VCOS Summit Update: Latest Progress and Next Steps

In March, the Volunteer & Combination Officers Section (VCOS) of the IAFC held a national Summit, “Constructing a National Blueprint for Expanding the Future of Volunteerism in the Emergency Service Community,” in Washington, D.C.

According to Chief Timothy S. Wall, VCOS chair, “The ultimate goal of the Summit [was] to examine the critical challenges that are faced by fire departments staffed by volunteer, on-call or part-time firefighters and help develop a long-term strategic plan to carry the volunteer fire service into the future and solidify its status.”

In July, the VCOS board, Summit steering committee members and selected VCOS members were hosted by Chief Fred Windisch at the Ponderosa Fire Department outside of Houston to further refine the nine challenge statements defined during the Summit. (Read the original challenge statements at the bottom of this article.)

This small group of 24 attendees worked in breakout groups to cover three challenge statements each; they left Houston with a great sense of progress after two and a half days of intense discussions.

In August, the revised and reformatted challenge statements were sent back to the original groups that had participated in March so each group could see the changes to their work since then and give feedback. All feedback was reviewed by the assigned board member and assimilated back into the challenge statements, as appropriate.

The next step in this continuing process is another meeting in October at Emergency Services Consulting International with Jack Snook and his staff and three members of the Summit Steering Committee. This meeting will focus on the actual strategic plan process, prior to writing action plans.

This group, along with other selected participants, will meet again at Symposium in the Sun in November to start assigning projects. A report on the entire process will be given at the Symposium.

Refined Challenge Statements

Challenge 1: Capabilities & Competencies – The current all-or-nothing method of training and credentialing is resulting in a burden of requirements that are impacting the goal of maintaining a thriving and vibrant volunteer membership. In addition, state reciprocity of credentials is inconsistent or nonexistent and creates an additional training burden for volunteer firefighters who wish to move across state lines.

Challenge 2: Community Relationships – There are apparent misunderstandings and ineffective communications between the community and emergency services organizations. This is evidenced through the variety of negative headlines and catastrophic failure of organizations across the country. Local communities have disbanded volunteer emergency-service organizations or terminated contracts for emergency services. While not all community relationships are this challenging, there may be risk for organizations related to community relationships.

Challenge 3: Recruitment – The fire and emergency services needs a nationally applicable method to recruit members based on best practices, including information, resources and awareness of how to ensure a more diverse and inclusive workforce. In addition to the operational skills usually targeted when recruiting, there is also a need to attract new members who bring specialized, non-operational skills to the organization. In this manner, the organization can adapt to societal changes and improve its ability to compete for new members in a highly competitive volunteer market.

Challenge 4: Retention of Organizational Members – It is critical for organizations to retain qualified members and maintain organizational unity. The inability of an organization to maintain experienced staffing increases risk to the individual member as well as increases the risk to the community as a whole. The lack of data necessary to quantify why volunteer members are leaving emergency-service organizations makes it difficult to identify the local and national trends that affect volunteer-based staffing. A centralized location should be developed to accumulate best practices targeted at retaining volunteer members; also, general consensus indicates that poor leadership affects volunteer retention.

Challenge 5: Organizational Structure – Most fire protection is provided by local government. In some areas it is provided by a county, in some cases by the state and in other cases by special district. There may be political bodies (authority having jurisdiction) that are involved in setting the level of service by authorizing the expenditure of funds generated by the community.

Sometimes the level of effort (funds) is not always adequate in the minds of the fire service and there is a disconnect between the desires of emergency-service leaders and the level of support by governing bodies to set a level of service.

The current fire service delivery model, bylaws and rules can be perceived as outdated and entrenched in traditions that obstruct efficiencies and the provision of professional services. This is evidenced by the lack of cooperation and regionalization in some areas. Many communities lack the ability to compel emergency-service organizations to cooperate and share resources, which places the community at greater risks and costs more to operate. In some parts of the country, emergency-service organizations over saturate the response area, while in others resources are scarce because of a lack of cooperation among existing emergency-service organizations.

Challenge 6: Financial Planning & Resource Management – A number of emergency-service organizations struggle with the strategic planning that is consistent with the economic realities and development in their communities. Often they lack understanding of the need, value and benefit of using a sustainable and flexible business model as part of their planning processes. This makes it difficult for organizations to secure the predictable sources of funding necessary to ensure the safe and effective provision of emergency services. Because many communities are dependent on the expertise of their emergency-services leaders to navigate this critical and complex challenge, it is imperative that these leaders are trained in business model procedures.

Challenge 7: Legislation & Regulations – Current legislation does not generally support volunteerism or protect an individual’s ability to choose to volunteer in local emergency-service organizations. Additionally, many legislative definitions are vague or absent, which leads to ambiguous interpretation of rules and regulations (such as line-of-duty death, definition of a volunteer, etc.). Many volunteer-based organizations are unaware of what little volunteer-based legislative initiatives exists, making it difficult to secure the support necessary for legislative success. As a result, there is no cohesive vision within all emergency-service organizations for a volunteer emergency-responder legislative vision for the future.

Challenge 8: Reputation Management – Reputation management is the foundation of a viable fire service. Members of emergency-service organizations are held to a higher standard, and trust must be maintained. News media, increased communication technology and sensationalized journalism all make the fire service vulnerable where imprudent actions can do immediate and long-term damage to the reputation of the department and fire service overall.

No matter how careful and prepared an organization is, unforeseen and unfortunate events are a reality of the business and must be planned for.

Challenge 9: Fire-Based Emergency Medical Services – Recently there has been an increase in the attention to the provision of emergency medical services (EMS) by emergency organizations in the volunteer and combination systems as well as current building- and fire-code implementation because of energy requirements. This has been prompted by a number of recent issues and occurrences, including changes in the scope of practice for emergency-service providers and privatization of EMS systems at the state and local level. There has been some concern about the lack of fire service input in establishing the scope of practice and the broader regulation. Yet, there are many fire departments that do not provide EMS or offer limited first-response services.

Joelle Fishkin is the IAFC’s component relations manager and staff liaison to the Volunteer and Combination Officers Section.

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