The Volunteer Dilemma – Volunteering Leaves a Legacy

For the past decade it has been lamented that fewer and fewer people are available or have the desire to make the commitment to be a volunteer firefighter. The training requirements have increased, people no longer work in the community in which they live, they no longer have the time, etc, etc. The reasons for the problem are many but what about the answers to that problem… perhaps … not so many.

Recently an attendee of the FDIC International conference was overheard noting the behavior of a good number other attendees .. “ I don’t know if they were volunteers but even on the airplane many were disorderly”.

From experience, assuming that the disorderly conference attendees were volunteer fire fighters might not be a total stretch but it is not good when past history dictates an automatic negative opinion as top of mind choice.

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Maybe when volunteers were abundant the basic core of serious conscientious members tolerated the “frat boy” behavior of a portion of their organization. After all fire departments traditionally, from the beginning were like clubs or social organizations. Today’s environment created by a smaller pool of potential volunteers requires the bar to be raised and not lowered.

A recent ad soliciting volunteers made it a point to say that “as a volunteer firefighter you don’t have to run into a burning building to join the department. There are lots of jobs that can be accomplished that don’t require firefighting.” Certainly, that is true. But that has to be balanced with one of the major fire ground issues for any volunteer department and that is the question of who will be available and will they have the necessary skills to handle the particular fire ground or emergency situation. Therefore develop skill and support areas in which family and community members can be involved in the department.

Here are some suggested solutions:

  1. Community Involved Musters

    If not accomplished already and many departments have, elevate the organization to an elite fire service culture. Not a snobby or arrogant attitude but one of pride in deed and presentation. People want to belong to organizations that others look up to and admire. The dictionary defines culture as a way of thinking, behaving or working that exists in an organization. The fire service culture is something we should be proud of and consciously defend it from being compromised on the basis of an individual or organization’s negative actions or activities. Set standards of dress and training and don’t lower the standards just to accommodate a need for numbers. That requires spending more time on organizational discipline, leadership training and department “esprit de corp” to create a feeling of loyalty, enthusiasm and devotion to the department and the community.

  2. Develop a corp of family and community members that do function outside the traditional firefighting definition. Crisis response volunteers, community activity specialists, fire safety inspectors and fire prevention educators all provide families and the community the opportunity to buy into the department. Hold competitive musters within the department and with surrounding communities.
    Develop Non-Firefighting
    Crisis Response Teams

    The more the community can relate to the department the more prestigious the department will become in the eyes of the community and the more people will want to participate. Some of the non-firefighting volunteers just may evolve into full service members of the department. Keep in mind that unfortunately some communities to this day view even the large volunteer departments as a bunch of macho guys with a lot of expensive toys. Of course let they be one major fire in the community and see how the departments importance increases along with a rise in people who wish to become volunteers.

  3. There are 2.4 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and many range in age from 20 to 32. Reach out to them. They are comfortable with the command structure utilized in the fire service and more than a few are accustomed to being placed in harm’s way. The fire service can in a positive way replace or decompress the lingering psychological aspects being involved in a war time military.

A wise young women recently noted that volunteering creates a legacy. The fire service has a built in legacy which is extended and strengthened by the positive efforts volunteers bring into play.

Pete Adams
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