Why I Teach: Thomas A Merrill

In this series, Fire Engineering Senior Editor Mary Jane Dittmar looks at the things that motivated and inspired instructors to present on their topics at FDIC International 2016. Segments will be posted on a regular basis up to and through the conference, April 18-23.

Thomas A. Merrill

Past Chief

Snyder (NY) Fire Department

The Professional Volunteer Fire Department

Tuesday, April 19, 8 a.m.-12 p.m. 


Often in discussions with the general public, people would say something like, “Oh, you’re a firefighter. Are you a professional or just a volunteer?”  I would take exception to that and politely explain that there are paid firefighters and there are volunteer firefighters, but all firefighters, including volunteers, can strive to be professional. In fact, when I consult the dictionary, I see various definitions for the word ‘professional,’ including ‘characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession’ and ‘exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace.’ I would explain that these definitions can apply to paid firefighters as well as volunteer firefighters. 

However, it takes than pinning on a badge or a title to make a firefighter professional. It takes attitude, commitment, and dedication. It has to do with how members approach the job, how they prepare and train and take care of their equipment. It includes how they treat the public and their members. It also has to do with behavior on and off duty. All of this plays into the equation of the professional firefighter, and volunteers certainly can meet these criteria as well as paid firefighters. I wanted to get the word out that volunteer firefighters certainly can be professional firefighters and to ensure that they are aware of their duty and responsibility to uphold that reputation (and what it entails). It is not an automatic designation. (By the way, this applies to all firefighters.) 

Participants are provided with a set of building blocks they can take back to their department to help build the foundation of a professional operation. The building blocks cover various aspects of volunteer operations from the better known aspects like emergency response, operations, and training to the less talked about side of volunteer firefighter life like social activities, behavior (on and off duty), dressing appropriately, and public interaction. I have talked to administrative officers, fire officers, and rank-and-file firefighters. They all have said there is something each branch of our volunteer fire service can take back to their department. We all share in the responsibility of establishing and maintaining a professional reputation. No matter what our title, it should equate to “Professional Firefighter.” 

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