FDIC 2021: The Professional Volunteer Fire Department

The public's expectations of volunteer firefighters has evolved in recent years.
(The Professional Volunteer Fire Department, YouTube)

Tuesday, August 3, 2021: 8:00 PM – 12:00 PM
Room 127 – 128

Thomas Merrill
Fire Commissioner, Past Chief of Department
Snyder, NY Fire Department

Professional service by professional firefighters, including volunteer firefighters, is simply a public expectation in today’s world. A professional fire department has nothing to do with its staff collecting a paycheck; it has everything to do with all members embracing common values, diversity, and inclusion while delivering the very best service possible to their community. The public’s expectations of volunteer firefighters has evolved in recent years. Volunteer firefighters no longer can say, “I am just a volunteer,” and expect the public and legislators to overlook a dysfunctional organization; poor performance; unpreparedness; poor judgments; or unethical, immoral, or illegal behavior. Years ago, people accepted that their local volunteer fire department was a cost-efficient method of delivering a very essential service; residents were more likely to overlook occasional indiscretions or poor performance. Today, the public and politicians’ scrutiny of firefighters and fire departments has increased. They expect skilled and compassionate (professional) service and could care less if the responders are paid or volunteer. Learn how volunteer members should approach the job, prepare and train, behave, and interact with and treat the public on duty as well as off. Also see how a professional culture within the organization improves morale, helps retain members, and builds a positive reputation with the community.

The presentation utilizes PowerPoint and the students are provided with a series of building blocks that they can use to develop and maintain a strong professional fire department foundation. Video clips, audio clips, photos and drawings are used within each block to highlight examples of both professional and unprofessional operations and behavior. The photos and videos are constantly updated to ensure the presentation is fresh, current and up to date. Audience participation is solicited and encouraged, as the presentation does not simply feature bullet points and rambling lecture material. In fact the presentation is much more interactive now as I have found that students are eager to share stories and examples from their home departments as they seek solutions to the challenges they are experiencing that are hampering their ability to create a professional culture. One new idea I recently began doing is to write down on chart paper the specific problems the students bring up. The paper is hung on the wall and referred back to when a specific problem is addressed during the presentation. In most cases all the challenges brought forth by the students are discussed in detail at some point in the class. The presentation also features several light moments to help keep the audience interested and focused. It concludes with all the attendees receiving a synopsis of the 12 key building blocks that they can use as reference material for years to come to help build and solidify a professional culture in their department.

Students walk away with a clear understanding that all members contribute to or detract from their department’s professional reputation. They are encouraged to embrace and support the message that once a person becomes a firefighter they have a duty and obligation to accept the responsibility that comes with that title. Those responsibilities are outlined and a series of recommendations are provided that students can use to help develop and maintain a professional culture in their hometown volunteer fire department. The students learn that the culture is shaped and maintained by all members, no matter what their rank, tenure or specific role is in their department. It is emphasized that professional work is not limited to the firematic (operations) side of the department, but it applies just as equally on the administrative side as well. The students will come to understand that creating and maintaining a professional culture in a volunteer fire department filled with proud professional volunteer firefighters will help tremendously with recruitment, retention, morale, fund drive success, building community and political support. It will also help them all in the performance of their duties. The best part about putting together a professional operation is that everyone benefits – the firefighter, the fire department, the fire service and the communities served.

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