The Volunteer/Combination Fire Service: Surviving the Quicksand

Courtesy of Fire Engineering
By Eddie Buchanan

Volunteer and combination emergency response organizations across the country continue to struggle with diminishing numbers of volunteer responders, which makes maintaining basic services increasingly difficult. The prevalence of greater time demands on our citizens are well documented, along with a shift in the sense of community service, causing volunteer leaders to have to work harder to recruit volunteers to keep units in service for emergency response.

As volunteer leaders feel the heat to keep units in service for emergency calls, much focus is placed on recruitment efforts to find more volunteers. Some volunteer leaders demonstrate a near sense of panic as they recruit anyone they can talk into spending a little time at the station. Although these efforts may produce bodies for future response, they can also have a negative impact or, at least, a perceived negative impact on the value the volunteer organization provides to the department and community in a combination setting.

This is reminiscent of the threat of quicksand that was regularly discussed on television in the 1970s and 1980s. Those from that era learned quickly that if they were caught in quicksand, it was best to remain calm and not fight against the circumstance. The more you fought the quicksand, the more quickly you would sink to a suffocating death.

As it turns out, quicksand was nowhere near the threat that it was presented to be on television back then, but there is a lesson from this that we can apply to our challenges in managing volunteer and combination fire and emergency medical services departments.

The Combination Balance

As volunteer departments become a combination of volunteer and paid resources, a balance of resources occurs that indicates where much of the organizational focus is placed. Early in the transition, much focus remains on the volunteer resources, as they are providing the majority of the emergency response. Paid responders provide more of a supplemental role to the volunteer response force in the early phases of a combination system. Over time, this focus may change as the paid responders cover more of the duty time and call volume. Eventually, that balance will likely tilt from the volunteer focus in the beginning to the paid responders as they cover more of the duty time and call volume. There is nothing technically wrong with this shift; it is simply part of the natural evolution of combination departments.

Once this shift takes place, it is important for volunteer leaders to understand the perspective of a large combination system. In some cases, volunteer leaders may perceive some type of political agenda that has the intent of ending the volunteer component of the organization. Although this is largely a misperception, some failed leaders may have such an intent.

A responsible combination leader will understand the value of both paid and volunteer responders in their organization. Paid responders provide the community with an immediate, professional response force. Emergency units are out the door quickly to handle the routine emergencies. Volunteer responders provide depth to the department’s response. Volunteers may need more time to rally, but when they do, they can produce a significant response force that would be beyond that of an all-paid department’s capabilities. And when scheduled properly and trained, volunteers can respond as quickly and as professionally as any paid force.

The primary focus in a proactive combination department is on maintaining an effective response force—in other words, qualified butts in seats, maintaining consistent service levels. Notice the lack of focus on whether that butt in the seat is paid or volunteering. Department leaders are simply happy that the unit is in service with qualified personnel and ready to respond. The rest of the leadership’s time is spent on planning and logistics to support that readiness.

As volunteers provide a smaller core response force and their membership numbers start to dwindle, it’s easy to panic and “fight the quicksand” by going into a recruiting frenzy. But, without a focus on quality, you can inadvertently lessen the department and community’s perceived value of volunteers.

Quality vs. Quantity

In a combination system, every new volunteer has an impact on the overall system. The new volunteer must be processed through administration, which will likely include a motor vehicle record check, a criminal background check, medical clearance through an occupational medical provider, uniform and personal protective equipment fitting, and eventually basic firefighter or emergency medical technician training. These processes can take up significant administrative “bandwidth” for the department. Multiple hands will have to touch each file for processing, which can take significant time to complete. These processes can also be quite expensive, costing the department thousands of dollars to process each new volunteer applicant through to the point where they are ready to respond to their first call.

Upside-Down Value

When volunteer leaders are busy fighting the quicksand by pushing anyone with a pulse through the application process, they can easily consume a great deal of administrative time and effort. This is a welcomed challenge when the work culminates in more units in service for emergency response. But, when all of the work fails to produce a qualified responder, it is easy for the perceived value of the volunteer system to be turned upside down. Instead of being a critical component of the combination system, volunteers can be seen as procedural and financial burdens. This can create a difficult environment for the volunteer system to survive, and the more they fight to recruit and maintain volunteers, the more quickly they sink.

As this unproductive workload on the department continues, the volunteer component may see less support from inside the department; eventually, local government leaders will follow suit. It is difficult to recover from this position once that perception sets in. This awareness is critical for volunteer leaders who hope to sustain their volunteer component of the combination system into the future. This can also impact all-volunteer departments as they work to maintain that all-volunteer status going forward.

Avoiding the Quicksand

To avoid or at least delay the death of the volunteer system, leaders should focus on providing quality resources that support the response system in a combination environment. Below are a few ideas to help, should you find yourself knee deep.

Take the extra time to screen volunteer applicants to ensure they can commit the time to complete the training necessary to become a useful resource for the department. Be honest with the candidate about the time required to complete basic training. Set meaningful duty-hour requirements that bring the department value for its investment in that volunteer recruit. Make it clear that the administrative and financial effort will result in an in-service response unit down the road.

Organize existing volunteer staffing into configurations that provide a tangible resource for the department. Allowing volunteers to respond as they have time may work in some localities, particularly in areas with slower call volumes. But, understand a time may come when volunteers may need to be organized into crews and scheduled so they can meet minimum staffing levels for response. It is not uncommon for volunteer leaders to delay such a restructuring because it may be unpopular, but the delay may only diminish the perception of the value for the volunteer system.

Revise volunteer incentive programs to reward improved unit in-service time. One volunteer at the station is great, but it doesn’t get you an in-service unit. Consider rewarding the volunteer unit that was in-service the greatest number of hours over a period of time. Consider rewarding volunteers to take additional duty time or volunteers to serve shifts in other stations in a multistation system.

Take proactive steps to ensure all volunteer responders are compliant with all regulations and policies. Be sure your volunteers have been fit tested, they have completed any recurring medical screenings, and their credentials stay current in the department records. Failure to comply can quickly negate any positive impacts volunteers have contributed to the system. Ensure that volunteer resources are perceived as a benefit and not a burden or, worse, a liability.

It is natural to attempt to recruit anyone you can find, particularly when your volunteer staffing numbers are on the decline, but it is equally important to make sure what you bring to the department will provide value and not tip the value scales in the other direction. The volunteer component of a combination system should be perceived by the community and local government as the tremendous asset that it can be. When the scales tip and the volunteer component is perceived as an organizational burden, it will not be long before the volunteer component goes under and is gone for good.

Eddie Buchanan began his fire service career in 1982 and is an assistant chief for Hanover Fire EMS in Richmond, Virginia. He is a past president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and a former recipient of the George D. Post Instructor of the Year Award. He serves on the editorial advisory board for FDIC International and Fire Engineering.

Eddie Buchanan will present “Building High-Performance Combination Fire Departments” at FDIC International 2019 in Indianapolis on Monday, April 8, 8:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.