Updated: Nov 29, 2021
Is the volunteer fire service salvageable in the United States? Absolutely...it has to be. No one said it would be easy, though. We first have to change the mindset of "well, that is how we always did it!". You can not begin to change things without changing your outlook. It is okay to maintain history and tradition while making significant changes to your organization. What is history and tradition if your organization no longer exists? A simple Google search will reveal news articles of volunteer fire companies being closed, suspended, or put on probation by their local town.
What is the first step to becoming sustainable? Realizing there is a problem! You can not fix something that you don't realize exists. You have to break through the challenging feelings of ownership, ineffective leadership, and egos. Elect the candidate who is willing to put the department ahead of their own self-interest and one who is ready to acknowledge problems and embrace change.
So, where do you go from here? What is step number 1? It is all about people. You immediately have to shut down the infighting, the drama, the politics, backstabbing, and kitchen table gossiping. These issues that exist everywhere need to come to an end, or you will never be able to engage the current members, bring in recruits, or retain a single new member who walks through the door.
People are spending a considerable amount of time receiving training and giving back to the organization/community. They do not need to deal with added drama. We shouldn't have to say this, but ask yourself...why would someone spend their limited free time in an environment full of drama and backstabbing? They won't, and they don't- hence why volunteer departments are struggling.
We, as a service, are all about brotherhood and sisterhood. We put everything behind us as we pull out of the station, going on a call. Why bring it up, to begin with? You can't have a team environment until these issues are reconciled. To be completely honest, some of our onboarding procedures allow people in who are constantly disruptive to team culture, and the leadership has to deal with those people appropriately. Read more on the toxic member here.
So you have dealt with your toxic members. Now what? Establish some short-term goals and get buy-in from the membership. These goals could include:
recruiting five new people
clearing/promoting three people who just finished class
modernizing your recruitment and marketing strategy
there are plenty more, and they are very specific to your department and the challenges you face
Follow through on the plan. You, as the leader, have the onus of following up, following through, motivating, and communicating through the process.
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While working through your short-term goals, continuously focus on the department's culture with your leadership team and officers. Everything an officer does or doesn't do directly contributes to organizational culture.
How do officers handle conflict?
Is discipline handled appropriately and fair?
Is there communication with the membership? Check out "The Art of Communication"
Are training and clearances processes clearly defined and adhered to?
Does your membership take a vested interest in the new member?
Do your officers micromanage?
Do your officers come off as hotheads?
A lot of investment has to go into your leadership team because they have to carry out the mission of change and culture improvement.
Understanding why people choose to volunteer is also an essential aspect of managing people. We will provide some more information on that in a future blog.
By no means is this blog an exhaustive list of ways to sustain the volunteer fire service, but it is a start. It all begins with the leadership and trickles down from there. Check back often for more tips on how to sustain the volunteer fire service.
Are you trying to improve your department? Running a department is a full-time job, let alone the time needed to make necessary changes. Reach out to us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and allow us to take some of the burdens off of your shoulders.