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The 8 Deadly Sins to Managing a Volunteer Fire Department

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

You have to disrupt the "good ole boys network"!

Is your department having recruitment and or retention problem? Did you know that word of mouth from happy members is one of the best ways to recruit new members? If your members are not satisfied, then you have a problem on your hands. If members are not around the station, then you are most likely not getting out on calls. We have highlighted the top eight issues that can destroy morale, hinder the retention of members, and generate a lack of motivation and support both internally and externally within any volunteer fire department. It is incumbent upon departments' leadership to identify these issues, address them, and rid them of their departments. Having a solid membership is essential to success. Everything else will fall into order with the proper, dedicated, and motivated membership.

Cliques/ Favoritism: This can be a problem in any organization but can be prevalent in the volunteer fire service. It becomes easy to associate yourself with other like-minded individuals. It also becomes commonplace for officers to show favoritism towards those members who have the most calls or dedicate the most time. How many departments can say that a top responder can get away with “more” than someone who puts in significantly less time? Have you ever sat at a board meeting and heard, “if we discipline member x, who will get us out on our calls?” Officer favoritism perpetuates into cliques. Ultimately, you will be surrounded by people with no diversity of opinion and a small core group of personnel that everything relies on. Cliques will do nothing but drive out new members who are already struggling through the complicated process and attempting to learn the life of a fire station. On top of that, they feel like they cannot fit in because they are not a part of the clique. Guess what, that new member will go elsewhere, where they do feel welcomed.

Politics: Does your department have that member who will subvert the system and policies in place? Of course, you do, everywhere does. That member probably sits around the station and congers up a crisis they will resolve only after garnering the support of the people sitting around the table. They indicate they have access to the leadership and do not have to follow the established guidelines or chain of command. Everything they do is a reach for power. Do not let power get to people’s heads. It creates unnecessary politics within the organization. Your membership is spending their free and valuable time to give back to the community and provide for the organization. They do not need to be surrounded by unnecessary politics. What is fair for everyone is fair for one. Follow your policies and procedures, and don’t give access/power/authority to those who do not deserve it or work for it.

Drama: Have you ever heard this echoed in the station: “this place is worse than high school”? The first thing to realize is you cannot eliminate drama. When you have a variety of personalities involved (especially type A individuals), you will always have drama. Company officers need to put a stop to unnecessary drama when they witness it. It is also vital that they lead by example and do not engage in or promote drama. Company officers should always act as though someone is watching and or listening.

Poor leadership: The icing on the cake. Leadership is everything. Leadership sets the stage for success.

Financial insecurity: In addition to human resources (a robust membership), you need financial security. If a department has people and money, they are only held back by its vision and drive. It is essential to protect your hard-earned cash for several apparent reasons. The last thing a department wants is a front-page article in the local paper about an embezzlement situation. If your donors do not feel comfortable, donating you will lose income and other vital support. Departments should have proper checks and balances to ensure safe handling of money, credit cards, bank access, and more. Did you know you could do a financial background check on your treasurer or financial secretary? You wouldn’t want someone entering into a financial position who has a history of shady financial decisions and practices.

Lack of accountability: Were you the middle child who always got away with anything? Looking back now, that was great at the time, but imagine how your siblings felt. Imagine applying that principle to a group of people who are dedicating their time, missing family events, leaving holiday dinners, etc., to provide for the department and community. Officers should ensure the accountability of all members. No one wants to deal with the fan favorite. Each person is vital to the department's success, regardless of what they bring to the table.

Unfair discipline: This relates to leadership and accountability. Discipline must be fair across the board. No favoritism. Discipline should also be viewed as a growing and mentoring process. Punishments should meet the “crime.” When I was new to my department, I recall that if you got into a minor fender bender that was not your fault (and it was your first accident), you were suspended from driving for 30 days. What sense does that make? It is hurting the department and the service to the community. Now if you are on your third at-fault accident, a suspension from driving and retraining is probably warranted, but follow your policies. We will provide more on discipline in a later blog post.

Unnecessary demands: Train, run calls, do refresher training, come to a company meeting, make sure you come to 6 in station training courses, participate at this fundraiser, go to this community detail, oh and you plan on missing a meeting for your kids birthday? ….better fill out a form, or we are going to drop you from the company. Sound familiar? Everything is essential to the overall success of your department, but let’s break down the responsibility. Understand one schedule does not fit all, so a specific training night may not work for someone who works strictly from 3:00-11:00. Additionally, place emphasis on recruiting administrative and associate support members to handle fundraising and other administrative tasks. This will help alleviate the burden on those who are running calls.

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