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Stuff falls through the cracks
By Chief Ronald Richards

We often hear that fires are the same. New York or New Albany, no difference. No arguement from this end. Fire is the enemy.  When volunteers stand next to their career counterparts, they too, say that fire is fire. We are all doing the same job. We're saving lives and protecting property.

But are there differences? Yes, there are. While we have the same mission and side by side our apparatus may look and function in the same fashion there are some big differences. 

Career Chief, career administrator....
In a career department, the fire chief is selected, based on experience and qualifications. As you read through any recruitment ads in a trade magazine, you'll see qualification demands that often required command experience, a BS or MS degree and a specified number of years of services. So why is that the case? Simple. The municipality is seeking a leader to MANAGE its emergency services, not someone who will respond to every emergency. Granted, field experience is important, but candidate is going to be hired to develop goals and objectives, provide a vision for the emergency services agency, work within a tight budget and be able to deal with a difficult union leadership. Many of the chief's hours will be behind a desk, in front of a computer or at a meeting table and dealing with other community and municipal leaders.

 
Volunteers, what goes wrong?
On the other side of the tracks is the volunteer department. Often smaller, but facing the same personnel and fiscal demands, the fire chief is often selected in a different fashion. While there are many outstanding volunteer fire departments who have very stringent officer qualifications, many times, those qualifications are operationally based. They may specify that the fire chief must have been an Assistant Chief or Deputy.  They may specify courses that must have been completed, but usually there will never even hint about personnel management skills, budgeting, developing goals and objectives. So what do you end up with? A leader that has a fair amount of experience in responding to emergencies but little if any experience is managing an organization, let alone one that provides emergency services!

So who's supposed to be the administrator?
Add to the mix the beauracracy that is inherent to most volunteer organizations. The majority of the volunteer fire departments have either a monthly or bi-monthly business meeting. Most of the time, the meeting is more a social event than anything else. Bills are paid and often meaningless topics are discussed that have little impact on the delivery of services or the future of the organization. So who is supposed to be driving the bus?  The president. An individual who is elected by the organization's membership. Ask most members what the president does and they will say that he or she sits at the head table and slams a hammer every once a while!
 
In reality the president is supposed to do more than that. He is the CEO. The chief executive officer. Yes, conducting the meeting is part of it but there is much more than that to be done. The president should have the tools to be a good planner, delegator and leader. He has to be a visionary. After all. He is running a big business!

If many of the administrative responsibities are NOT being done by the Fire Chief since he is more involved in operations, then the President must rise to the occasion and be the leader. 

Here are some things  the president needs be sure is addressed:
  • Goals and Objectives
  • Job Descriptions
  • Recruitment and retention
  • Liaison with local government and other agencies
  • Policies and procedures
  • Budgets
  • Short and long range plans
  • Public relations
  • Insure the organization is meeting it's mission
  • So what happens when the president
    is NOT a good leader? 
    Stuff falls through the cracks. Some of the items may get addressed while others won't even be considered. When this happens, the result is a leaderless organization, without direction. No vision, no goals, no plan..... Just a "dis" organization that haplessly goes for incident to incident, fund raising event to fund raising event. One that is in constant turmoil.

    So there is a difference between volunteer and career organizations. As long as volunteer organizations do not rise to the occassion and take the lead in controlling their own destiny,  the sagas will continue.
     
    About the author: Chief Ronald Richards has over 28 years of fire service experience, both career and volunteer. He rose through the ranks in the Forest City Fire Department, in Forest City, PA and became Fire Chief in 1995 holding that position through 2000 when he retired. He currently serves as the Chief for Training and Safety for Browndale Fire Company in Wayne County, PA. Chief Richards has over 24 years of service with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, having served as a Fire Marshal with the Department of Public Welfare, a Fire and Safety Specialist with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Currently, he is Superintendent Assistant  within the PA Department of Corrections, responsible for media relations, litigation coordination, accreditation, and the writing of policies and procedures. Chief Richards graduated from the State University of New York with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Service Administration.  Richards is a PA State Fire Instructor and an instructor with Command School.  He is the founder of WithThecommand.com.