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Volunteer Vision: Management tactics for instilling value

If you read my inaugural column in June, you may have found it to be a bit of a rant. I discussed a few of the problems faced by fire chiefs and municipalities in managing a successful volunteer department. The obstacles are daunting but, I believe, manageable.

September 16, 2008 
By Brad Patton

If you read my inaugural column in June, you may have found it to be a bit of a rant. I discussed a few of the problems faced by fire chiefs and municipalities in managing a successful volunteer department. The obstacles are daunting but, I believe, manageable.

In my opinion, the first and most important aspect in successfully managing a volunteer department can be summed up in one word: value. I am convinced that value is the single most important part of managing in this type of environment. Everybody from the candidate applying to be a volunteer firefighter to the 20-year veteran and officer generally believes that they are of value to their departments and the communities they serve.

It may be hard to believe, but there are thousands of people out there working very hard for absolutely no pay. Think of all the people who canvass for cancer donations, aids, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, or people who walk miles to support their churches and clubs, and the hundreds more who teach or help in Third World counties. Why do they do this? Because in their hearts they see tremendous value in their efforts and time. When this type of value and motivation is part of every fire department activity it becomes an extremely powerful tool that can be used to achieve fire-department goals.

Senior officers and municipal leaders must understand that the best form of management is for all firefighters to feel that everything they do is of value to the department, the community and to themselves.

That said, (I know some of you are thinking it’s time to give everybody a hug!) just how do you implement a deep sense of value in the troops that motivates them to put in thousands of hours in training, equipment checks and maintenance, responses to C/O calls without symptoms at 02:30 in the morning and the hundreds of night-time alarms?

By value, I mean a strong sense that members of the department are either doing something that they feel is of value or are receiving something of value that increases their self worth.

Let’s apply that to the real world. When firefighters come back from a big fire that saved the town, there is little that you, as a manager, need to do. Saying thanks and letting the crew know that they did a hell of a job is a good idea, but the feelings of value are already running pretty high. Indeed, you should be able to feel and even see the feelings of self worth – they are walking taller, their chests are out and their voices are louder.

That’s the feeling you want them to have all the time and there are plenty of things you can do to achieve that goal.

Let’s start with training, which I believe to be the most important thing a chief or a council can give a firefighter. When you facilitate a good training program, the effects contribute immensely to the sense of value.

A good training program says loudly and clearly that senior officers and the community care very much about recruits and firefighters and want to ensure that every opportunity is provided to learn how to safely and efficiently do the job. A good training program gives crew the knowledge that when they go out to a motor vehicle accident with persons trapped and the clock is ticking they will be able to safely and with great confidence do a perfect extrication.

To send firefighters who are not trained to a level at which they are truly confident into a fire, a first-aid call or a call for smell of smoke in a building will ruin their sense of value.

One of the hardest jobs in the fire department is that of the training officer. He or she must ensure that regardless of the amount of pay each person receives at the end of the training session, they must feel that they have received value for their time. Those completing the training must feel deep inside that they now can do something better, and/or faster than they could before the training lesson started.  This is not difficult to evaluate – be there after a lesson or a drill and listen to what the firefighters are saying. If you hear things like, “this is crap”, “we’ve done this a million times before”, “I didn’t learn anything” or “I couldn’t keep my eyes open” then you know you have to make changes, and fast. If you’re not hearing anything at all, then ask what the crew thought of the training. Be bold. Ask “Did you guys feel that the time spent was valuable?” Ask them in small groups or one on one; you want the truth and must have it to be a good leader.

It is vital to the success of your department that your firefighters not only feel that they are valued, but are valued.

I will continue this theme in the September issue. Meantime, each day is new; be safe, enjoy, and learn.

Brad Patton is fire chief for the Centre Welllington Volunteer Fire Rescue Department in Ontario, one of the largest volunteer departments in the province, with stations in Fergus and Elora.

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