Thursday, April 28, 2011

Volunteer Fire Departments 2.0 (6 of ?) Organization

This is part 6 of a multi-part series. You should have read the preceding parts: Part One, Part Two, Part ThreePart Four and Part Five before moving onto this one. Today's subject is Organization in the Volunteer Service.
 When someone Volunteers their time to the Fire Department, it SHOULD be understood that it is a two-way street. The person putting up their time is offering it freely, but they maintain certain expectations, and they have every right to do so. The Department therefore, has an obligation to make good and effective use of that donation of time. Nobody would want to see a monetary donation be squandered on trivial purposes, neither should a Department squander the most precious of all donations: TIME.
 Every Volunteer member deserves to know certain things about their standing in their Department. This may seem to go without saying, but in many Departments, it is not so clear as one might expect. Over time, we tend to take this 'donation of time' for granted and waste quite a bit of that time.
 Everybody deserves to know where they stand, what is expected of them, what opportunities are open to them, and what they can expect from the Organization. With this in mind, it becomes very important for each Department to be properly organized. This means they will have a clear set of operating guidelines where members can look up information they lack. Everything regarding the operation of that Department should be written down (see the post on Communications).
 Fire Departments have always been considered a para-military type of organization and as such have a 'chain of command'. Departments I have seen that function well will rely on this chain of command as second nature, there is never a question of who you need to speak with when you have a question, concern or complaint. Departments who allow their members to work around this system undermine themselves without even realizing what they are doing. Why would a new member go the his Lt. when he knows the Chief can and will always fix his problems for him right away? Does that Chief realize he just shot himself in the foot? Probably not. But he did, and at the same time he undermined the authority of all HIS line Officers. So presenting a proper and formal Organization is important, but making that structure a way of life takes everyone's effort and participation.
 This may seem like a simple and short point, but think for a minute about every transgression you have seen that subverted your organization's structure and then think about the effect it had on morale and cohesiveness. Every slip in that structure makes a crack in the wall, and eventually the wall comes down from it's own weight. So having a good Organization and having everybody work within that system only makes you stronger. If the system does not allow for proper operations, change the system, don't work around it, FIX IT. All those little adjustments add up over time. Eventually, you will have a solid working system.Don't forget to include your disciplinary system in that structure. People need to know where the lines are and what can be expected when they cross that line.
 At this point in the series, some of the post subjects are beginning to overlap with others, which just shows how it all ties together. Is it no small part of having a good organization that you have tied in your training, communications, and leadership to this structure. It all goes hand in hand. The most impressive Volunteer Departments I have seen really have their act together on this score. They have things clearly organized and even if something falls through the cracks, it eventually gets covered BECAUSE there is such a good method of Organization in place. Problems and holes become apparent much more quickly in a good organization
 The best practices I have seen in this area are hard to find in most Departments because it is so deeply embedded in the culture. It is all tied together by the structure and the fact that there is a well defined organization is often overlooked or hidden.
 Good Organization provides for sharing the load. Time is important to volunteers and when a Department demands too much of what individuals have available, those individuals become burned up and eventually fade away. having folks that serve on only a few committees or assignments makes it easier on everyone instead of having just a few do all the work. It also helps to admit, when necessary, that a Department CAN"T always do EVERYTHING and they may have to let some things slide. Fund raising or  parade participation may have to take a back seat until people volunteer for those positions.
 The point here is this: The better you Organize your Department, the easier things go for everyone. If you have things clearly defined so that members can answer their own questions, you have given every member the power to help the Department grow, survive, and thrive.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Volunteer Fire Departments 2.0 (5 of ?) Training

This is part 5 of a multi-part series. You should have read the preceding parts: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four before moving onto this one. Today's subject is Training in the Volunteer Service.
 Although training is a basic requirement within the Fire Service and would seem to be a given no-brainer, I have seen a HUGE variation in how the basic entry level training requirements are handled around the country.
 This wide variance ranges from a very strict standard within a Department of precisely what Training and Certification is required before a member may respond and participate, all the way down the line to Departments that rely almost entirely on "On the Job Training". In most states where each Department has the authority to set their own Training Standards, this is entirely legal. The hitch will come in when there is an accident and a legal review is undertaken to see what training the members who were involved had, who did the training, and was it up to National Standards? See, here is the big rub. Departments can set their own standards, but when they are judged in Court, it will be against the NFPA standards. One would think it would be smart to just use NFPA as your Department Standards, but that is seldom the case for all Departments.
 Volunteer Departments face a lot of challenges to get their members trained PROPERLY. First there is the lack of QUALIFIED Instructors, then there is the issue of scheduling around a Volunteers schedule, then there are the (some will say) oppressive requirements that never seem to end for additional training and re-certifications. (I touched on several Department Instructor Issues in this post.)
 If your Department is blessed to have some Qualified Instructors to make your training happen, count yourself very lucky. Most Departments don't. In this sense, when I say "QUALIFIED" I am speaking in a very strict sense. An Instructor should have Certification (preferably Pro-Board) as a Fire Service Instructor (FSI) ONE in order to deliver instruction of material which was already developed. If an Instructor is to write and deliver their own classes, they should be Certified at the FSI TWO level. (I wrote  little about my FSI experiences here.) If your Instructor is going to develop CURRICULUM, they need the FSI 3. If any Instructor is delivering materials on behalf of an agency, they need that agencies "Authority to Teach" for that particular class (this would be State and Federal Training Center Courses). In my State, you cannot get "Authority to Teach" for any State classes unless you are on the payroll as a State (SFI), County (CFI), or Municipal (MTO), Fire Instructor (Volunteer Instructors need not apply). In addition, my state has recently added a whole pile of new requirements for those Instructors so that the bottom line is that you cannot attain 'Authority to Teach' for anything until you have spent about a week at the Academy (after all your FSI work, and after being hired by an Agency). This makes it damn near impossible for a Volunteer agency to go it on their own, no matter how robust they might be. Add to this the inevitable bureaucratic fiefdoms of State and County Governments and you have quite a dysfunctional mess. My State may be different from yours but in all States where I have talked to Departments I find they have similar situations with many of the details moved around. In the end though, just about every Department faces a real challenge to get their members good training.
 So the average Volunteer Department rarely finds themselves in a situation where they get a new member, send him/her off to training, and then get them to work. It just does not work that way in most cases. Classes aren't available when they can go, or the right classes aren't being offered just now, or the schedule does not fit for that member, or their are no Instructors available, or there is no funding available.
 Most Departments try hard to get a new member trained internally in some form with a mentor, internal 'probie classes', or some sort of OJT. They use experienced members as instructors and mentors, because those folks know the job. The problem with this is that these instructors 'don't know what they don't know' and it's not their fault. I see many Departments put on excellent training on their own, and the students get a lot out of it, and it accomplishes the goal of transferring knowledge, BUT, it doesn't count for squat when reviewed in a court of law.
 Why, you ask? Well, first of all, just as with a Patient Care Report, 'if you didn't write it down, it didn't happen'. In order for training to 'count' there MUST be a lesson plan which outlines everything taught in that class. It should include the Objectives, the teaching materials used, the psycho-motor skills performed, and the assessment (Test) that was performed. Scores should be recorded  as well as notes on any students requiring remediation. All this information should be placed in a packet and kept by the Training Officer. And YES, this is confidential material only available for review by a limited number of people, so it must be secured. (Posting of Grades is Illegal, did you know that? Google: FERPA.) In addition, any reviewing legal authority will want to know what the Instructors Qualifications were to teach this class in the first place, so this information should also be on file. Most Departments fail on these requirements, but get by because they seldom have an accident which drives a lawsuit. Also the AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction, i.e.: The Board of Fire Commissioners) thinks they can plead ignorance to these requirements. Until they get sued and learn otherwise.
 So those are some of the obstacles we encounter. How we deal with them is typical of the Volunteer Service, we do the best we can. We use the resources we have and try to put together something that works as well as we can make it. This gives us the widely varied systems we see all around the country, some excellent, some adequate, and some not so great. A few are downright dangerous.
 Best Practices I have seen:
 First and foremost, develop a good central record keeping system. This is a service to your members to keep track of all the effort they have put into their jobs. It also provides a great source of data in the event of that lawsuit.
 Next, find out what the legal teaching requirements are and stick to them as best you can. This means teaching your instructors what is required for lesson plans and helping them get it done. paperwork is part of everything and writing it down, even if it is not perfect, is better than not having a record of what was taught at all. Make some easy forms that they can fill in. Provide support on an ongoing basis. Make it part of the culture.
 Provide good training. Nobody wants to come to a drill that they feel is a waste of their time. You have to make these events interesting and worthwhile. This means that the Instructors MUST know their stuff, do their research, lay out a plan, and come to the drill prepared. (THIS is why Instructors themselves require training.) If you don't have the folks with the right skills, FIND THEM. They could be in the next town, the Department across the Lake or anywhere else. LOOK for them at County meetings, mutual aid calls, conventions, etc. Build a network. ASK them to come in and give a guest class. Many of these folks will be happy to do it for free, expenses, or a small fee. But you have to ASK.
 Share the load. These days with all the training requirements we face it has become damn near impossible for any single Department to take care of themselves. Work with your Mutual Aid Departments and invite them to your trainings events, then go to theirs. It's a beautiful thing. Not every Department has the skills and tools to teach everything, so if you have a strength to provide, say Interior Attack training, provide that for a Department that can then provide you with Technical Rescue Training. The extra benefit of training with those companies put all personnel on a better footing when they have to work a job together.
 Mix it up. Bring in Subject Matter Experts (SME's) from outside the Fire Service such as Engineers from the power company, hybrid car specialists from the local auto-dealer, or Law Enforcement personnel to teach specific information about the areas we all come into contact with where that detailed knowledge will have value, maybe even save you from making a dumb mistake.
 Make every day a training day. Although not a formal (documented) training experience, take advantage of the 'teaching moments' that occur every day out on the job. When you see something that others could benefit from, take a moment back at the station right after the call, to point it out and  discuss it. Highlight those good practices or decisions that your stronger folks do every day.
Look around. Training within your Department is not the only option. Many States have an Office of Homeland Security that conducts some really good training , and/or they have a State Emergency Management Department which also puts on many programs. These sessions are quite often at no charge to the Department or student. My state will even pay for my hotel room when I take some of these classes. Go out and LOOK for these opportunities and get the word out. It's a fantastic way to get in contact with some top notch Instructors and materials. I have even brought some of my EMS folks down for training with the recruit class at the County Police Academy on Tasers and OC Spray. (We may have to treat this stuff right? So why not get some experience with real patients?) This singular, oddball training day was one one the most fun and educational days I have ever spent. (I love to see the reactions when that Taser hits them, I laughed so hard that I cried.)
 Schedule carefully. Don't overload your members with a lot of routine, small, and repetitive classes. Respect their time and have a good class that is run effectively. Having a 'drill of the month plan' is OK IF each of the instructors comes prepared and it is well planned. But if your Department is like many that have a regularly scheduled drill night and the group of 5-10 people assemble and somebody says "OK, what should we drill on this month?" then you have a problem. I have seen some Departments that have a drill every WEEK on the calendar, but I seldom see one of these with EFFECTIVE drills, mostly they turn into work parties, many members are bored with this and don't come, and things go downhill from there.
 Many Departments believe that Volunteers don't have time for training and that putting on training is more than most members can deal with. That is, quite frankly, a bullshit excuse! My experience is that members will come out of the woodwork for good, effective, and efficient training. I have seen this time and time again.  I know a Department that regularly turns out 20-40 students for every training event they put on because the students KNOW they will get a good class, with quality hands-on time, and walk away stronger than when they arrived. This is the key, make good use of the time. I know another Department that has to LIMIT the number of people they allow into their live burn training because they were having too many people show up. Imagine that "We have TOO many people showing up for training", how often have you heard that? (This particular Department is getting burned out providing training for other Departments because those Departments can not put on their own live burns.)
 As you can see, this is one of my 'hot button' topics and this post ran a little long. I'll do some more on this subject after the series is complete, I did not cover a lot of ground I would have liked to fit in here. The main points are these. Have training that is effective, don't waste your members precious time. If you can't do it yourself, get somebody who can. When you train, make sure the experience is worth the time your students are spending in that class. Document every training event you have and make it count.
Be Well, Be Safe, and Be Sharp,
(Note: Part 6 may be slightly delayed due to my meeting/training schedule this week.)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Series Intermission

Well, we are more than halfway through this marathon series (for me) and I am seeing the end in sight.
 I wanted to take a short break here to ask the readership if I am missing the mark on any of this. I have not seen a single comment on any of these posts and I am beginning to wonder if I am the only person on the planet who finds these issues important. If I am, that's OK. Although I am putting many hours into the writing and it still remains poor, I am enjoying getting these thoughts down. Throughout the year I frequently am asked "What's your secret on [this subject]", or "How does your Department do [that subject]" and I now have something in writing that I can hand them. As I stated at the outset, I am no expert, but I do a lot of observing and see many good things out there.
 I really think we could get a good conversation going that will bring out some more good ideas. Please don't be intimidated. It is only "us" here. It has been a long time since any of the Big Gun bloggers have been by to read this page (Except for one who is a steadfast reader), so there will be no comments or cross links from them. It's just us.
 Think about it, OK?
 The Series resumes tomorrow.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Volunteer Fire Departments 2.0 (4 of ?) Leadership

This is part 4 of a multi-part series. You should have read the preceding parts: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three before moving onto this one.
 Good Leaders run good teams, there is no doubt about it. Poor or weak leaders can still run pretty good teams if they know they are poor leaders and rely on those within their team to carry part of the burden and those people are capable.
 Leadership in the Fire Service is such a vast topic that many books have been written on the subject and any Department leader, line Officers candidates and above should be studying these regularly. I can't even attack the tip of the iceberg in one post and I'm not going to try. For an excellent blog reference on this subject, I would direct all my readers over to Firehouse Zen for consistently good stuff. I wrote this post last year and it provides a good lead in for the post you are reading now.
 In the Volunteer Service we all have choices and the biggest of those is whether we want to be here or not. A poor leader can usually help us make that choice. A strong Leader, who is predictable and a pleasure to work for, can also, make it fun and enjoyable to volunteer. How many times do you need to come home from a meeting, drill, or a call, all pissed off, before you decide to do something else with your time? Conversely, aren't you more likely to attend these same events if you are likely to return home with a smile on your face and a good feeling? I know I am, and so, whenever I 'lead' something, whether it's a drill, meeting, or work party, my primary goal is to make sure the people involved know that they accomplished something and their time was well spent and appreciated.
 We expect a lot of our Leaders in the Volunteer Service, in many cases we expect too much. If you have not carried the burden of Leadership it is easy to lose sight of just how hard it can be, especially in matters of life safety. So when the Lt. yells at you for not paying attention when footing a ladder, you think he's pissed off at you. He, in turn, is thinking about what will happen if that ladder kicks out while you are distracted. Two very different points of view, are they not? Being perfect is a difficult task even for the experienced Leader, how can we expect that perfection from a person who is only on the job a few hours a week? Most folks are very quick to judge what a Leader "Should have done", without taking the time to think about what is required to 'do that'.
 Now if we turn back to my original approach of observing best practices in the volunteer service, here are some things I have seen that work for the Departments using them.
 Don't push your younger members into leadership positions before they are 'ready'. Getting them started early will most likely overload them when they find out what is required and begin to get hammered by the members when they miss something. This can ruin them for a position that might be well suited for a little later on.
 Give your new leaders support by way of mentor-ship, providing them with documentation that they can use to 'fill in the blanks' and get going. Don't make them re-invent the wheel when they take Office.
 Make sure they have a clear understanding of EXACTLY what their responsibilities are and it MUST be in writing (remember your communications skills).
 Remind the rank and file folks of how difficult the job can be and encourage them to support their leaders.
 Have a clear structure they can work within.
 If a leader is not 'working out' for whatever reason, have a non-punitive mechanism for replacing them, so that they can try again later when they are better prepared.
 One of the key things I have noted in the Volunteer side of things is the practice of rotating Leaders on a fairly regular basis. Don't burn out your strong leaders, let them take a year or two off and give somebody else a chance. This deepens the pool and it allows those rotating out to pursue other things, such as instructing or gaining advanced training outside the Department. In the meantime, these Leaders are available to help the new ones get their legs.
 On the other hand, our leaders have the responsibility to carry themselves in a predictable manner. The leader needs to maintain the department operations as designed, give their members what they need to get their jobs done properly and safely, and carry any issues up the chain of command as required. A good leader stands up for his people when they are in the right, and he corrects them when they are in the wrong. Varying from this, even in the slightest, creates confusion and only undermines the Leader's credibility.
 Make sure your new leaders are recognized when they do well. We often forget that a long time, proven member is 'starting fresh' when they step up, and they need that 'pat on the back' to remind them they are on the right course. Their confidence may be starting over from the bottom as they take on the new job. This type of recognition can come directly from the crew and does not always have to be from above. So if you are a front-line member, remember to thank the Lt. when he does a good job. Don't assume he knows it.
 A phenomenon that has always fascinated me in the VFD is that no matter what a person does for a living, when they put on that White Helmet, we expect them to be the perfect leader, right out of the box. It just doesn't work that way. Leaders are MADE, not born.
 So to sum it up, if we don't start with good leadership, the chances of having a good Department are limited. I used to work at a company where the unofficial motto was "Around here we don't believe in miracles, we RELY on them." Well, if you don't have a way to train your leaders and support them, then you too, are relying on miracles. The good news is, we can create good leaders if we all work together, cut some slack when needed, and pitch in when that is needed.
 This is already longer than I wanted it to be, but here is a quick story: Just a few days ago I was at a Department dinner and was talking with an Assistant Chief from a neighboring Department about an new Assistant Chief in a third Department. This new Chief was a front line Captain, top notch, always at the front of the fight and had no problem leading an interior attack crew and making good decisions. But at a recent structure fire this Assistant Chief found himself in command. As my conversation partner told it: "He was standing on the front lawn with his airpack on trying to do a risk assessment, a 360, coordinate crews, pick an attack plan, and make entry. I told him to take off the airpack and give it to a jake that could use it, HE was in charge and needed to stay put and make decisions, WE would carry out his decisions, just make the call. He looked really 'conflicted' and told me to grab 'those 3 guys and hit the front door'. Well, when I got into the living room, I turned around and he was standing next to me. We're gonna have to work together to train this guy up. He just can't let a crew go in without him. He doesn't get it yet that when he goes in, he is abandoning the incident leadership."
 Now we both know this guy and love him. We also know he will make a great leader, but we need to invest some time in him and get him through this next level. Both of us know he can do it, and we also know it is going to be hard for him, but he WILL be able to do this well. It just takes some time and patience.
NEXT UP: TRAINING (My favorite subject!)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Volunteer Fire Departments 2.0 (3 of ?) Communications

This is the third installment in a series and the first in which I discuss the critical challenges facing Volunteer Fire Departments. If you missed the first two parts, you can find Part One Here and Part Two Here.
 Just to be clear, I'll repeat the ground rules here: 1) we are trying to have a discussion. Let's pile on the comments, but keep them civil. 2) I am not holding myself up as an expert here. My Department has it's own problems and challenges like every other Department. What appears here is what I have learned from traveling to and visiting with many Departments that have gotten some things down really well. I intend to share those best practices I have seen. You may, and likely have, seen something better. I encourage you to share it with all of our readers here.
 COMMUNICATIONS has been selected here for the simple reason that I have seen this cripple many Departments, and I have also seen Departments that handle it well reap the benefits of that skill. The Communications I am focusing on here is not the 'on-scene' form, which most Departments have down pat, or at least in a workable format. What I am referring to are the internal communications within your Department.
 Best practices I have seen:
EMAIL: Having someone in the Department that is 'the email dude'. This person's job is to get all the information out to the members in an accurate, timely, and ordered format. In the best case, there are only one or two emails sent to all members each month that have all events, meetings, training, and other information in chronological order. These emails must be clean, concise, and without editorial comment. Having more than one or two per month can tend to overload the members and they will start to ignore them. Including a printable calendar each month allows members to print it out and stick it next to the family calendar, this cuts down on the household conflicts. You can also add response call data or other specific items to keep the interest up. (In my Department, we include this along with a comparison to previous years stats for the same month, folks look forward to seeing how we are doing and it makes them read all the way to the bottom of the note.) Making one person responsible for this means every Officer that adds something on the schedule has a single person to contact and get the word out. This person, by default, becomes the 'calendar coordinator'.
TEXT MESSAGING: Some Departments have used text messagin to send out reminders to their memebers of drills, meetings, and other events. They usually have one person as the central point for this task. With everybody, almost, having a cell phone these days, it just makes sense to use the communications systems they themselves use all the time.
OPERATIONAL PROCEDURES:  Does your Department have everything in writing? This is important so that the members have a document(s) which they can refer to for the proper procedures or recommendations for everything from responses to discipline. You cannot expect people to know the rules if they are not written down somewhere. Simply having this will eliminate a lot of arguments, hurt feelings, and confusion. Folks want to know where they stand and a document like this allows them to do that. If you don't have it, you will be facing endless problems over the 'correct way' to get things done. In addition, much of this is required under the NFPA guidelines in a properly organized Department. When there are no rules in writing, there are no rules. This leads to folks making things up as they go and using terms like 'well, it's not written down, but EVERYONE knows that' Well ,excuse me, but just how are 'they' supposed to know that if it was never written down?
 NEW MEMBER INFORMATION: All Departments should have a new member program which includes some sort of book that gives them all the basic expectations and information. What is the chain of command? Who do I see when I need gear? How do I get training? What meetings should I go to and when are they? The new member WILL have a million questions that deserve good answers. Doesn't it make good sense to put this all down in a document? Doesn't it make good sense to have an Orientation training event which includes the probies as well as a few experienced members to discuss all the issues, procedures, and make them feel welcome? I spent my first two years in the Department learning how things are NOT done, by making all the mistakes and getting yelled at. Why they didn't just tell me everything up front is still a mystery to me. (We've since fixed that and have a good program working now.)
TRAINING EVENTS: Most areas have training conducted on several levels; Department, . inter-Department, County, State, and Special opportunities (such as guest lecturers). How is this information delivered to your rank and file members? Do you have a central person responsible for gathering this stuff and getting it to the calendar coordinator? Do you get it to the members with enough lead time that they can adjust their personal calendars to make room for these? There are few things that make me angrier than sitting down to dinner at 1800 and having my pager go off to announce a drill taking place that night at 1830 hours, which NOBODY knew about until this very moment. I do not attend these drills, EVER. My feeling is that if they can't give me the courtesy of a little notice, then I cannot re-arrange my life to make their drill. I know I am not alone in this thought. Giving your people advance notice and time to plan for non-emergent events is more than a simple courtesy, it is NECESSARY to ensure that people will show up. Why put all the effort into a drill and only have 4 people show up? If people DO show up because they have to, for whatever reason, well then you are just being abusive of their time and will quickly lose any respect people had for you.
 TACTICAL AND REGULATORY INFORMATION: We get a fair amount of this in our business and it pays to have a disciplined method to deal with it. Procedural changes within the Department, new hazard information or law changes that comes to us from Local, State, and Federal sources should be given to all the members in print. Ideally, every member should have a mailbox at the station where these bulletins can be dropped into each one so that EVERYONE has the latest information. Having informed members makes everyone safer and better able to do their job. Sending this type of information through email may be easy and quick, but there is no assurance that it will be read because of email overload. Not everyone reads email in a comprehensive manner. It boggles my mind in this day and age, but many think that email doesn't really count and expect something more substantial if it is 'really important'.

 In summary, knowledge is power and information is king in our business. There is a lot of new information coming out all the time and things change fairly quickly. If something is important to pass on to the members, it should be given in a readable format with as much advance notice as possible. If you don't get the information out there, people will not go looking for it. Rumors and hearsay will become the method everyone uses to get their information. If you want them to make meetings and training events, the least you can do is let them know about it in plenty of time. It is much more than a courtesy to let them know what is going on. If you don't work on this, you will consistently be wondering why people don't show up, or don't get the 'word'. Verbal information is worth the paper it is printed on. Many Departments fail to understand how important good communications are, and they get off on the wrong foot with their members while finding themselves always playing 'catch up'.
 Nature abhors a vacuum, if you leave an information vacuum, it will likely get filled with problems.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Volunteer Fire Departments 2.0 (2 of ?) The Challenges

 Here in episode 2 of this series (part One can be found here)  I'd like to lay out the challenges to the Volunteer service, as I see them. I am hoping what I put down here might drive some discussion and fill in the blanks. To be sure, my point of view is limited to what I know and have experienced. You may have challenges that are created by your local geography, weather, politics, personalities, or government.
 What I am trying to focus on is those specific items that we in the Volunteer Service need to deal with, and are probably not so much of an issue in the Career Service.
 A good example of this is simply in fundamental operations. Let's take the basic response. Most Volunteers stations are not staffed around the clock, if at all. When the tones go off, you leave whatever you are doing and respond to the station, dress, get in the apparatus, and go. The time of day doesn't really matter, does it? You may have a light crew at the station, and then if you have a worker, you call out the troops, but whatever your protocols and procedures are, you probably don't have a full compliment of personnel on all the time. (Yes, I know many large volley Departments in suburban or urban areas are well staffed around the clock, but that is not common, and my hat is off to those who can do that.) Now you add to this the fact that you never really know how many people you can muster, and which people (skill sets) will show up, and you have a challenge.
 In the career service you know how many your have on the truck, how many on the engine, and how many on the ladder. You know which stations have what apparatus and that all those pieces are staffed (or not, but either way, you know). You also know that everybody who responds is trained and qualified for their job.
 In the volunteer service, for the most part, none of the above is true. You don't know if all your trucks are getting out, you don't know how many will be on each piece, you don't know if the mutual aid engine will come in with 3 or 6 Firefighters, and in some cases you have to pray that they are all Interior Qualified.
 A couple of years ago there was a worker at 0200 during a snowstorm (12 inches of heavy wet snow). The Chief Officer on that job got a lot of criticism for calling out twice as much mutual aid as he normally would. But the Chief guessed that due to the conditions, many of his normal mutual aid tankers and engines would not get out of the house and would be delayed at best. He guessed correct, as 3 pieces never hit the road, and another 2 pieces could not get to the scene. He wound up with just enough plus a safety, 3 engines, 2 tankers, and 1 ambulance. But the point is, he really didn't know what he would get and he had to allow for that. (It was an amazing save, by the way.)
 Volunteer Departments are also severely challenged by the simple idea of volunteerism. Many people hold differing concepts of what, exactly this means. Some think that because they have volunteered, they can pick and choose what they will do, and what they won't. "I don't have to do that, I'm a volunteer." I can't help but say here that when you volunteered, you volunteered to follow the rules. If you volunteer as a Firefighter, that means you agreed to get training, practice, and keep your skills in shape on a regular basis. The same holds true for all the other job descriptions: EMT, Officer, Engineer, Safety, and whatever else your Department has. If you don't know your job, well then you can't do much, can you? Some people also think they can come and go as they please. They don't attend training for any of a huge list of excuses, they fall behind on the knowledge curve, but then they show up at a big job and wonder why they don't know whats going on or where they belong. So this is a challenge.
 Discipline also becomes a challenge in the Volunteer Service because there is a perception that volunteers don't need to follow rules because this 'is not my paying job, you can't tell me what to do.'
 Communicating with members is also a challenge. Keeping people up to date is easy when you can do a pre-shift meeting everyday, but when you don't see people very often, except at calls and meetings, which not everyone makes, it becomes hard to keep them all on the same level.
 Likewise, training is much easier to accomplish when you can rotate a session through the various shifts and get everyone in. It's not so easy when you can schedule one night and hope that most show up. Adding in work and family schedules, you are lucky if you get 30%. How many times can you ask a volunteer instructor to run the same session? In addition, you have to make sure everyone keeps their certifications up to date. Most folks don't keep track of how many SCBA drills they have done this year, so now it becomes the Department's job to keep track and chase those who are falling behind? In the Career service, this would never even be a consideration. People take more responsibility for themselves when their job (and Income) is in the balance.
 I could go on here, but the point is that the Volunteer Service, just by virtue of the circumstances, faces different challenges than those in the Career Service. We need to find ways to recognize these challenges and deal with them in a forthright manner. Attack those challenges and turn them into assets if we can.
 This is what we are going to discuss in the upcoming posts.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Volunteer Fire Departments 2.0 (1 of ?) Opening the Floor

 Recently, I have been privileged to have some correspondence with several thoughtful, active, and experienced fellow bloggers who happen to also be volunteers. In the course of this discourse I detected a pattern very familiar to me, which until recently I took to be mostly local. As the folks I was corresponding with came from all corners of the Country, I began to realize that these 'issues' are apparently universal within the volunteer service. That is not to say that every Department has issues, just that these issues show up seemingly everywhere.
 Now I never wanted this to be a strictly Volunteer centered blog, and I still don't. However I can no longer ignore these things that have impeded the progress of the Volunteer Service without at least commenting on them. So before we begin, let me lay out what I hope to accomplish, and what I am not addressing in this series. First, this is not about me, or my Department. Of course I have experienced things in my Department that come to shape my thoughts, but this is not about my little corner of the world, it is about yours if you are a volunteer. Second, this is not intended to start a bashing session on the volunteer Service. In fact, my hope is that we might start a discussion that leads to change. Change in your Department, the one in the next town, and even my own Department. This is intended to be a positive effort. Take from it what you will. I know there are a lot of people out there who have made significant changes in their Departments which have propelled them into a new level of performance. This is the desired effect.
 These posts will go up in succession and I will be putting up a new one every two to three days until complete. As always I encourage comments, but please lets keep it professional, although I have never yet had anything but well thought out comments on this blog.
 Right then, lets begin, shall we?

Travel around in the Volunteer circles long enough to crack through the exterior pride thing and you will find, just below the surface, a lot of discontent. Just how much discontent depends on the Department. Because I teach at many Departments, I am privileged to come into 'their homes', meet their people, play with their toys, and generally become an accepted friend over the years. Shortly, they drop that exterior facade and begin to relate to me as part of the crew. The jokes come out and I get poked fun at, as well as am permitted to do some poking of my own. When you hit this stage you begin to hear comments that are internal to those Departments about equipment, procedures, organization, leadership, etc. You can learn a lot by keeping your mouth shut and your ears open. Now I don't trade in gossip, and I never betray a trust I have built with a Department, BUT I do collect this information in my head mostly because I am trying to find the 'good stuff' to bring back home. I get a fair amount of that, but I also hear the ugly secrets more often than you might guess.
 My conversations with those around the country convinced me that my local observations were not far off the mark. I have begun to see a lot of common areas where just about every Department can improve (and yes, of course I include my own Department in this circle, how could I not?). I have seen things that make me feel blessed to be where I am and I have also seen things that make me envious of what other Departments have accomplished.
 Every Department I know, or know of, has one or more strengths that make them a Department worth joining and working with. You may have to dig deep to find it, but it is there somewhere. Like wise, every Department has weaknesses, some have many. ( I do know one Department that is an exception, but their Chief tells me they have a long way to go in some areas, I just can't figure out what areas yet.)
 Over the years, I believe I have identified the major categories that Departments either excel or suffer in and which could make a big difference in there operations and health were they to improve. Each of these areas will be the subject of a subsequent post. They are: COMMUNICATIONS, LEADERSHIP, TRAINING, ORGANIZATION, RECOGNITION, and RECRUITMENT. Before we begin to talk about these different 'challenge areas', my next post will discuss the unique challenges we face in the Volunteer Service that are minimized in the Career Service because of circumstances. Then we'll get into the meat. So as you read each installment I encourage you to comment on the subjects where you think your Department has done well and you can share some knowledge with the rest of us. Likewise, feel free to ask for input on what you see as a weak spot for your crew. Let's just try to avoid the self-bashing ('My Departments sucks because...').
 Also, lets not think that we are leaving out our Brothers and Sisters in the Career Service. The vast majority of those folks began their Careers as Volunteers. We'd like to hear from them also because we know that they have a lot of experience to bring into this discussion. In addition, this blog receives a fair amount of readership overseas. I confess that my knowledge of the systems used in other countries is very limited (nil) and think it would be a fantastic experience to hear from those in Europe, the South Pacific, Asia, and the other regions of the world. We may learn that they already have these problems figured out.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Coming Soon

OK, a short blurb here to catch up on some things. First, I have begun work on my next epic series and it will begin on Monday morning. I hope you can all tune in. The first two installments are complete and I had planned on taking today to work on the next three. However, due to t total lack of planning on the part of my superiors at the paying job, I am now in crisis abatement mode. I will be working ridiculous hours and days to get a project that would normally take 6 months, completed in 6 weeks. (We the Willing, Led by the Unknowing, have done So Much with So Little for So Long, that we can now do practically anything with Just About Nothing.) After I post this I am headed into the office to play catch up/get ahead while everyone else is at home having a weekend.  So the series will be possibly delayed somewhat, but I am anxious to get  started.
 Second, I am bummed to have missed out on Winning the X2 Boots over at Ironfiremen, but I congratulate our Brother Pat Lynch, up in Colchester, Vt for his win. Wear them in good health!
 Third, Spring is arriving, ever so slowly, but arriving none the less. The critters are coming down out of the hills to check in and find fresh green stuff.

 Gotta run to work, see you Monday,

Monday, April 11, 2011

Hang in there

 Sorry folks, I know this sounds like another excuse, but life got in the way. The better half (otherwise known as my wife) insisted that I could not dedicate my Friday night Saturday, and all day Sunday to my Fire Department activities. The selfish person that she is, required that I take at least 4 hours out of my weekend to preform some family obligations (can you imagine?!).
 This weekend, it meant car shopping. We NEED to replace my (9 MPG) truck. So off we went to "shop". Never, in my wildest dreams, did I expect to actually buy something. But buy something, we did. SO I spent yesterday afternoon, until O-DARK- THIRTY taking all my stuff out of the old 2500. Radios, Lights, gear, and ten years of 'stuff packed in every corner ' in case I 'might need it on some call'. The radios and antennas were the worst part. I did a really good job installing all that stuff and snaking wires every which way.
 I got it done and today we made the trade. So now I need to figure out how to get 'most' of the stuff from my 2500 into a little Dakota Quad Cab. My response gear more than fills the back seat (I think a bed cap is in my future) and after 2 hours of looking it over, I have no idea how, or where to run all the wires for my radios and lights. This is gonna take a while. I stabbed a dash light against the windshield and that will have to do for now along with a scanner to listen to what is going on. I managed to get the basics in the back seat: swiftwater rescue bag, wildland gear bag, Structural gear bag, EMS jump bag, wildland SAR pack, and the O2 bag and AED.
 At any rate, I'll be on this for a while, not in a rush, but it's another time burner. I took a half vacation day (my first) just to stand here and look over my new ride. The only thing I really did, besides load my gear in, was to stick my Officers plate on the front so that folks will recognize me and wave. It will take about a year before all the other Firefighters and Cops get used to what I am now driving. I had the old truck for 10 years.
 So I'm still working on the Blog Post ideas I had and it is coming together in my head. I just need time to put it down. I'll be running a session for the Little League Coaches tonight, and my LAST OSHA class (cue the big two handed air-pump) is tomorrow night. I should have something working before the weekend.
 In the meantime, some of my new friends have some good posts up. Check out The Lonely EMT and see what's on her mind, as well as EMS Chick and Just a Vollie as they all have some new stuff up.
Be Well, Be safe, Be Sharp,

Saturday, April 9, 2011

I haven't gone away yet

 Sorry folks, I know I have been remiss this week. It's been a busy week and I fell behind with that last set of posts I've put up. It's not that I've been lazy, just that I've been busy with other stuff.
 I have been fortunate to strike up an acquaintance with several other bloggers and we have had a bunch of email traffic flying back and forth.
 In the process of all the writing which you haven't, and won't see I have started to put some things together in my mind and I have hatched a plan for my next group of posts. 3 people, from 3 different parts of the country, with some similar sounding issues to discuss. Actually it's 4 if you count me.
 Somebody a long time ago told me 'write what you know' so I am working on this series in my head and I think that this may be the real reason that I was looking for when I started this blog.
 So give me a little time to work this out and write it down. If I do this properly each of these individuals will think I am addressing them specifically when in reality I am addressing all of them as well as myself any many other Departments I know. The bad news is that this focuses on the Volunteer Service exclusively and the problems they encounter. I never wanted to speak just to the volleys, although this is 'what I know' and where I live.
 So bear with me, I am still working this out in my head and that is a very scary place indeed. I also have 5 events on my calendar this week, so finding any time to write is going to be tough enough.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

You're Welcome

 My Department trains hard, trains well, and trains regularly. Sometimes I feel we almost train too much, because it feels like every time I turn around there is another Drill tomorrow night I have to prepare for. I HATE missing Drills.
 But keeping with my new outlook, I realize that we are very fortunate, especially for a Volunteer outfit. Most Departments in this neck of the woods lack the depth of experience and skills within to provide their own training "in-house" and depend on either the County, the State, or neighboring Departments to provide training for their people. We are one of those neighboring Departments that invite our mutual aid Companies to our training events. The instructors come from within our ranks 99% of the time.
 Lately though I have been feeling like we are burning some of our folks up, like me for example. We schedule the bigger training events by season. Not fire seasons, but rather work seasons. Many of our people work in the trades that are controlled by the weather. In another week or two it will be impossible to get a good group together for a major evolution on a weekend, theses guys are working 7 day weeks from now until October. So we stuff a lot in during March when it has warmed up 'a bit' and we do a lot of classroom stuff over the winter. We did an extrication drill back in February that was 'chilly' but productive. To be blunt, we are packing it in now, and coasting through the summer with some shorter drills we can do in an evening.
 So a  few days ago I got a call reminding me about a big drill we had on the following night, and would I be there to handle part of it? "Sure" I said, "what will you need me to do?" "Oh well, ladder bail-outs, body belays, we're also doing the maze, and something else I forgot." "OK, I''ll be there at 6:30".
 Well, as the business Gods would have it, I got out of work late and had to grab a burger and meet the crew at the Drill site. I was really fried after a rough day at work and was not really into doing this drill, I wanted a beer and a bed.
 We had about 25 in the group. I started out by helping the Chief run a wide area search drill (off the rope) which he had never done, but I had. Once we got that going, we had another group working through the Mask Confidence maze, and I set up to teach head first bail outs and body belays. We had all 3 evolutions going at the same time and everybody rotated through. Some got interested or wrapped up in one area or another and never made it through all 3. Some concentrated on a particular skill that was new to them. I had guys running through the bail out window numerous times trying to get the motions burned into their heads, and I also had guys who had never done this before and we slowly walked them through it making sure they understood the 'hows' and 'whys'. We had a good time and made sure everybody got what they wanted or needed. By the end of the night I was soaked with sweat right down to my tightie whities (which are blue, by the way). After all the cleanup, of which there was much, I headed home and flopped into bed. I felt like I had met my obligation but I really would have rather that we had that night off.
 The next morning I came down and was absorbing my 1st cup of coffee and checking my morning web pages when I came across a single line posting from one of our young interior Firefighters on his face book page. It read: "WAS THAT A KICK-ASS DRILL, OR WHAT?!"
 Next time I feel like I'd like the night off, would somebody just reach out and kick me, HARD,  right in the ass, PLEASE? I keep forgetting how important this stuff is to those who need it the most. I take my knowledge for granted and forget that this is new and valuable, even potentially life saving, for others. What is wrong with me?
 The day after tomorrow, we are doing a live burn drill. We are one of very few Departments in this County that can run our own live burns and have invited another Company to join us. It is only a half day Drill but it kills a whole day for me between the preparation, the cleanup, and the nap afterward because I am on duty that night. I hope I can bring a little more positive attitude toward this one, than I did the last. Maybe then I'll have a little more fun and enjoy the moment. I have always sucked at enjoying the moment, y'know?

Monday, April 4, 2011

As Bad As It Gets

I've been in this business long enough to know that I will never have 'seen it all'. Kind of like when you say "Gee, it's awful quiet tonight!" and you get clobbered for the rest of the shift, saying that you've "seen it all" is a sure way to be certain that you will soon be greeted by a disturbing and bizarre job that could very well blow your mind. These are things a fool utters to make sure everyone is clear that he or she is a confirmed ass.
 However, I have been known to use the term "as bad as it gets" to describe a few jobs that were especially difficult. I have now put this one up with the others as a fools words.
 We worry about both ourselves and our team when we work the really ugly jobs and we watch them afterward so we can be there for them if they need us. What doesn't affect us, may bring somebody else down hard and vice versa. We all have our weak spots, and those of us who know our own weaknesses also know how to deal with it in one way or another. I've have talked down more than a few of my Brothers and Sisters, as they have done for me when I needed it, and yes, I have indeed needed it a time or two.
 I am by no means a trained counselor, and have at times directed co-workers toward professional help when I thought that was the right way to go. However, I believe I have learned a fair amount about what makes us tick, particularly from picking my own thoughts apart. It is knowledge gleaned through the pain of others as well as myself.
 After a recent horrific job, the one that made me hang up the words 'as bad as it gets', I spent considerable time with one of my Brothers working through things. He is doing very well now, but something he said made it all click in my head.
 There is a saying in the Fire Business that goes something like "if you are dispatched to a fire, expect fire". Now this may seem stupid at first, but the fact of the matter is that we get complacent about our ability to handle things and sometimes get caught off guard. "Expect Fire" means that while enroute, you get dressed and step off the truck ready to work, geared up, air pack on, with a tool in your hand. It's when we assume that it will be another defective alarm sensor that we get into trouble and behind the curve. Bad beginnings make for bad endings.
 So the epiphany I had was this: Every time I get  'messed up' by a bad job I find that I was taken by surprise by what I found, or the direction the job went in while I was safely assuming it would go the way I wanted. I looked at the folks I have helped through a 'rough patch' and realize now that they too were caught off guard. They didn't 'expect fire' and stepped off the truck to see a full working 3 banger. There is no time to play catch up in that situation, you will be behind for the entire event. I am speaking metaphorically, of course.
 Arriving at the chest pain call and only expecting 'chest pains' is a pretty silly way to approach such a call. If you walk in and find a newly dead person, you are already behind the curve, as this will throw you off your game in a big way.
 So I guess what I am saying is that if you always go in expecting the worst and are prepared for that, you will never be caught off guard. I am betting this is going to limit your psychological exposure.
 Please, give this some thought. Review the calls that gave you a hard time and ask yourself if you walked into it fully prepared, or if perhaps, you were just a little behind the curve. For myself, I never feel bad when I lose a patient while I was doing everything that I could do and the way it should be done. But I beat the hell out of myself if there is even the slightest possibility that I could have done something better, faster, or different.
 Be safe, be sharp, be ready,
P.S. I will never be writing about the job that prompted this post. Some things are just not meant to be shared and some things are just so horrible that they defy belief or comprehension. The movie in my head will be a long time fading.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Please note that I have added a POLL in the right hand column. I am collecting data to see what it might take to get me to Indy in 2012. If you didn't go, perhaps you can direct someone you know who did go to this site to click the button. Barring that, please ask them and come click a button for them.
 The poll closure date is random, and I might leave it up for a while to collect enough data considering the low traffic here. The purpose is to give me an idea of what my goal is.
 Off to the Drill Grounds!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Why am I here? and What's My Plan? (4 of 4)

 So I've just re-read what I'd written in the 3 previous posts which only drew 1 comment and 1 direct email (thank you both). I had hoped for more, but I didn't expect too much so I'm not disappointed. I understand this is entertainment for most, not a participation sport. I expect some of the busier folks will stop by in the next week and I will still be interested to hear their comments.
 So after reading everything straight through and also having the benefit of having thought about this over the week, I have some new observations and I think, some adjustments to my direction.
 My first thought when I read everything straight through was "My gosh, I sound like a whiny spoiled child", "Woe is me". I had not taken stock of how lucky I am, nor have I even been aware of how good I have it.
 First, I work in a great Department with some really fantastic people that have taught me a lot about the Service and life in general. Some folks wind up in a hell hole where no learning takes place, gear is old and broken, and the best folks are barely competent. I got lucky, damned lucky, or I wouldn't have gotten the drive to be where I am now. Further, I have been allowed and encouraged to go outside the Department and learn from some of the very best and bring that stuff back, AND I have been permitted to do that teaching. So many of us get held back or held down by their Departments or co-workers because of politics or jealousy. I've been lucky.
 I've done some downright tough jobs as part of a good, supportive crew, and I have come back from the depths with them to rise to a higher level as a team. Few humans get to know what that feels like, but I do.
 Yes, I am old, but I'm not dead yet. My health is good, better than many my age, and I am in fairly good shape considering the roads I've been on in the last 55 years. (An old bull rider once told me "Son, it ain't the years, it's the miles what takes a man down.") I don't think you will find many 55 year old farts that will readily strap that air pack on and get in there. Not in the volunteer service, anyway.
 Instead of feeling like I am washed up, I should have been focusing on the blessings I've had, and continue to enjoy. I think I am focused now.
 I once had a Boss who was educated well beyond his intelligence and as he would say, 'here are my action items' to myself:
1) Be Happy you are alive and providing a valuable Service to the Department and Community. Most people never get to make that claim.
2) Keep working on being a good mentor to the youngsters and show them, by example what a good attitude and work ethic looks like.
3) Keep learning, because what you learn has value to others as well as yourself.
4) Stay healthy, keep working out, and make every Drill you can. Sweat is good.
5) Keep teaching every chance you can. It keeps you thinking and you learn from your students. Collect that stuff and spread it around. It will keep you young, too.
6) Don't worry about whether or not people respect you, they do. If they don't, you probably didn't want their respect anyway. If you do respectable work, treat others with respect, keep a clean and honest ethic, they will respect you, even if they don't like you.
7) Put the 'age thing' aside for now. Be aware that your body can not deliver what your mind demands anymore, but for now you are holding in. Don't let your pride get in the way of stepping back when that's what you should do. Don't put others in danger because of your short comings. But beyond that, let it all hang out man.
8) FDIC: It can STILL happen for you. You need to have faith and try to find a way to get there. The experience will be more than worth it. Just as with anything else you have already achieved, you need to make it a priority and keep working in that direction. (If FireCritic and the Iron Fireman can get all kinds of free stuff and have give-aways on their Blogs, you should be able to find a way to spend a week in Indy.)
9) Learn how to say "NO" firmly and with a smile. Schedule time for yourself first, then others later instead of the other way around.
10) Ease up on the 'blog thing'. The folks that read it will come read it when they want. getting regular posts out won't make much of a difference. Try to increase the quality while decreasing the quantity.

OK, that's what I came up with. I am guessing you are probably good with it too. If you have something to add or a correction to offer, please do. I don't know why one of you folks, who are supposed to be my friends, didn't tell me I sounded like such a whining jackass? Did you think you'd hurt my feelings? OK, I forgive you, but next time, you'd better let me know when I step off the truck on the wrong side.
 I appreciate you all listening to my head while I worked this thing out. My course correction has been loaded into the system and I'll be back on the road now. I hope you enjoyed the ride.