The volunteer to paid transition

CarolinaFireJournal - By Ron Cheves
By Ron Cheves
01/23/2014 -

In January 2005 my all volunteer fire department hired their first part time paid employee. This was something our board of directors and officer team worked on for over a year to develop the plan, write all of the new policies, and put into place what turned out to be a very major undertaking. One would think it should be a simple task to start paying someone to do what we have been doing for more than 40 years at this department — running fire and EMS calls. One phrase kept popping in my head, “I wish I knew then what I know now.” The biggest issue was trying to keep the paid staff and the volunteer staff equal. For the most part that would seem fairly easy to accomplish but the real fact is they are different and must be treated differently. The expectations of job performance is different than someone you are paying rather than someone that come in at their own free will to volunteer to do the same duties. All of the duties have to be done the same, from the truck check-off to cleaning the station.


I also became very involved with the Volunteer Combination Officers Section (VCOS) of the International Association of Fire Chiefs at about that same time and had been going to their symposium in Florida for several years. I very soon learned that the issues I had in my department in North Carolina were the very same issues the fire chiefs from all across the country were facing and none of us had all the answers. I quickly learned that collectively, as we were talking in groups and networking with others, we seemed to come up with some of the same solutions to take back to our departments to see if they may work for our own application. I have been in the fire service for almost 40 years and have held every rank from a tailboard firefighter to chief of the department in several different departments in two states. I have noticed in just about every department the one common fact about most chief officers is they feel like it is their department and they will run it the way they want, or the way their Daddy did, the way it has always been.

The fire service is a very traditional group and if it worked well for years then there should be no reason to change it. The fact is the fire service is changing rapidly and if we don’t change some of the things we are doing the change will happen without us and we will be out of business. We still for the most part do the same thing we have been doing for a very long time — we still put water on fires just like Benjamin Franklin did in Philadelphia when he organized the first volunteer firefighters. The major difference is they used buckets and we use hoses. They use to race one another to the fire to see who would get there first to claim the fire. As you see, some things will never change.

A friend from Texas sent me a photocopy of a newspaper article that was dated almost 30 years ago that asked the question; “Is the volunteer firefighter a dying breed?” The answer then and now is, “Yes, it is just a very slow death.”

The volunteers are dying for the same reason they did 30 years ago. Modern lifestyles afford people so many ways to spend their free time they’re no longer interested in volunteer service. As was then, today we are asking our volunteer to do more and more training, spend more time at the station on duty time. The new fire fighting techniques are becoming more complex and difficult to learn on a volunteer or part time basis.

Most fire officers need some guidance from time to time. In November 2005, VCOS produced the Red Ribbon Report “Leading the Transition in Volunteer and Combination Departments.” It has a lot of good information written by fire service practitioners. This, along with several other publications produced by the VCOS, should sit on the chief’s desk or very nearby for reference. The educational tools available to us through the VCOS are there for the asking. Visit and pull down the resources tab to get all the information. We need to start sharing information such as best practices and training opportunities. On any given weekend you can find firefighters training on hose streams and ladders. What about the chief officers? Where do we get the training we need to stay current and at the top of our game when not on the fire ground.

The educational opportunities from the VCOS on the transition in volunteer fire departments did and will continue to help me. There have been few programs in the past to help volunteer officers effectively deal with their issues, but we are seeing more and more classes and programs that deal with the volunteer and combination departments exclusively.

If you are not familiar with any of the reports offered by the VCOS, it only takes the time to go to the website and download the contents. If you are an all-volunteer fire department today, chances are your status will change in the future, so start planning now. If you are currently some type of combination department I would bet you will learn something from this report. Download a copy and if there is something you don’t agree with or something you would suggest to add to the report, give me a call.

In 2009 the executive director of the N.C. State Fire Chief’s Association submitted my name to serve on a committee for the VCOS to help update the Red Ribbon Report and compile a training component to go along with the printed report. This is a very timely topic as many of us have relied on the volunteer core to provide the fire and EMS services. The demand for our services will continue to grow. How will we continue to answer the calls? If not volunteers, then by whom? The answer may be some combination of volunteer and paid.

This training course is now complete and available to your department or agency for the asking. Visit the VCOS website at and pull down the education tab to see how to request the course.

Chief Ron J. Cheves (ret.) has 39 plus years as a volunteer in the fire and emergency services rising to the position of Fire Chief. He currently leads the Red Ribbon courses for the VCOS section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and in 2012 was appointed to NFPA 1720, the standard for Organization and Deployment by Volunteer Fire-EMS Dept. He is a columnist/lecturer for several fire service publications and participates in numerous conferences throughout the country. Cheves now serves his local community as the Safety Officer for the Robinson Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department, a progressive Fire-Rescue provider for about 5,000 residents. He can be reached at 704-557-5781 or[email protected].
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