We are all aware of the challenges facing today’s volunteer fire service. All of us have ideas and theories on how and why we arrived at this point in our storied history. Unfortunately, as our society and the fire service evolved over the years, the number of volunteers has declined. This current situation makes being a leader all the more challenging and essential. If you are a chief, a line officer, an administrative officer or a member who is heavily relied upon by your department, recognize that HOW you lead today will shape your organizations for better or worse tomorrow. We all know of the different incentives and ideas the fire service has tried and or is currently doing around the country to recruit and retain members. As leaders in your organization, what can be done on your part to help with the cause? I believe as leaders it all starts with our human interaction towards the members and with each other.
Most of us have recognized the huge advances in technology, life and the fire service in the last twenty years or so. The fire ground tasks to be accomplished are pretty much the same as far as stretching lines, venting, search, water supply, accountability, etc. However, building construction and fuel loads in homes burning hotter and faster, as well as increased information acquired through testing have presented us with new challenges. We combat those challenges with bigger attack lines, better turnout gear, aerial drones, and TICs. Technology has presented challenges but also countered with some great advancements in the equipment we work with.
For those of us who have lived in this era of the fire service, I think we can all agree technology has also driven change in the most important asset to our departments and people. How we accept, lead and interact with the next generation of firefighters directly impacts the volunteer service of tomorrow. When you take the rapid advancement of technology and add the changing culture and societal norms, it can be pretty scary when we think how we need to evolve as leaders. Every officer who puts his organization and people ahead of ego wants a strong, healthy fire department for the right reasons. I say this because many times egos can get out of hand in the volunteer service for a variety of reasons. This is not conducive to leading a team of firefighters today for a stronger tomorrow.
I believe none of us become successful in life or the fire service alone. Lebron James is a mega-star of epic proportion, on and off the court. Lebron cannot achieve this level without his team. All his coaches, a stint with a foster family, NBA teammates, trainers, and agents all make up his team. Every one of them contributes something to his game and brand. Bruce Springsteen for the forty-and-over crowd and let’s say Post Malone for the younger crowd, each have a team in place to keep them doing what they do well. Songwriters, band member, agents, roadies, social media people all work toward a common goal of good for the artist. It’s obvious when using these examples to see the team concept and how it has many important parts, even though the big name is all we hear about.
The fire department is our big name, and we need a team to keep it healthy. A good team being lead together, will always trump any individual. I included all my assistants and company line officers as well as a cross-section of members when debating major issues or decisions such as SOG’s, radio systems, or a Junior program. This helps promote a team concept to get buy-in and build equity with the members. Listening to others and mulling over their ideas has no downfalls in my opinion. However keeping everything close to the vest can lead to skepticism and trust issues between leaders and the members. Yes, some things need to be held close, but plenty of ideas and goals can be talked over in mass. For example, even if you decide not to go with say firefighter “Jones” idea with adding a smooth bore on all the engines, at the very least you have shown him you value his opinion and thoughts. That will earn the team equity, loyalty and respect most times from members like firefighter Jones. After all, members like him are the one thing since Ben Franklin started the fire service that we can not go without.
Let’s talk about the next generation coming on the last few years. My last stint as chief I had girls who dated other girls, a much more diversified membership, video games and vaping had replaced super bowl parties and drinks. Yes, this new group won’t know hip boots, opening walls without TICs, booster lines, or riding in open cab Mack. What they do know is instant knowledge on smartphones, and tv series that make firefighting look cool. We need to embrace them and put aside any notions of that’s not what a firefighter is. These are the firefighters we are getting, and they are our future. We must lead them and make them feel like a wanted part of the team, or eventually, we close up or go paid. We all tend to look at the next generation and do a comparison to ourselves. It’s apples to oranges, and we can not stop them or the fire service from evolving.
What can be done is invite these younger members to attend line officer meeting to observe and listen? By exposing them to leading as a team and how inclusion in the volunteer service is important. They can see how to craft a budget or a discussion on who and why we want company x for a second alarm assignment. Or how we review the roster and talk about mentoring and pushing folks to train and take themselves to the next level. Let this new generation have a front row seat of today’s leaders investing in tomorrow by moves and decisions we make today. Let them see teamwork first hand and know its a team effort and not any individual running things half-cocked.
How do we help ourselves be strong for tomorrow? Yes, incentives are one way. Leading with teamwork and that human interaction to me is the most important way. Make your members an especially the newer ones feel welcomed, valued and wanted. If we achieve that today those members will be here tomorrow on the best team, the volunteer fire service. I hope this provokes some thought on leading your departments towards a stronger tomorrow. If leaders can’t or won’t change and evolve are we REALLY leading?