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.

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