Features, Haddon

Rurally Speaking: Are You a Member of a Fire “Club” or a Fire Department?

By Carl J. Haddon

We, as rural firefighters, are certainly part of the great fraternal brotherhood that is the American fire service. However, I ask the uncomfortable question: Is your “department” more of a “social club” than it is a fire department?

Volunteer retention and recruitment is a struggle for the best of fire departments. Certain concessions need to be made, or at least considered, to be able to maintain adequate volunteer staffing numbers. Rural departments face different challenges than urban departments, and the challenges of running rural volunteer departments are a whole other “bag of cats,” right? Concessions, in my opinion, are fine when it comes to things that don’t compromise safety and firefighter survival. There are, however, some things that we cannot, or certainly should not, waiver on or make concessions about. At a minimum, two of those things are hiring and training. Training speaks for itself. And even though members are volunteers, they are—or should be—associated with the department through a hiring process. 

An alarming number of rural volunteer departments today are hesitant to run criminal background checks, or even driving record checks on potential new members for fear of chasing off prospective volunteers. Additionally, I hear story after story about how difficult it is to get people to training. And, “If we require training more than once a month for a couple of hours, our members threaten to quit.” These statements defy logic to me. I certainly want—and you should want—the firefighters that I’m running calls with to be comfortable that I’m not a convicted felon, or someone with a history of DUI, while I’m behind the wheel of an apparatus en route to a call, don’t you?  This is to say nothing of the huge risk and liability exposure to the department/city/county/district as a whole.

Regarding training, if your once-a-month, two-hour training sessions are really an excuse for getting together with the gang to tell war stories, are you being fair to those that you’ve sworn to serve? More importantly, are you being fair to yourself and your own loved ones who will suffer the consequences when you are injured or worse while “operating” at a call while less than adequately trained? Let’s be real, with two hours of training per month, you are getting 24 hours of training in a year—provided you make all of the training sessions and provided that some of them aren’t cancelled for hunting, fishing, boating, harvest, planting, wildfire, or whatever season. Although I have “firefighters” argue this with me all the time, 24 hours of training a year does NOT make you a proficient firefighter. Nor does it allow you to be safe and proficient with the myriad equipment, methods, and tactics that are commonly deployed on the fireground, rescue scene, or vehicle extrication site.

Believe it or not, there are still states in this country—mine being one of them—that have NO minimum standard training requirements for firefighters! It would likely blow your mind to know how many fire departments in 2015 I’ve worked with where the fire chief or any of the firefighters have attained Firefighter I. Yet, these dedicated volunteers operate fire apparatus to calls and manage to “put the wet stuff on the red stuff.” Unfortunately, although these departments are fully aware of things like National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, they completely dismiss NFPA because, “With our budget, our fleet, and our volunteers, we could never meet their standards.” In many cases, they are correct. However for their own sake and survival, they should strive to work toward meeting the standards as best they can with what they have. This is also a huge liability and risk exposure issue for the department, fire district, city, or county.

Is your officer staff voted in by the membership, or appointed? If they are voted in by the membership, are they in place because they are the “coolest kids on the block,” the longest surviving members of the department, or are they the best and most qualified/trained personnel for the job? Please don’t think me cynical. The “coolest kids on the block” are also found all over the fire service Internet and trade publications. They are also employed in many of the largest career departments on the planet, and many of them wear gold badges. My point is that we don’t need the “coolest kids on the block,” we need trained leadership.

As you read this, if any of my descriptions sound familiar to you, there is good news and help available. YOU can make a difference for your department, by breaking some of the bad habits that might exist, but it is up to you to take the first step. It doesn’t matter if you are a new firefighter, fire chief, or a salty old fire commissioner. Lives hang in the balance. Something that the Internet and these publications are great for, is providing resources for everything from training, to officer development programs, to networking opportunities. Professional not-for-profit organizations exist that can help you with recruitment, retention, and other administrative challenges that many rural departments face. Don’t think that you’re an island, because I can personally guarantee you that other departments share your struggles. 

I am happy to report that it is not as difficult to turn some of these challenges around as you might think. It simply requires real leadership—leadership on the ground and support for the leadership on the ground from folks like commissioners, city councils, and so on. Close the club. Strengthen and fortify your department and its members. Working together, and participating in training together will build brotherhood that no club can hold a candle to. I am happy to offer help in finding resources for any departments looking to better themselves. Feel free to contact me through the magazine.

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.