Rurally Speaking: How to Get What You Need from Your Fire Commissioners

By Carl J. Haddon

How do rural fire districts operate effectively and efficiently, or even at all, if their boards of publicly elected fire commissioners knows absolutely nothing about the fire service, volunteer and/or paid firefighters, or what it takes to operate a rural fire department? Sound familiar? Welcome to my world.

Before I get myself into trouble (like that’s something new), allow me to share with you that I have actively been in the fire service since 1982. I was asked to join a rural volunteer fire department 15 years ago when I left southern California and moved to the Rocky Mountains of Idaho. I started at the rank of Captain, and reluctantly earned the rank of Deputy Chief. During my tenure here in God’s country, I also served as an elected Fire Commissioner for 10 years before I retired. I share this with you because I’ve lived these challenges on both sides of the fence. Neither of those sides was an easy task.

Many of us know that it is no walk in the woods to be a chief officer in a rural volunteer fire department. Volunteer recruitment and retention is a never-ending challenge. Getting volunteers to train on a regular and adequate basis is often times impossible. Operating budgets, of course, are most always a challenge, as there always seem to be more “needs” than there are budget dollars to fill them. Triaging fire department equipment, apparatus, maintenance, and training needs is a full time job all on its own that we often ask volunteer fire officers and, in many cases (like ours), volunteer fire commissioners to dedicate precious free to time figuring out how to manage. Unlike many others, I had a leg up on being a publicly elected fire commissioner. I had more than 20 years under my belt as a career firefighter and fire officer. I also had more than 20 years under my belt as a small business owner. It was painfully obvious to me from the beginning of my time as a commissioner that there was one huge component lacking from the equation that allowed fire department personnel and fire district commissioners to be able to work in harmony: education. Education is the key.

In most cases, when a firefighter or fire officer “needs” something on or for the job, he or she fills out a requisition form of some sort. From that point, all that the firefighter or officer knows is that the request for goods or services goes up to “the bosses,” who either say yes or no. End of discussion.

On the other side of the fence, the bosses/board of fire commissioners get the list of needs and wants from the fire chief. The commissioners are then supposed to approve or deny departmental requests, as they are the entity tasked with using public tax, millage, and/or levying dollars to fund these requests, while also paying monthly departmental bills and obligations.

In many cases, the fire chief is responsible for running the fire department, while the board of fire commissioners is responsible for running the fire chief. In our case, the volunteer fire chief “serves at the sole pleasure of the board of fire commissioners.” For those of you whose cages I rattled when I wrote that I “reluctantly earned the rank of deputy chief,” does my cynicism make a bit more sense now? At least in our case, the rank of chief officer was not an enviable one. On one hand, we want to do the right thing by our firefighters and get them all of the equipment, apparatus, and training that they need to stay safe and do their jobs. On the other hand, we are under the thumb of the commissioners, who have a very real responsibility of looking out for the taxpayers’ dollars. Education is the key!

Firefighters and department officers: invite (and continue to invite) your fire commissioners to training events and drill nights. Involve them (in a safe way) so that they can gain a better understanding of what your needs and wants are. Understand that they don’t know what you do or what you go through when the tones drop, and you’re called out to a wreck or a structure fire in the middle of the night in a winter blizzard. Educate them in a cordial, professional manner. It is literally the only way for you to connect with them to help them understand your needs and your pride and dedication to your community and the department. Believe me, the first time a commissioner sees you come out of a flashover/survival can or a live fire tower with your turn outs too hot to touch and the sweat pouring off of you during the time you volunteer your precious free time to help hone your craft, they won’t be able to be anything but impressed. Show them what it takes to cut a vehicle accident victim out of a car. Remember, we never know when that next wreck with entrapment or house fire may include someone that they know or love. Each time they see you do what you do, they leave with a better understanding of why you may need funding for a piece of rescue equipment, more hose, replacement apparatus, additional training, or whatever. Education is the key!

For fire commissioners who may read this column, education is a two way street. Take the time to help the brave souls in your fire department understand what your job as a commissioner entails. It’s not an easy job—no matter what anyone says. Be willing to really learn and share knowledge. Educate them as to what they can do and how they can be a part of the process to be able to get the “needs” that they requisitioned fulfilled. “Working together” is a nice phrase that is often easier said than done, but through education and cooperation, the wheels on the fire trucks turn smoother and safer.

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.

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