A Volunteer Department With the Right Recipe

When we think of why volunteer fire departments are struggling in today’s society many reasons come to the minds of us all. Looking into the leadership within the many departments there is a lot to be said about the perspectives that come from within the departments themselves. This is a huge deal in many departments. It comes in many forms, as you may have read in many articles that have been written about this subject. Below are some of the main concerns that volunteer’s across the country feel that their leaders lack.
A) Communication B) Emotional intelligence C) Fireground skills and command concepts D) Supportive of the clicks E) Huge egos that lack an understanding or capability of a team first approach
This list can go on and on. There however are departments we can find and use as an example in fostering a winning culture. They are becoming fewer and fewer but do exist. In the year 2020, leadership must be hitting on all cylinders to achieve such a feat.
The following is about a volunteer department that is known throughout the Hudson Valley region in New York. It is a well known department for its vision throughout the years in its leadership ranks. In my travels and conversations I can not recall another volunteer outfit as strong as Ulster Hose 5, still running the respond from home model. At a time when many volunteer fire departments in America work hard trying to keep members and recruit others, this is one that chugs along like the struggle facing other volunteer departments doesn’t even exist.
Just outside the city of Kingston stands a beast amongst men. Ulster Hose Company 5. Running 1500 calls a year, 800 fire and 700 ems (delta and echo) approximately. The ninety members respond from their homes to one of the two stations every time that a run comes in. They are staffed with 3 engines, 2 tower ladders, 1 heavy rescue, 1 rescue/engine, 1 ems vehicle, 1 mini pumper and a boat. In many departments with these numbers, a duty crew is most often at the station most hours. Other busy departments have daytime staff during the week or live in members. Not Ulster Hose 5 though. They still run the traditional model of responding to the station with the average of a 3 minute out the door time.
As a volunteer fire service, we can take from them lessons and examples and apply them to our own organizations and improve our own houses. Ulster Hose 5 is in a suburban district mixed with commercial, industrial, and residential properties. Interstate 87, state routes 9w, 28, 32 and 209 runs through the first due also. They also provide mutual aid to 20 other volunteer departments and also run on second and third alarms with the City of Kingston’s fire department. Providing fire and ems service is the bulk of their responses but they offer more. They also have a dive team that works very closely with the Ulster sheriff’s office. They have recently committed to working side by side with the town of Ulster Police Emergency Services Unit as well as starting their own rescue task force.. Requiring travel to central NY, to the Homeland Security Training Center getting the training required to be part of this team. This is a very multifaceted organization providing lifesaving services to the public they serve with an all-volunteer staff.
How do they do it? What makes this organization successful? A recent visit left me impressed at how they seem to have it all figured out.
Recently I sat down with the chief of Ulster Hose 5, Chief Shawn Heppner, and found out how they maintain this model of a department. How with so many runs and the different services they provide with their station made entirely of volunteer membership? The first thing he stressed is from the fire commissioners, thru the officers to the newest member they are a team. The chiefs immediate team consists of 3 assistants, 2 captains and 8 lieutenants (which gathered with the chief and I). They spoke how they constantly feed things they read or see on social media up to the chief. With his team first attitude the chief will hear all the voices on any tool, training idea or tactic and ask his officers to make it happen if it makes sense. The officers were quick to point out they like this approach. They genuinely feel the Chief empowers all his officers and will give his ear anytime they have ideas or issues to bring forward.
This is not always the case in firehouses across America for varying reasons. This openness and two-way communication breeds loyalty. This is loyalty for the right reasons and not some click or buddy nonsense. Members also are given the same attention from the chiefs as the line officers do. Leadership style of this type helps foster so many other important interpersonal skills necessary to keep a ninety member busy department cohesive and on track. Keeping yes, ninety members in tune is a feat in itself.
The Chief made it clear that the previous two generations had worked extremely hard on improving equipment, morale and training. Ulster Hose 5, has regular scheduled training, and strongly encourages impromptu training opportunities. Along with the typical fire and extrication training, they also have a dive team and the swat rescue training. Being given a training execution plan for me to review, the event is described in full detail. An in-depth outline was also given to all the members. It would explain why and how they should be able to know and perform this skill at the end of the night. The chiefs or training officer will do a lecture on the given topic on performing the skills and/or tasks to be learned. This is the lead by example approach we should all be doing.
The driver training portion of their program is a minimum of 40 hours before qualifying on your first piece. After the first piece you can move along on the other apparatus at a faster pace. Exceptions may be made for transfers from other departments who were chauffeur’s previously.

Within this department communication and interaction were on full display. I was impressed with it after returning (from a run) as a young member came across the floor and the chief ribbing him a few seconds. That connection lets that young member know he was noticed by leadership. The best part is the youngster gave it back to the chief. Building true comradery, through simple communication and interaction. Yes, as the chief, he can let hair down so to speak and interact well with the younger members, as well as senior members alike. The officers spoke positively about how the entire organization understands the importance of communicating and how they encourage it. Whether it be about tactics or the regular business of the company all voices will be heard.
Leadership can make or break a volunteer fire department. Every member needs to feel its leaders’ value and truly care about them. They need to know they are wanted on the team. Not one of us has made a good firefighter or officer on our own. We become that good firefighter and officer through want, desire, education, physical ability, mentoring, being pushed, and others investing in us. Ulster Hose leaders’ mentor, train and invest in their team. This entire team is hungry and starving to push and train. The leaders recognize and pounce on this. It’s refreshing to see volunteers so eager and engaged with training. The chiefs understand sweating with the team gives them credibility, builds comradery along with staying sharp and learning new skills. How many departments have officers who like to bark but not get sweaty and perform at training sessions? The chief made it a point to tell me when they train its intense as it should be.
Do you feel you are emotionally intelligent? Do you feel your leaders are?
The emotional intelligence of a leader must be taken into effect as well. Frankly this is not talked about enough. The five ingredients that make up emotional intelligence are, self-awareness, motivation, empathy, social skills, and self-regulation. If you have served under a good chief chances are he displayed all five areas of emotional intelligence. I did not mention anything on this subject with my visit. However, the chief displayed many of the attributes during the night.
There are many underachieving leaders in departments across the country. As we look around, we have these outlier departments who appear to be unfazed. It’s not that they are not affected by what most are, but in the way, the leaders go about leading. It comes from emotionally intelligent, competent people who push themselves and others in a positive way. They team build and empower that team. Lead by example not by pointing and shouting because they are in charge. They allow two way communication throughout the department.
Ulster Hose is not every department, but every department has to have some of Ulster hose leadership traits in order to be successful
It takes a special recipe to bake the cake that makes volunteer departments highly successful today. For the many departments struggling, step outside your norm and reach out to those outliers who seem to withstand what many can’t. Pick their brains and incorporate what
you feel may help your department. Many of us are looking for change. Hopefully this article serves as an example to some. Demand the best from your leaders. Those who are standing tall and strong keep up the hard work to be operating at a high level. After all, it’s what the public expects and deserves. Train hard and stay safe.

About the author: Ed Dolan is a 29 year member of the Catskill Fire Department in N.Y. He has 16 years as a chief officer and currently serves as Captain. He contributes regularly to the Leather Head Mafia website/ facebook page. You can contact him at Chiefed03@gmail.com


  1. That Chief knows what he’s talking about that is the biggest downfall of all departments I see it in my own Department the chief doesn’t have a handle on and the men don’t respect him

  2. Jerry Brown Baldwin Fire Department, New York:
    Wow Chief Heppner, Outstanding article done well for a outstanding Department. We can all learn by your example, not only by you as a chief but your officers and men right down to the Proby on the hook. Proud to call you brothers, Sisters and friends. Strong Work Ulster!

  3. This is the e-mail sent my officers and some potential officers in my “work” dept. and the chiefs of my home dept. I am stepping down as chief in my “work” dept. in July.

    Warning I get a little heavy on the thinking stuff with the following, but at least I can take a few minute break from emails.

    I just read a good article (above) about a very successful VFD in NYS that caused a bit of self reflection. Are we doing the best we can to be a fully functional team?

    Being in a bit of uncertain future with changes looming in a few months it is something to certainly take a look into. Mind, Body, and Spirit is something I picked up from the YMCA (other entities use it as well), if we as individuals don’t have those three in balance are we doing the team a dis-service?

    Mentioned in the article is a concept called Emotional intelligence (part spirit/part mind if you will) is something I heard of in the past, but I wouldn’t have thought about a lot before reading this article. As leaders or future leaders awareness of your own and other’s emotional intelligence could truly make or break you or your (our) team and not recognizing deficits of a member who has great potential but not guiding them on how to improve their emotional intelligence might do a great deal of harm in the future.

    The five ingredients that make up emotional intelligence are, self-awareness, motivation, empathy, social skills, and self-regulation.

    Self awareness – are you aware of what makes you tick? What do you expect of yourself and others? Are you aware of your emotions, can you express yourself to match the situation? Do you joke at the right time or the wrong time? Same for anger? Do you set the example of what behavior you expect from others?

    Motivation – what makes you show up? Is it “living the dream”, running lights and siren, helping others, learning new skills and info, or building relationships, professional and social? What can you do to drive others to succeed?

    Empathy – “getting” how others feel. Might not agree with them or even be able to understand their feelings, but being human enough have the ability to understand and share the feelings of another is a skill of a great responder and leader.

    Social skills – I had to look this one up, but once I did it makes sense. These are the physical skills and concepts of how we interact with others. One source listed social skills as:
    Maintain eye contact. …
    Use proper body language. …
    Know the difference between being assertive and being aggressive. …
    Select effective communication channels. …
    Flexibility and cooperation are essential social skills. …
    Accept criticism without being defensive. …
    Remain positive at all times. …
    Be teachable and be a good student.
    Some of these can be quite challenging, but imagine of most of us had a positive outlook even most of the time.

    Self-regulation – Examples of self-regulation include thinking before you speak or act, exhibiting self control, being dependable, taking responsibility seriously including being accountable with both your actions and areas of responsibility. Additionally setting realistic goals for yourself and others is key. Having balance in your life, have to balance: family, work, firehouse, fun and so on is a huge part of being kind to yourself. Self-regulation I might even refer to as a major part of maturity.

    One discussion point that comes out of this would be that if the majority of what is talked about above are skills how do we teach and/or improve our own skills and how do we help others improve their emotional intelligence?

    Ed Harvey, Fire Chief/EMD/Forest Warden
    Blandford Fire & Rescue
    Town of Blandford, Massachusetts

  4. The best Chief is one who doesn’t want it. I know Shawn personally and working a long side of him. He was picked by his peers to be chief! I saw it the first two years before he was chief when I ran calls with the EMS agency that covers the town when he was one of the assistant chiefs and his the members looked to him and up to him on each call wether medical, trauma or fire run! I told him he would be chief and he would laugh it off! He’s proud of his department, his members and the community! Anything you need and he will be there or make it happen! The department itself is an good mix of older and younger assistant chiefs and officers which I think helps! I’ve run some pretty bad calls with these guys and they always perform 100% or more!

  5. I would love to know if I could possibly get a copy of this? I would love to have it blown up and donate it to our hometown hero,s here in New Paltz,New york. I would love to see this hanging in the new soon to be fire station for all to see and read…Thank you for your dedication and service.
    Sincerely Mrs. Elaine Jansen
    New Paltz

  6. I’ve worked along side these guys for the better part of the last ten years. I’ve said time and time again that they are one of the best volunteer departments I’ve ever seen. They are always there within minutes. They NEVER go second dispatch. They are always professional. They know their stuff, they really really do. Unless you knew they were volunteers prior to dealing with them, you wouldn’t have a clue. They just operate really well. Yea, they say no department is perfect, but honestly they come pretty damn close. Just my opinion.

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