Is it Time to Test Volunteer Chiefs? No, Say Most Respondents

Wow! The first article on this subject went nuclear. Imagine that! The fire service is still alive and well with opinions and good constructive conversation. Some of the comments had very good ideas on how to formulate a fair standard of testing/requirements. Others offered options that sounded reasonable as well. Some were very amusing, to say the least. What’s important, most of the comments were for formalizing some type of plan to ensure competent leaders are put in place.

The entire concept of the first article was to engage in mass, us as a public service to look at how we choose our leaders. Is the popularity vote really working for us? Or if you belong for five years, and you take six required courses of your departments choosing, that qualifies you to run for chief? This is what many have and are comfortable with. We have so many different ways we can improve upon how most of us select our chiefs. We say we do the same work as our career counterparts, so does there life matter more than a volunteer? The battalion chief standing in the street for a paid department most likely passed a written exam and an oral interview before being selected. That chief has also operated at a few hundred fires as a firefighter in most cases. Remember Earl from the first article on this topic? Well, he has been a great guy who will give you the shirt off his back. So what if he can’t operate a pump or never has knocked a fire down. He has done everything else we asked of him. He never hesitates to help clean up after a fire or do a tag day. He has also been a top responder five years in a row and gets his required OSHA every year.
What is shocking is a lot of readers of the first article made comments about how Earl does exist in so many departments nationwide. However, not ensuring our leaders can operate safely and competently in the street in today’s fireground operation seems dangerous and foolish. In fact, they must understand so many different ever-changing dynamics to be successful. As a volunteer chief, you are the last safety valve before a catastrophe and must recognize the potential for one before it occurs. Our crews vary, and so does their skill level. The chief must be able to pick up on anything junior officers and firefighters miss at incidents. Again as volunteers, the crew riding in varies all the time and so does the experience and skill level.

I try to visually see the arriving crews on the first engine and truck. I can quickly assess how much I could expect out of them and understand the limitations they may have based on who rode in on the first due. I also wanted to ensure more experienced crew members were the ones going above the fire to get the first search in. I feel the area of knowing your people and their skill level vs. the assignments you give them at an incident is enormous. Remember the paid chief has guys that work together all the time, and have a good understanding of what they will be tasked to do on arrival. They have all been tested and selected to do the job. The volunteer chief from town to town can have hugely different trained levels of crews riding in. They may have four or eight members riding in first due depending on the time of day. Eight firefighters get more accomplished off the get-go than four. As we go along with the rest of this article, understand we are talking in generalizations. We all know that we have many departments with different run total, population, firefighter requirements, types of building construction, number of members, and population/building density. What works in a Pennsylvania department may not work in a department in Alabama or Texas.

Written testing

The previous article we mentioned maybe a test along the lines of a civil service format geared to what the local department was looking to ensure its potential leaders had on fireground knowledge, team leading/ building and administrative capabilities. It can also eliminate the clicks from holding a department hostage based on popularity. This could be developed a number of ways. If your state could develop a test for all to use, or at least provide the meat and potatoes to what the different subjects of area should be covered in testing that is a start. I understand some don’t fair well on written tests and we need more than just book smart chiefs. So be realistic to what you would want to ensure your leaders need to know to be successful in your jurisdiction. A Lot of times we can draw off past mistakes and failures from across the country to be included in what we should know and understand. You do not need to be book smart to understand how a dead load on a commercial building’s roof could potentially affect your overall operation? Or how about the dangers of not advising all incoming units on a job that the structure is two stories on the “A” side, and three on the “C” side? What potential hazards will a movie shoot or theatre possibly present that we may not normally encounter? Do you have to be book smart to answer these questions? This is a start to get to a place where we can say we are improving upon putting the best forward to lead. The idea is to put forward a group of people we can be confident, have a good understanding of all the essential dynamics that must be understood to have a successful outcome for us and the public we serve. This is one sure way to have a set standard that all would have to meet.


Required certs and time of service

Most people commenting or emailing responses felt that requiring certain courses as well as a time in the department mandate made them comfortable with electing individuals for the job. They felt a test would perhaps push good folks away or discourage those who do not want to fail and be perceived as not good enough. In my department, we currently require certain state classes, as well as time in the department, and different ranks to move up. When other departments ask to reference our requirements, they are shocked, we put so much on those who want to move up. Like everything, it has its good and bad points. If your department uses this type of model ensure every few years you keep the courses required up to date. One of the best examples of this model can be found in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
A recent trip to the Bladensburg volunteer fire department in PG county proved how successful this model could be. Fire Chief Dave Sumner, Deputy Vince Pickel, and Assistant Jim Wendt lead this 100% all volunteer department answering around 6000 run a year. Split about 50/50 between fire and ems. Being part of the largest combination of emergency service in the country, on the doorstep of the nation’s capital can be challenging. The continuity they display is seen in the day to day operations. All volunteer chiefs in PG must meet the following to run and be accepted by the county.

  1. Firefighter 2 certified.
  2. E.M.T. ( current)
  3. Fire officer 1 and 2 certified.
  4. Instructor 1
  5. NIMS 100,200,300,700, AND 800.
    C.P.R. card (current).
  6. A minimum of 12 hours of continuing education yearly.
  7. Must be 24 years of age, 5 years in the department, at least 1 year as the deputy or assistant before becoming chief.

With these standards, the volunteer chiefs work side by side with their paid counterparts to help manage and control incidents throughout the county. Keeping all to these standards ensures the members will be voting on officers who have a rock-solid educational foundation in the areas of fireground operations, leadership/ mentoring, delivering training, and incident command/management. With the amount of fire duty, they encounter, they come into the rank with a great deal of street knowledge beyond the average volunteer.
After spending time and interviewing the firefighters and chief, it seems this is a very healthy model for the volunteers in this county. The members have total confidence in the leaders it has chosen. They cited many instances of the chiefs street smarts as well as their ability to mentor and help others succeed. After running with these firefighters and chiefs for a few days, I left thoroughly impressed. A majority of departments in America have some variation of this model. Is it working for your department? If not, what will? Do you have confidence this model gives your fire department the best folks for the job?


Another faction of departments still wants the popular vote with no requirements at all. Let that sink in for a minute. A Lot were in very rural America. For those in this situation, the only responses were “ I know who I think would make the best Chiefs,” “We don’t need any book smart chief,” and “we can hardly get anyone for the job, to begin with.” I hope this and the previous article spark conversation in these departments to possibly try and have some written standard to hold their chiefs to. We understand the strain some departments are under with staffing and knowledge. We also know those departments that make us think… “how can they even make that guy a chief?” Don’t be that department. We must ensure the service we provide is one where we give the public comfort and confidence we will make things better when we arrive. Too many times we can see in videos where we fail in that regard and to many times a poorly trained and educated chief is a contributing factor.
In summary, many of us are struggling in many areas of the country. Our Chiefs have to wear many hats in the volunteer service. The challenges will keep evolving that we face on the fireground and in the station. From Rapid fire growth to a new generation of members raised on cell phones and instant communication. From teaching fireground lessons to teaching life lessons, the volunteer fire chief has one of the most demanding job descriptions to fulfill. For the good of the department and the public let’s do our very best to put capable leaders in place. As always stay safe.

About the author: Ed Dolan is a 29-year member of the Catskill Fire Department in New York. He has served 16 years as a chief officer. He frequently contributes to Leather Head Mafia website and Facebook page. He can be reached at