Volunteer Vision - December 2012

Defining the role of a volunteer chief
November 22, 2012
Written by Vince MacKenzie
As I wrote this in November, it was budget time for many fire departments. Fire chiefs – full-time and volunteer – struggle with a host of challenges, among them keeping municipal councils informed about service levels, standards and growing fire-service needs, and meeting local needs and circumstances while adhering to parameters set by elected officials.

Through my interactions with fire chiefs across Canada, I have realized that not all chiefs of volunteer departments enjoy the same co-operative relationships with their councils as I do. Where does a true volunteer fire chief sit in the eyes of council? Is a volunteer chief considered a department head and taken seriously? What influence does the volunteer chief have in the municipal arena? Does he or she behave like a department head and member of the team and is he or she treated as one?

The authority given to the chief should be clearly outlined in the fire chief’s job description, but it seems that these official descriptions are usually reserved for career chiefs. It has been eye-opening to learn that some smaller communities do not officially define the roles of their volunteer chiefs, although in most, if not all, provinces, provincial legislation defines the role under a municipalities or fire protection and prevention act.
In my opinion, volunteer fire chiefs should enjoy the role of a municipal department head in all aspects of the job and have some authority to shape the future of the department. This is done through co-operation as a valued team member of municipal government, especially on a financial and a policy level.

The support afforded to a fire chief by council can vary from municipality to municipality. Also, fire chiefs are selected through many different processes and therefore the role can sometimes be as political as that of any councillor. Many communities rely completely on volunteers to do it all, including fund the fire department. Other departments are completely funded by taxpayers, as they should be, in my opinion. At the end of the day, the true effectiveness of volunteer fire chiefs is usually reflective of how well respected they are by council, regardless of the community’s size.

One of the first items fire chiefs and councils should examine is how much of the department the chief actually manages, under the guidelines provided by council. Does council give the chief and the officers trust and autonomy to provide adequate service to its citizens? Council should certainly set the parameters for service and funding, then it is the chief’s job to provide that service as efficiently as possible, and to advocate for shortfalls. The fire chief should be able to exercise control over the department, the same as any career department head in the municipality.

Volunteer fire chiefs often struggle with the attitude of elected officials who refuse to acknowledge that the volunteer guy in the white shirt can and should manage the affairs of the department. How much respect is the chief given, other than as the nice guy who helps the community?

The volunteer fire department requires a tremendous amount of support from the community it serves on all levels, at all times. It is still a department within council – the same as any other. Just because the role is a volunteer one does not mean council’s expectations should be lower.

Sometimes, I meet chiefs who shrug their shoulders and say, “I am only a volunteer,” and they typically deflect difficult management decisions. Today’s fire service needs leaders to take leadership of the department.

Part of being an effective fire-service leader is having the confidence in your ability to assert yourself to make sound decisions for your department in partnership with council. This is not easy but it is a skill that, when mastered, will increase credibility and among councillors and municipal staff. If council doesn’t  already acknowledge your role as a competent leader and department head, you have to prove otherwise by actions and decisions.

Learn the strategies of marketing the fire department. Learn the municipal finance structure and the workings of it. Build a solid relationship with council.

Being a volunteer fire chief is no easy task, but taking the time to work together, learn leadership skills,  and build sound relationships with all will position you and your department for success.

Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Service, and a director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. E-mail him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince

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