The Professional VFD: Part 1


 By Thomas A. Merrill

FD BADGEMany times in discussions with the public, I am asked whether I am a professional firefighter or a volunteer firefighter. I take exception to that, and politely explain to them that there are paid firefighters and there are volunteer firefighters, but all firefighters, including volunteers, can strive to be professional.

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”. Can’t these definitions apply to paid firefighters as well as volunteers?  For years I have been preaching that a volunteer fire department certainly can be professional.

No doubt, there are probably some paid fire departments that cannot be considered professional, and there are many volunteer fire departments that are nothing but professional. Professional means much more than being able to handle emergency calls proficiently and adequately, although that certainly is a large part of it. Also, being considered professional has nothing do with the age of the fire equipment, age of the firehouse, how many runs a department responds to or how much equipment they have. So, what makes the department professional?

To me, professional has everything to do with a department’s attitude, appearance, 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 not only the public but their own members as well.  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 this criteria as well as paid firefighters.

The professional volunteer fire department takes the time to drill on a regular basis. You simply cannot use the excuse that because we are volunteers, we don’t have the time to drill regularly. That is unacceptable today. In fact, there are more potential drill topics than time to do them all. And, as we have heard many times, the fire doesn’t treat volunteer firefighters any different than paid firefighters.

The professional training drill is well organized and ready to go on schedule. Members taking the time to attend the drill should not find that time wasted while officers scramble around trying to get things set up, or worse yet, deciding at that time what the drill topic should be. In most volunteer fire departments, members are usually coming to drill after working a full day. They rush home from work, maybe have time to eat a quick dinner with the family and rush through homework with their kids (if time) and then rush off to the firehouse. Or, they are giving up a Saturday or Sunday morning to spend time drilling at the firehouse. They are owed well prepared and pertinent drills. Well prepared and pertinent drills will help lead to good fire ground performance.

Good fire ground performance is certainly an important trait of the professional volunteer fire department.  The emergency call should be handled calmly and efficiently. Not that we can possibly prepare for all emergencies, but there is no excuse not to be prepared for the routine emergency response, and I put most fires in this category as well. Is the apparatus running order clearly defined?  Are apparatus roles and responsibilities at emergency scenes clearly identified and communicated to the membership? Are the tools cleaned up and in good working order? Is there a strong working agreement with neighboring departments and are we acquainted with their apparatus and equipment. Are plans in place ahead of time to account for short staffing or that dangerous building in your district requiring special equipment or tactics? It is one thing to think you have taken care of these items, but it also must be clearly communicated to the membership. The ranks in most volunteer fire department can fluctuate greatly, with new members coming in and more tenured members leaving. It is important to review all of this important information on a regular basis. Here we are back to drill topics again.

Professional Firefighter BadgeAnother item that can impact a department’s professional reputation is poor radio communication, especially inappropriate and unwarranted transmissions. Members should be trained on the importance of radio discipline – transmitting only pertinent and important information in a clear, calm and concise manner. There should be no unnecessary radio traffic, no babbling and certainly no nasty or mean spirited transmissions. Even if another member was to make disparaging radio transmissions, the other professional firefighters must strive to remain focused on proper radio procedures.

If you are the fire chief or fire incident commander, are you yelling and screaming when you are actually confronted with fire? Or, are you calm, poised and in control, which certainly portrays a professional image.

Sometimes, as volunteers, we often get more help at the scene than we might need. Maybe four or five members are needed inside to perform EMS work, and the other responding members assemble outside, ready to help if needed. How do we expect these members to behave? Are they laughing and joking around, in full view of the patient, concerned family members or neighbors? It is totally understandable that our firefighters are going to make random conversation as they stand around ready to assist, but they must understand that their behavior certainly impacts the department’s reputation. At a fire scene, members should show compassion and refrain from overzealous behavior when mopping up. Remember that laughing loudly, joking, smoking, or swearing while someone is having a really bad day presents anything but a professional image.

Even off duty behavior is important and impacts the department’s reputation. Once somebody knows you are a firefighter, in his view you are a firefighter 24/7. Just being a firefighter elevates you to a higher standard and we all must work together to uphold the standard.

Every action you make, every word you utter is made as a firefighter. Every time you are out in the public, every community event you attend, you are representing your fire department. Like it or not, how you act impacts the reputation and professional image of your department.

In my travels with my fellow volunteers, often times we are wearing our department t-shirts or job shirts. Many times while sitting in airports, people feel compelled to chat with us and bring their kids over to talk to us. No doubt it’s because as firefighters, we all enjoy the great reputation of being warm hearted and friendly people. Now, imagine the damage we can do to that reputation if we act inappropriately or are rude and nasty.

Speaking of t-shirts and job shirts, if your volunteer department is like mine, there is no shortage of these. They are a wonderful way to advertise our great departments and our profession. But, what do those shirts say? What image do they portray? Can they be considered professional, with a neat, clean logo? Or do they offer some disparaging comments and/or drawing? It is bad enough if you are wearing it out in general public, but what if a call comes in and you show up at someone’s house wearing it? Certainly, it does not portray a professional image and could actually diminish the confidence people have in our abilities and lead them to believe we lack compassion and concern for their problem.

Appearance certainly affects a department’s professional reputation as well. Now, it is perfectly understandable that as volunteers, we often are alerted to respond to calls while working around the house or doing something else that might not have us looking all that neat or clean. We certainly cannot be wearing uniforms all day just in case we get alerted for a call. However there are certain things that we can do to help identify us as firefighters, and present a more professional appearance, not only to the citizens we serve but other responding agencies such as law enforcement. Keeping a department t-shirt or sweatshirt in your vehicle is one way to quickly cover up and present a decent appearance. In the cooler weather a nice department jacket can be kept handy to throw on. Some members I know have quickly donned their turnout pants to cover up bathing suits, gym shorts or tattered jeans, even at EMS calls. My department created inexpensive membership cards and laminated them and put a lanyard on them so they can be kept in a member’s vehicle and quickly thrown on if responding directly to the scene to properly identify a member as a firefighter. Far be it for me to tell members what to wear off duty, but we need to understand that when a call comes in, we are considered on duty, and looking clean and easily identifiable as a firefighter helps create a respectable and professional image.

Professional behavior does not only apply to training and call responses. The professional experience also applies inside our firehouses. It starts the minute any member of your local community expresses an interest in joining your department. Is the process for bringing them into membership organized and efficient? Does a member or a committee sit down and discuss your department rules and expectations? How about after they are formally accepted? Do you just throw equipment at them and tell them to show up, or, does someone or a group of members mentor them on expected behavior and other important department roles. A formal orientation program is a great way to start new members off in their volunteer firefighting career. In my department, we developed a booklet that is handed out to interested parties. The booklet outlines how the department operates and details expectations and requirements. If the interested party does formally apply, they meet with a board representing a broad cross section of the department. This board reviews the booklet in more detail and is available to answer any questions the candidate might have. Once the new member is accepted, their first night on duty involves a formal orientation program where they not only are issued their gear and equipment, but much of the important information that was shared with them before is reviewed again to ensure it is understood and accepted.

This formal step by step process leaves a positive impression on our new members. Even if they do not follow through and join the department, or are only able to be with us a short time, they are left with the impression that they were involved with a well organized, proficient and professional operation.

The fire service is the greatest profession in the world. Our ranks are filled with hard working, dedicated, caring and extremely competent members.  At all times, we should strive to be professional firefighters, whether paid or volunteer.

Chief Tom Merrill

Chief (Ret.) Tom Merrill is a 31-year fire department veteran and active firefighter in the Snyder Fire Department located in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer including 15 years in the chief officer ranks, and recently completed five years as chief of department. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the Town of Amherst Fire Alarm Office. 

Chief Merrill is the author of “The Professional Volunteer Fire Department” – a collection of inspirational articles first published for the Fire Engineering Training Community and now available as a series of interactive presentations from “Leadership in the Firehouse.” Merrill is also a contributor to and co-host with Chief Tiger Schmittendorf on the Internet Radio Show. Listen to Tom Merrill’s RuntotheCurb story here.

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