Hard Truths About and Possible Solutions to the Failure of Leadership and Training of Firefighters and the Subsequent Volunteer Crisis in the United States

R. Neal Cook II
Hard Truths About and Possible Solutions to the Failure of Leadership and Training of Firefighters and the Subsequent Volunteer Crisis in the United States
Different people have different priorities and value sets. (pixabay)

Hard truths: That is a hard title to digest, but I feel it necessary to get right to the point.  This is a hard article for me to write as a second-generation firefighter who has been in the volunteer service 10 years with a father who had been in the service 30 years, 20 of which was as a federal civil service lieutenant for the largest military base on the East Coast.  I remember as a kid riding the captain’s seat working the lights and siren heading to fires with my father during his volunteer days as chief of the Keithville (LA) Fire Department in the 1980s.  However, through the encouragement of my wife, Dr. Sarah Zukoff, and some of my former world-class instructors, and because of my experience and management background, I have decided to tackle this issue.

The current fire service as we know it is dying.  It is dissolving from the inside out with the loss of volunteers, career departments having to expand coverage, and the politicizing of the emergency services.  Tribalization is occurring at some departments and academies, leading to false confidence in superiority from ego and the proverbial echo chamber, which in turn will drive away many skilled and experienced firefighters.  Do I have the answers to these problems?  Of course not.  I do have some ideas to help address some of the issues, but the number one thing that we as a service must do is recognize the problem, take ownership of it, and then attack the real issue facing us.

 

Problem #1:  It is a volunteer organization not built for volunteers anymore.

At any given time, approximately 65% of all firefighters are volunteers, with approximately 91% of all departments being all volunteer or combination departments.  Considering these numbers, you’d think the academies and training programs offering certification tracks would cater to these individuals.  Unfortunately, this is not the case in many parts of the country.  Traditionally, training programs are daytime events, with most programs requiring between 24 and 80 hours of training time (the IFSAC Hazmat Technician Certification path, for example, requires approximately 156 hours to complete); departments that run EMS as well require 150 hours and 1,500 hours for EMTs and paramedics respectively, not including the refresher hours for recertification cycles.

With the current model, a new volunteer would have to spend significant vacation time or spend almost two years to be brought up to speed as a full fledged and credentialed firefighter (assuming for Firefighter I and II and Hazmat Awareness and Operations).  I myself used all the vacation time I had my first few years to attend classes and travel to DHS/FEMA-sponsored training. In the current economy, most individuals cannot afford to take the time necessary to fast track, and a multiyear onboarding process is hard to comprehend with very limited reward for an individual and difficult for a training officer, as at any given time there may be multiple individuals at various levels of progression needing different types of training.

There is a two-part possible solution to this: First, make the majority if not all the classwork online.  Progression tests can be proctored at a trainee’s department.  The infrastructure for this is already in place with some classes being provided online by the National Fire Academy, for example.  Universities have been migrating to similar systems over the past few years (the MBA at MSU I am currently wrapping up is 100% distance and the doctorate at CTU I am about to begin is 98% distance). Second, for the hands-on coursework, have the classes scheduled during evenings and weekends with multiple offerings of times.  In this format, a registered student can choose which times to take the coursework.  However, this will most likely increase the load on the adjunct instructors; therefore, building a deep instructor pool is paramount to success.  Additionally, the online migration should reduce cost overhead and redirect funds to the additional face to face offerings and additional instructors/adjuncts.

There are multiple benefits to this hybrid approach.  It allows for standardization of training across the board.  One of the issues regarding training is that while IFSAC and ProBoard try to standardize training through the certification process, there can be significant differences between what is being trained on, the effectiveness of the training, and the practicality of the training.  It will help eliminate the silo effect between academies and departments and aid in establishing practical best practices given provided scenarios.

 

Problem #2: “It isn’t a job; it is a passion.”

Some leaders feel that firefighting must be a firefighter’s primary passion, with the mentality “If it isn’t your passion, then show yourself out.”  While passion for one’s job and dedication are good, this is toxic leadership in action.  Thinking from the perspective of a new volunteer recruit who is going to try juggling being a volunteer with a day job, family, and possibly school, operating from that or a similar mentality or opening with a remark like that just shut your new recruit down, and you will lose many of them after the first meeting.  Being an emergency responder is not the same as being in the military and should not and cannot be treated as such.  New recruits, testing the waters, need to be shown what the job is about and what will be required of them to perform said job; on board them just as for any other job.  Granted, this job is higher stakes than the average job, with more risk, but mitigating as much of that risk as possible while balancing protection of life and property come with training and with discipline increasing as the complexity of the training, tasks, and responsibilities increases.

“It isn’t a job; it is a passion” is true in many respects regarding the emergency services.  I am passionate about the fire service, and there isn’t much more satisfying than making a solid stop at what looked like a complete loss just minutes before or making a good save.  However, we must be careful in how we use this statement.  It is often used as a copout by politicians and leadership to justify bad conditions, understaffing, and low pay.

This mentality appears often in quiet conflict between career and volunteer agencies.  I have been offered career positions at some departments but turned down for volunteer positions at other combination departments.  The undertone being “You’re not dedicated enough to work here.” That is not the case; I am simply on a different career path.

The question becomes, how do we get around this disconnect?  It must fall on the leadership of the department.  It is paramount for the leadership of a department that has mutual-aid agreements to communicate and train with the mutual-aid departments.  In districts where there is a career or combination department that often works with volunteer departments, allowing volunteers from sister districts to volunteer a shift at an active firehouse on occasion will help build rapport and cooperation between agencies and give volunteers experience, especially when said volunteers are in a low call volume district.  This will build confidence in the volunteers taking part, in the career department, and in the ability of the volunteers and develop better unit cohesion.

 

Problem #3: Politicization of emergency responders and the mental separation between emergency responders and citizens.

The fire service must maintain a neutral position politically or else be used as political fodder as seen fit by fiscally troubled districts.  We need leaders in emergency response who know how to interact and work with the districts they serve to not just be able to budget to but better justify the budget being requested.

Regarding the mental separation between emergency responders and the citizens they serve, I have found this is typically more an issue in the military and law enforcement communities but have also started seeing it drift into EMS and the fire service.  It is good to take pride in what you do and what you do to protect your fellow citizens; however, this can slowly transition to seeing those we serve as being lesser individuals than ourselves.  It is vital that we check ourselves on this regularly.

 

Problem #4:  Smaller pools because of urban migration.

This issue has been a readily growing problem over the past few years.  The urbanization of society (roughly 80% since the 2010 census), among other things, has put a strain on recruiting efforts.  The decline can be seen in the latest NFPA U.S. Fire Department Profile found here: (https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Data-research-and-tools/Emergency-Responders/US-fire-department-profile).  While there are multiple reasons for this decline, urban migration is the rate that we as a service are least able to impact.  Therefore, recruiting efforts need to be increased to identify and court promising individuals.

One way to do this is to implement and expand existing junior firefighter programs and build a working relationship with schools.  This provides the department with the opportunity to increase awareness while making recruiting efforts to youth that may one day join the department.  Also, a junior firefighter transitioning to a regular firefighter will require less training and is more likely to stay with the department than a recruit with no prior service or experience.  While this may require more work on the front end, the benefits to the department, the youth, and the community in general may pay off as the first juniors graduate into full firefighters.

The trouble facing the fire service is effectively a perfect storm of shrinking funds, urbanization, department and knowledge siloing (which, arguably, is compounded by urbanization), the echo chamber effect from said siloing, and the tribalizing effect. The fire service needs to focus on leadership development, not just by being competent at the station and on the fireground but by being competent in the human resources, finance, and political arenas.  All agencies effectively live and die by their constituency and the representatives of said constituency.   It is important to be able to know how to communicate in terms that are understood and bring our stakeholders into the conversation.

One of the greatest mistakes we make is living under the assumption that other people think like we do.  Different people have different priorities and value sets.  The goal is to bring these different people who all think differently to the same conclusion regarding the fire service and fire protection.  As a service we have a commitment to our communities to serve and protect; however, what is often overlooked is that our communities have a commitment as well, and that is to enable us to be able to safely and adequately protect them, which comes in the form of resources and funding.

Lastly, when dealing with new recruits and rookies, it is on leadership to make sure they are performing adequately.  Yes, there are some people who are not made for this line of work and will not make the cut; but often, when a new member enters the department (especially if he has worked at previous departments), that recruit can receive a less than warm reception.  If the new person is struggling and has not been thoroughly coached and given the opportunity to improve, it is not on the new person.  It is on YOU as a leader.

 

R. Neal Cook II is a legacy firefighter with 10 years of volunteer firefighting experience at both combination and volunteer departments with a specialization in Hazmat CBRNE/WMD Response. He is a volunteer firefighter for Holcomb Community (KS) Fire Department. He is finishing his MBA from Mississippi State University and will start on his doctorate of global business management at Colorado Technical University in 2020.  He also works as a field engineer and system administrator for a multinational information technology security company.  

 

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