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4 Traits That Make or Break a Volunteer Fire Department

Sam has been a firefighter for nine years. He currently serves as lieutenant and public information officer of his city's fire department.


Training is the foundation of a good department. It is so vital that without it an organization is doomed. I am not just speaking of in-house training and hands-on approaches. Departments need to take advantage of other training that is available to them.

FEMA, for example, offers a wide variety of valuable training materials and courses through its website, allowing firefighters to gain more knowledge in their off-time.

Why Training Is Important and What Kind Is Most Effective

The more we know as firefighters, the better we are suited to perform our jobs. I am seeing more and more departments shy away from hands-on classes, preferring training in the classroom. While classroom training does have its place, it does not simulate the real-life events and scenarios that we are going to face out in the field.

If a firefighter knows they will be using using a thermal camera on fire ground operations, they should take it out and go around the community to get used to the device. If a firefighter's job is to ventilate house fires, they should visit the community they serve and physically see what they would have to do on certain homes to properly ventilate them.

Training, People, and Leadership

It is also important to find people who want to train and get better as a unit. These are the ones who should take leadership roles in the department and be on the front of the attack during a fire.

In my experience, I've found that volunteers often ignore specific classes simply because they find them boring or don't think they will be helpful. This is a rather silly thought if you ask me.

All training can make us better at what we do.

Every volunteer firefighter should take pride in their department and in the community they serve. Remember that it is never about the chief or about the members of the department. It is always about the community we serve and protect.

The community needs to have faith in you both as a firefighter and as a person. Even something as simple as handing out flyers to people will show that you care enough about them to go the extra step.

Ways to Show Pride in Your Department

  • Keep your station clean and respect others that have to work from it
  • Be a beacon in the community and be seen showing that you care
  • Teach fire safety at local schools.
  • Do holiday events for the community.
  • Host community clean-up projects.

Keep the Right Attitude

Volunteers may take the "it's-just-volunteer-work-so-I-am-not-showing-up" mentality. That is a direct reflection of a lack of pride and emotional investment in the department and it is something that we cannot afford to put up with.

Pride comes from loving what you do, and the fire service is riddled with folks who simply like having the title of firefighter. Even worse, some people just want to drive around with lights and sirens on their cars.

Favoritism continues to be an issue I see and hear about on a regular basis with the firefighters I talk to. The reality is that every member should have an equal say in issues pertaining to the department since we all do the work. I understand that department heads should make the final decision on some of these issues, but no firefighter should have authority over another without any justification.

The Dangers of Power Imbalance

For example, all members should know about a big purchase that's being made, not a select few. Otherwise, it seems like there is a hierarchy and that some firefighters are better than the others.

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If this kind of imbalance happens, it creates a tense work environment and starts to cause chaos. When one firefighter is shown special treatment, it gives that member a sense of superiority and causes other members to feel less important. As a result, they may slack off on their duties.

It's Worth Putting Time Into Building a System for Feedback

Sometimes leaders forget that other firefighters are valuable to decision-making, which can eventually lead to some serious negative feedback. Input can make or break a chain of success. Maybe you disagree with someone's promotion but can't voice your opinion because the chief or board of directors doesn't have a system of checks and balances in place.

A feedback system is something that takes time to fix, but it is worth the effort before a department turns into total chaos.

I cannot stress this enough. Dedication is not a measure of friendship outside of the station, but a measure of one's willingness to go the extra mile inside the station and on fire grounds.

If you have joined a department just to be able to say you're a firefighter, then quit for God's sake! A true firefighter is going to show up to all training classes and events, including road blocks and other fundraisers.

Dedication is the glue that holds a volunteer department together. Every member depends on the other for support. When one member loses the devotion to participate, they put the other members at risk. If you are a department head, your go-to guys should be the members who display the most dedication.

What It Really Takes to Build a Great Volunteer Fire Department

Some firefighters are tired of the comparison between paid and volunteer departments. Other people accept that comparison willingly as a challenge. Either way, we must try to make our department as good as possible. That can be difficult when everyone is not on the same page, or when one or two people push their own agenda at the cost of the department integrity.

Value the Team Over the Individual

It takes more than one or two people to make a solid chain of partnership and camaraderie that will blossom into a working and efficient fire department. Every member has to pull their own weight and put the team first.

I like the film Drumline as an example. The film teaches a rogue drummer that he needs to love the sound of the line more than that of his own drum. Similarly, in the fire service, it's important to realize that we are a team. Divisions can and do kill volunteer fire departments.

Creating a Better Community

The fire service is one of those up-and-down occupations that usually leaves us guessing as to what will come next. When the staff is all on the same wavelength and ready to move forward, we are creating a much safer workplace and a better department for our community to depend on.

Resources for Your Department

Let's Talk Fire is a Facebook group that I run where we talk about fire-service related issues. It is open to all firefighters and welcomes submissions of articles, training info and anything fire-related. Feel free to join in the discussion.


Sam Little (author) from Wheelwright KY on October 27, 2015:

You make a very valid point. I am a volunteer as well and truthfully the media has killed us when in reality they should praise us. I think a trainer for our area said it best, One oh shit trumps a hundred atta boys. It is sad really. I think people under estimate how much training we have to actually do.

Dee on October 27, 2015:

All the volunteer fire companies around here do a lot of training. The training they go through will either make you or break you in becoming a Volunteer. They train to keep themselves safe an in helping others. The more they train the more they become confident in what they do. Then you have a news team tear them apart. These Volunteers are exactly what it is. They don't get paid for what they do they are there to protect our communities an the people within. I would like to see these news team go out an do what these Volunteers do. Then let the Volunteer right a story on them. Me an my family come from Volunteering in Fire,rescue an EMS.. Yes very proud in the Volunteers in what they stand for an what they do. Thanks to all Volunteers,men an women stay safe an Thank You all.

Sam Little (author) from Wheelwright KY on February 12, 2011:

I would love to hear from fellow firefighters on their thoughts.

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