Updated: Nov 25, 2021
Every volunteer fire, EMS, and or rescue department experiences a cyclical nature of their organization. For several years a department may find themselves “on top of the world” experiencing excellent response rates, quality personnel, excellent morale, and much more. As the saying goes the only way to go when you are on top is down. Many attribute the cyclical decline to having key top responders who move on in life and no one to backfill those positions. What if we told you there are ways to disrupt the cycle or lessen the impacts of the cycle? It isn’t an easy road to navigate, yet one that is critical to serving your community. For too long we have watched volunteer fire departments suffer, go through scandals, lose funding, and shut down. Yet there has been very little focus on antidotes to these problems. The following topics are critical to any successful organization (in no particular order): leadership, mission, and vision.
The first step, which may seem trivial, is to identify or understand what your mission statement is? Does your department even have a mission statement? A mission statement is critical to identifying the purpose of the organization. This can be used to guide and direct all decisions among the leadership team; whether it be operational, administrative, and or the board of directors. A solid yet simple mission statement keeps everyone on the same page and prevents anyone from derailing the intent of the organization. “You can’t be everything to everybody”. Focus on what is important- responding to 9-1-1 calls and everything that supports that (training, personnel, apparatus, equipment, etc.). How often do you get sidetracked by little things that don’t actually contribute to the mission of the department? That time can be better spent on mission-critical activities.
Your vision is where you want to be in the future. These are mid to long term goals that should be set by your Board of Directors and carried out by your operational and administrative leadership. The department as a whole should have an understanding of where it wants to be in the future, how to get there, and how each member will assist in that process. What will your department be known as? The one who has consistent drama, ineffective leadership, poor performing crews, or a stellar and professional volunteer department? Each member of your department should know and understand their role in carrying out the mission and vision. Departments that do not have mission and vision statements in place are essentially navigating a ship without a captain. They can also hold leadership accountable, despite the inevitable turnover in leadership.
Leadership is the key component in preventing an organizational cyclical decline. There are four critical components of leadership when it comes to discussing the life cycle of a department:
Continuity of Operations: One of the prevalent problems in leadership is the transition process to a newly elected or appointed officer. Many departments don’t focus on the transition process to ensure that information, processes, and access are properly shared with the incoming leader. Often times a vacancy is a result of someone stepping down, resigning, or being removed- all situations that are not optimal for the incoming successor. A simple continuity plan for each of the senior-level positions within each department would help ease the burden experienced during the transition period. Imagine how much time is wasted and how many headaches could be eliminated if a written plan was established to orchestrate the passing of the bugles. A solidified plan would eliminate bias, politics, and jealously.
Oversight: How many departments function in a vacuum? In other words, the operations staff takes a left at the fork, the administrative staff takes a right at the fork and then there is the board of directors having an identity crisis. First and foremost the operations and administrative staff need to be working in lockstep with each other. The primary responsibility of the administrative staff is to support the operations staff through fundraising, recruitment, retention, public relations, etc. The operations staff should not be inundated with fundraising and public relations. They carry a true burden of training and emergency response. Now, the critical component that falls into the department’s life cycle is the responsibility of the board of directors. In any nonprofit organization, the board of directors serves as the oversight arm as well as the body that provides strategic planning. The board of directors of your department must be able to function as an oversight body to the operations and administrative leadership. Think of the board as Congress (oversight, budget, leadership accountability, etc.). The board should not function at the whim of the department’s election process for its chief operations officer and president. The Board should either have elections on opposite years or serve a term that is longer than that of the two top leaders. This allows for continuity of operations at the board level and prevents popularity, politics, and or timely short-sighted decisions from being made. The board should serve as stability to the organization if there is constant turnover in the operations and or administrative divisions.
Pipeline/Development: Oftentimes departments are operating in crisis modes which prevent them from looking beyond tomorrow. Departments need to develop a leadership pipeline process so that the newest member understands the process and requirements. Leadership appointments (and or requirements) should not change every election cycle. Create a standard and stick to it. Embrace a culture within your department that emphasizes the importance of quality leadership. If that is instilled the minute an applicant steps foot into your station, they will carry that with them throughout their tenure-which may end in them serving in a key officer position. When we operate in crisis mode it is difficult to think about anything other than the crisis. Often we find ourselves doing the work of other positions because they are vacant or filled by an unproductive person. As leaders, we have to set aside time to train and develop up-and-coming officers. The minute you take on a new position, you should immediately begin mentoring your replacement.
Longevity: Longevity can be a double-edged sword. We have discussed on a couple of occasions, turnover of leadership. Constant turnover is extremely detrimental to your department, especially the life cycle process. If you are running for an officer position, do so for the betterment of your department- not so you can get a new helmet, ride upfront, maybe get a take-home care, and other ancillary benefits. Taking a leadership role is extremely important and time-consuming. The decision should be made with humility. An organization can not be successful with the constant changing of leadership. The alternative side of that concept is, change can also important when the time is right. Departments can become stagnant with the same people in leadership positions. Burnout can become a major issue, thus having a leader who is maintaining the status quo. Make a commitment to your department and community, when you step into a leadership role. Do it for the correct reasons.
While the previous three topics are important to the life cycle of organizational success, there are a few other factors that cause an impact: membership (recruitment/retention), finances, and community engagement. While it is very obvious why each of these topics is important to organizational health, they all can be managed by proper and effective leadership. When the leadership team is operating in a non-crisis mode, but rather organizational success mode; they can focus on membership statistics (recruitment efforts, retention %, attrition rates, etc.), money (budget, fundraising, relations), and community engagement.
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