Where are we going as volunteers in the fire service?

CarolinaFireJournal - Ron Cheves
Ron Cheves
10/14/2011 -

Earlier this year about 125 leaders of volunteer and combination fire departments were asked to come to Washington, D.C. to put together a blueprint for the future of volunteers in the fire service. The ultimate goal of the summit is to examine the challenges faced by our fire departments manned by volunteer or part-time firefighters and help develop a long term plan to carry the volunteer and combination fire service into the future.


Each person who was selected by their state fire association or was nominated by a fire service leader was assigned to a workgroup and given one of 10 topics to explore and develop a report for improvement on the following topics:

  • Capabilities and Competencies
  • Community Relationships
  • Recruitment
  • Retention of Members
  • Organizational Structure
  • Business Model and Funding
  • Legislation and Regulations
  • Reputation Management
  • Fire Based EMS
  • Diversity and Inclusiveness

Each work group included staff from the U.S Fire Administration and IAFC/VCOS board members. Hosting a national summit of this type has been a goal of the VCOS for many years and the end result in the form of a “White Paper” will hopefully aid the leaders of volunteer and combination fire service to develop a long term strategic plan. The Volunteer fire service has changed over the past several years, and will continue to change. Many of the departments have not, and or are not willing to make the necessary changes to keep up the pace to survive the growing demand for our time and services.

In the opening session, Chief Ronny J. Coleman, Ret. played the part, in full costume, of Benjamin Franklin, the father of the volunteer fire service. He asked the question, “What have you done to my fire service”? What was initially started as community members pledging to help each other in time of need has developed into a very complex public safety system that went way beyond Mr. Franklin’s vision. In Mr. Franklin’s day it was everyone’s responsibility for fire prevention and fire suppression. Today, some of the departments are no more than a very private social club that may exclude certain members.

I believe there is a future for the volunteer/combination fire rescue and EMS service to provide the level of service needed in our communities. We must be willing to think outside the box and help to change the perception of what fire departments staffed with volunteers, or a combination, can actually deliver to the customers we serve. We have to gain the support of our community leaders and elected officials to overcome the staffing issues normally associated with volunteers.

At the same time our leaders have to understand how very important the volunteer is to them. Be proud of having the word volunteer on the uniform and on the door of the rigs. Make the volunteer feel most important. Make them feel like an integral part of the organization.

Some of the biggest challenges are the same things we talk about on a daily basis. Recruitment and retention and training seem to be the hot topics. Not enough volunteers walking in the door to sign up for service, and when they do we run them off by demanding the large amount of training hours required to stay on the roster. Well over half of  the volunteer fire departments have no one dedicated to recruitment. This sounds like it is a closed social club.

The training issue seems to be most challenging. We learned in the summit, the nation currently lacks a common assessment tool to measure the abilities of the local department to deliver a variety of emergency services. This presents challenges at the local, regional and federal level. It is difficult to organize and mobilize resources during a major incident.

More specifically, the fire service cannot currently answer these basic questions:

  • What is the minimum capability of any fire department?
  • What is the minimum level of training or capability of every firefighter, officer and chief?
  • Is there a standard credential to identify a firefighter on a national level?
  • Should emergency services training be standardized nationally to ensure consistent minimum qualifications and capabilities of personnel?

On a national level the training, credentialing and delivery systems are currently dysfunctional and splintered, and do not serve the interest of maintaining a thriving volunteer and combination fire service. A new strategy is needed that is incremental and portable nationally, meaning the level of training will be the same thing in every state. If a firefighter wants to move to another state he does not have to start the training process all over. These should also be competency based so we are not teaching our member to only pass the test to get the certification.

There is also a belief that there should be a national classification system for departments and individuals that is based on a cafeteria approach where each community can choose modularized capabilities and supporting modularized training programs at the appropriate level for their level of service required.

A national training and certification system is created that allows portability and needs analysis to be conducted on a national, state, and local level. Fire training should be portable and more volunteer friendly, while maintaining quality and meeting applicable standards. National deployment and credentialing issues should be met.

There should be acceptance and implementation of a national classification system of firefighters and emergency service organizations that is flexible and allows fire departments and or communities to understand and choose the level of emergency service that is appropriate for their needs and resources while still defining nationally accepted standards.

There is still plenty of work to be done to make sure we are headed in the right direction as we move forward with all the other challenges we face on a daily basis.

You will be hearing more of the work being done to complete this project. The time line at this point is to try to have the completed document sometime in January 2012.

Ron Cheves is retired chief of the Idlewild Volunteer Fire Department in Matthews, N.C. Cheves served Idlewild Volunteer Fire Department for over 27 years where he held every rank from firefighter to chief of the department. Cheves can be reached at 704-557-5781.
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