if handled incorrectly can have devastating, long-term, negative effects on the organization.
This is where professional associations come in. Those local fire chiefs need to know they’re not alone, although many times they feel like they are. Their neighboring chiefs, state chiefs and certainly the IAFC can be a place to find people who have handled similar problems in the past.
The chief needs to be an investigator, human-resources expert, attorney and mostly a great listener. They also need to know when they are in over their head and who they can call for help. It’s vital for fire chiefs to know they’re not alone and the IAFC has their back, with nearly 12,000 members who have varied expertise.
Physics is the same throughout North America; you overcome BTUs with GPM. However, each state and province has different personnel laws and regulatory requirements. No chief officer can be an expert in all, but having the ability to “phone-a-friend” within your professional association will give you comfort and lower your stress.
You are not alone; we’re here to help.
Fire Chief John Sinclair
President and Chairman of the Board