Volunteer Firefighters: Who the heck do you think you are?


CarolinaFireJournal - Ron Cheves
Ron Cheves
08/01/2012 -

I’m really tired of reading about volunteer firefighters doing stupid things! Some people already think of us as tobacco chewing, redneck, 4X4 truck driving, “belly-hanging-over our-belts,” wanna-be heroes, and we’re sure not helping our own cause. Read the news from across the country and you’ll see that we’re giving the public plenty to talk about.

We had volunteer firefighters in Tennessee who responded to a fire and then refused to extinguish the fire because the homeowners did not pay their fire dues. Why respond in the first place? So you could get your photo taken and be the subject of national news?

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A volunteer fire chief in North Carolina had a dispute with the town he serves so he took his fire trucks out of the station and refused to respond to calls.

There is actually a fire chief in southwest Virginia making illegal moonshine who is proud enough of his behavior to have a reality television show about it. His illegal still is deep in the woods so when he gets a call for service, he already has quite a distance to travel.

There are so many incidents that sadly I could write pages. How many times have we all read about volunteer firefighters starting fires themselves because they’re bored or want to be a hero? Have you ever read about chief officers or board members who embezzle funds from their own fire department for personal gain? I have.

I repeat: “who the heck do you think you are?” Whether you are a 501C VFD as most of us are, or just a social club that wants to do some good for your community, it is NOT YOUR FIRE DEPARTMENT!

Volunteer fire departments raise money through bake sales, spaghetti dinners, turkey shoots or from pure donations. The money you receive comes from your community and should stay in your community.

Some volunteers report to the station because they have a need to feel important; and that may not be all bad. But if you’re in the department only to feed that need, maybe you need to rethink why you are there. Do you have a lack of authority at home or at work? Are you seeking that feeling of authority, of importance at the fire station?

This behavior is not just evidenced by firefighters and company officers but by chief officers and board members as well. Stories reporting on the misbehavior of chief officers and board members make the news more frequently because that’s the way the chain of command works. It’s more “newsworthy” when it’s a person of authority and respect in the community.

Does your fire department have a mission statement? Is it just words on paper that make you sound like the type of organization you wish you were? Should you rethink that mission statement, making it simple and concise and articulating your core mission to protect and serve?

Do you swear in all your new members, career or volunteer, asking them to pledge to always behave in a manner that will make the department proud? This practice will not necessarily make bad people behave or keep them from making bad decisions while representing the department, but it could serve as an extra “conscience,” a voice they’ll hear every time they put on that uniform.

Please understand I am not bashing volunteer members; just the contrary! I have been a volunteer myself for almost 40 years and I hold the banner for the volunteer fire service everywhere I go. I am very proud to serve as a volunteer and plan to continue serving as long as I’m physically able.

As the program manager for the VCOS course, “Leading the Transition in Volunteer and Combination Fire Departments,” I’m well aware that there is a shift throughout the U.S. and Canadian volunteer fire service to hire paid members in order to service the increasing call volume. I also know that some volunteer departments hire that first person and then rush to take the word “volunteer” off the side of their apparatus and their uniforms. You are still a volunteer fire department unless you change your charter. Why are we trying to be something we are not?

I spoke to a deputy chief at a large combination department a few weeks ago and he seemed to have the same passion for the volunteer fire service as I; he fears we’re losing our history because the new members aren’t being taught. The chief told me that the first requirement for new recruits is to read Chief Rick Lasky’s book “Pride & Ownership.” I thought that was a great idea. I know there are plenty of books about the history of the fire service but Chief Lasky hits you right in the gut with the hard truth. Being a firefighter is the greatest job in the world, so if you’re not happy you need to get the hell out, stay at home and make your wife miserable. We have a deep heritage and a reason for pride that should never be tarnished.

The fact that three quarters of all firefighters in this country (and many others) are volunteers will not change anytime soon. And as more and more departments are transitioning from a fully volunteer or fully career to a combination system or from a combination system to a fully volunteer system, the need for volunteers is greater than ever.

We must all work hard to make the system one unit (volunteer or paid, why does it matter?). The only difference between a paid firefighter and a volunteer firefighter should be the way they are compensated, and that’s it. When we roll up on the scene, Mr. and Mrs. Smith don’t care what name is on the side of the rig. We should all be trained the same so no one on scene can tell the volunteers from the paid staff. We should not be afraid to call on our mutual aid departments, whether they are a paid municipal department or all volunteer.

Don’t be ashamed to have the word VOLUNTEER on your letterhead, your uniform, and your apparatus. Be proud of being a volunteer because you’re part of a great tradition of service and sacrifice.

Instead, work hard to keep your fire department out of the headlines. Work hard to develop a good positive relationship with the media and make sure you tell them all of the good things you’re doing for your community. Educate the media so they can help you educate Mr. and Mrs. Smith to understand what the real volunteer fire service is doing for them. Let’s all stay out of the news when it is something that leaves all of us with that black eye.

Ron Cheves has 39 plus years as a volunteer in the fire and emergency serices rising to the position of chief. He retired as 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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