Rurally Speaking: Fire Commissioners, Are You Buying Tools or Toys?

By Carl J. Haddon

During a recent fire commissioner’s meeting, the volunteer chief explained to the board that he needs a gasoline powered positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) fan and a couple of rotary saws for forcible entry and roof work. The chief explained his reasoning for the requested acquisitions based on “his recent needs assessment.” He offered the makes and models of the equipment that he wants for the department and explained the projected cost and potential vendors for said equipment.

In many rural fire districts, finding local citizens willing to run in an election for the unpaid position of fire commissioner is nearly impossible. For example, after many years in office, I vacated my position as a fire commissioner at the end of 2012. That position has still not been filled. The majority of the folks who I’ve spoken with about the fire commissioner job reject the idea because they say the fire commissioner knows nothing about being a firefighter or how a fire department runs. I find it hard to argue with that logic, which brings me back to the opening scenario at the fire commissioner’s meeting. In many parts of the country, fire commissioners are forced to jump into their positions with no training or orientation course for being a commissioner.

It sounds as though the fire chief has done his due diligence regarding his equipment requests. But, without any firefighting background or understanding of the dynamics or capabilities of the volunteer firefighters, how does the civilian board of fire commissioners know if the chief’s requests are good, viable, and responsible ideas for the department and the community it serves?

The volunteer department in question happens to have two stations, a total of three 1980s vintage engines, and 12 dedicated volunteer souls all over the age of 60. This department has a small operating budget because of the tax base, the relatively small number of residential structures, and virtually nonexistent commercial structures—save one small gas station with a country store. It has one two-hour training session per month. When called for structure fires, its firefighting posture is strictly defensive in nature. The fire district has no fire hydrants. Water is drafted from creeks and rivers directly or shuttled by a single small tanker. In light of the aforementioned history, budget, and makeup of its firefighter force, are the pieces of equipment that the commissioners are being asked to purchase tools or toys?

Unfortunately, this is an easy question to ask and answer if you’re one of us who has spent our professional career in the fire service. However, is it as easy to answer if you are a nonfire service civilian who was elected or appointed to the office of volunteer fire commissioner?

The telltale signs are found on fire apparatus from rural volunteer fire departments throughout the United States. Rural departments with full blown chemical, biological, radiological, nucler, and explosives (CBRNE) hazmat equipment (and no one trained to use it), to compressed air roam systems (CAFS), to PPV fans and rotary saws for departments that do not have the staffing or training to be able to adequately, safely, and effectively use them. Please note that I am not suggesting that all rural volunteer fire departments are responding with lots of toys that they don’t know how to use or have them simply because they are the popular shiny firefighting toy of the week. Nor am I suggesting that there is a large contingent of fire chiefs who simply want shiny toys or to keep up with the Joneses. The truth is that the majority of these departments struggle, fight, bite, and scratch to put compliant personal protective equipment and basic firefighting tools and equipment into service while maintaining crew safety. But, how is a commissioner or even the board of three to five commissioners supposed to be able to distinguish toys from tools—regardless of the type of equipment requested? Career departments have the luxury of full time seasoned firefighters and officers who serve on committees within the departments for things like purchasing the best rescue tools and fire trucks for their departments.

A couple of possible answers to this issue, are to have the board of fire commissioners attend a large fire service trade show like FDIC International each year with a list of departmental needs and wants for that or the next fiscal year. This would allow rural fire commissioners to gain firsthand knowledge and education both on the exhibit floor as well as in the classroom sessions. I have had a number of fire commissioners attend my classes at FDIC in hopes of being able to find firefighter training programs to bring to their respective departments.

Another possible answer would be to network with other commissioners from your state’s fire commissioners association. Even making a call to your nearest career department and asking for help is certainly guaranteed to yield a wealth of information in so much as we are all brothers and sisters working toward a common goal. Finally, if I can be of help with this matter, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me through the magazine or drop me an email at

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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