There are some concerns however and the alarmists are not totally out of line. Since 1984, there has been a drop of more than 10 percent in the number of volunteer firefighters. As the number of volunteers has decreased, the average age of a volunteer firefighter has increased. This is another indicator that we are not bringing in as many new (younger) recruits.
The National Volunteer Fire Council has identified several potential reasons why our volunteer ranks are slimming in number. I would like to explore a few of these factors.
One of the most important factors to look at is time. Time is a resource with a fixed quantity. We can’t create more of it, nor can our volunteers. Every individual out there has a choice to make about what they are going to do with their time. In the current economy, many of us are working multiple jobs. In the years past, volunteers typically had one job and oftentimes that employer would allow the volunteer to leave work in order to respond to alarms.
Career and volunteers train together.
In most communities, this is no longer the case. Volunteers are also stressed when it comes to time due to increased training demands, higher call volumes and increased demands within the department for fundraising and other activities. Here is the bottom line — we are competing against paying jobs, church groups, family reunions, recreational sports, fishing, hunting, time with the kids — you name it. If we are not proactive in providing VALUE to the time our guys — and gals — spend at the firehouse, we will lose them. It’s that simple.
Another factor identified by the NVFC as contributing to volunteer loss is what they call “Changes in Sociologic Conditions.” In other words, we are not the America that we were 30 years ago. Our values have changed considerably. Volunteering is not held with the same high esteem that it once was. You can see this across all civic groups, not just the fire service. Our population (especially the younger generation) moves from place to place a lot more than they used to. Along with this, goes the sense of community and community pride. The need to serve others has been replaced in many by the need to serve ourselves. Unfortunately for many people, it comes down to “I want to help out, but ... what’s in it for me?” Again, if we are not providing value TO our volunteers, we will lose them to a competing opportunity — church, school, family function.
The third issue that I want to look at this quarter is defined by the NVFC as “Leadership Problems.” The volunteer fire service in many areas has a leadership dilemma right now. There has been a huge shift in the amount of training required to be a fire service officer. Notice I did not say “career officer” or “volunteer officer.” The standard is the same. This creates a shortage of “officer ready” volunteers in many of our communities. A lot of guys struggle just to meet the minimum firefighter training requirements. When you add ongoing officer training, it is often just too much. In combination departments, it is imperative that volunteer officers have the same training requirements as career officers. When they don’t, friction, or worse, results. Additionally, when we have untrained or uncoordinated leaders, our departments lose the ability to add value to the time being spent there by the volunteer firefighter.
In some departments, volunteer leadership is delegated to career officers. This may work wonderfully for some agencies, but it also has its pitfalls. Oftentimes, even if it is unintentional, this type of leadership is perceived by the volunteers as being very authoritative. Many see it as just another way that the “paid staff” is trying to tell us what to do. This type of leadership — career officers supervising volunteer staff — can be successful, but you really have to have the right person in the job. In order to recruit and retain volunteers, departments have to be careful not to make the assumption that “any” paid officer can manage volunteers.
With that said, there are many volunteer officers who take the authoritative approach as well and therefore are not very successful. Again, it comes back to giving our volunteers VALUE for their time. There is a time and place for authoritative management — on the fireground perhaps — but if officers are constantly telling volunteers what to do — because “I’m the boss” — instead of advocating for the them, our firefighters will perceive that they are not valued and will decide to spend their time elsewhere.
The last leadership challenge that I want to discuss is the one that many of us are very familiar with. The NVFC calls it “friction between volunteer and career members.” As soon as you read that, many of you immediately identified with it. I have been on both sides of the house. I was a career officer for a number of years and now I serve as a volunteer officer. This friction is a poison that is killing our combination departments. That is not an overdramatic statement. It is killing us and we must find a way to control it and control it now.
The fact is that combination departments need well trained and dedicated volunteers. Notice carefully what I said — WELL TRAINED and DEDICATED volunteers. We as volunteers have got to demonstrate to the paid staff that we can function as equals on the fireground. Period. That means a couple of things. We have got to come around. We must spend time at the firehouse interacting with each other. It’s human nature. We don’t trust people that we don’t know.
It also means that we must train. We as volunteers must train to the same standards as the career guys. If you are a volunteer firefighter, you must train to the same standard as a career firefighter. If you are a volunteer driver/operator, you must train to the same standard as a career driver/operator. The same is true for officers.
Volunteer officers must train and be held to the same standards as career officers. Yes, 20 year veteran volunteer chief, I am talking to you — captains and lieutenants too. It is no longer enough to say “I’ve been an officer in this department for 15 years — blah, blah, blah.”
If you want the same respect as your career counterparts, you better be meeting the same education, training and response standards. You had better be involved in planning the future of your combination department.
OK, now I have to address the other side of the coin. Combination departments need well trained and dedicated career firefighters. Our communities are changing. The simple fact is that in many areas, volunteers cannot meet the needs of the community by themselves. The trucks simply don’t roll without the paid staff. If your community has a combination department, it is because it was determined that BOTH paid and volunteer firefighters are needed.
If I hear one more volunteer in a combination department make the statement,“They are just trying to run off the volunteers,” my head might explode. That is one of the most ridiculous arguments in the American fire service. If you, as a volunteer, decide that you are going to quit coming around because “they are trying to run me off,” guess what happens? The agency has no choice but to hire more paid staff. It starts a cycle that may very well end with no volunteers. If the cycle ends with no volunteers, it is not because you were run off...it is because you quit coming. You DECIDED to run off and in order to serve your neighbors, your agency had no choice but to increase paid staff or go all career. If you quit coming for whatever reason, you have killed the volunteer fire service.
Make no doubt about it, our fire service is changing. If you are a volunteer, you have a choice to make. You can evolve with the fire service and keep the 350 year tradition of volunteerism alive or you can make the conscious decision to run off. It’s your call.