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.

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