“A different perspective on the issues plaguing volunteer departments”
Two years ago I set out with a mission, a mission to try and tackle the major issues plaguing volunteer departments in our part of Ohio. Our mission started off small, but very quickly grew into something I never could have imagined. We built a leadership team, a team with incredible knowledge and experience base. Most of the guys on our team grew up as station rats. We spent every possible minute watching our father’s and their friends commit to a calling, a mission greater than themselves. The bond my father’s colleagues had, the mentoring I witnesses, and the professionalism in which they carried themselves, is something I wanted to promote and restore.
No one can deny can the challenges volunteer departments across the United States face today. Dwindling enrollments, increased mandates and run volumes have combined for the perfect storm. Even despite the growing challenges facing departments, it always seems to get brought back on leadership. You can’t take a step on social media today without stepping over a quote, or group devoted to improving leadership, ourselves included.
The Blame Is Partially On Us Folks:
We all need to stop blaming leadership for every little thing that happens wrong in our departments. Trust me, I’m far from giving ineffective leadership a “get out of jail free card”, but if we aren’t holding ourselves as individuals accountable, how can we question the actions of others? Before spreading rumors or second-guessing the leadership in your own department, ask yourself the following questions:
The list goes on and on, but we really need to draw attention to the root causes and where they begin. Our individual decisions have more of an impact than we often believe. When we fail to uphold our most basic requirements, the organization suffers. By failing to follow your responsibilities and obligations, you, yes you, are cheating the organization. No one begged you or forced you to become a volunteer, it was a choice, a choice you made to protect life, property, and one another. When you fail to honor your obligations, you cheat the organization and the mission. While it may not seem like much now, but you’re normalizing a negative behavior or level of decision making that may take root with others.
The Deathbed Cocktail:
Teams and organizations that squash internal issues before management has to intervene typically have great veterans, committed to the values of that particular organization. However, many of the issues departments face today have been created, or exacerbated by those departments themselves. Internal dysfunction killed their retention and recruitment efforts. Failure to show for drill and runs, undoubtedly consumed community trust and drained their tactical proficiency. Inability to market themselves and communicate effectively damaged their ability to increase revenue when needed. Lastly, officers with zero accountability, those burned out, or those who failed at their duties, eventually passed those same traits onto their crews.
Many find themselves stuck in that “vent-limited” stage. They simply can’t keep people fully involved. When departments fail to keep members involved, leaders take on a whole new role, the foundation saver. Obviously, a lack of adequate response drains a department tactical proficiency. However, we're talking metaphorically here. We have to be our own marketing team, community ambassadors, and coaches to make this mission work. The challenges are huge, the time commitment great, and sacrifices, immeasurable. We all took an oath, a pledge that separates us far from the rest. Those same sacred words are probably what drew us to this calling. It was about being part of something professional, part of something greater than ourselves. A friend of mine, Marc Davidson explains it this way, “heart is one thing no standardized test can identify, no physical can screen out. But a heart is what public service, specifically the volunteer fire service requires. We can mentor them and pass on our craft, but passion is what we’re after." There is nothing greater than the heart of a volunteer, especially one that is dedicated, educated, and experienced. We all possessed the same desire at some point in our careers, but how we rechannel that fire, passion, and desire is up to us, the INDIVIDUAL.
If you yourself have drive and passion, find ways to inspire newer members on your department. Teach with heart and enthusiasm. Be tough, but fair. Give credit where credit is due. Provide opportunities to advance their craft and watch them grow. Foster their mistakes along the way and when they’re ready, pass the torch. If mentored correctly, they’ll maintain and reinforce that strong level of commitment and our sacred brother and sisterhood will continue to thrive.
Be humble and rejoice. You’re a member of the greatest organization in the world. Donn and spread that title with honor, humility, and passion.
Matt Beakas currently serves with Middleton Township Fire & Rescue. He holds a Master’s Degree in Administrative and Organizational Leadership. His primary mission is to bring mentoring and leadership skills from his educational background to improve and strengthen volunteer departments. He also serves on Ohio Fire Chiefs' Association’s Volunteer Committee and on the advisory board for Penta County Joint Vocational School. Matt is the co-founder of the group “Enlightened Leadership.” A leadership consortium of passionate instructors dedicated to improving leadership, mentoring, retention, and officer development programs for volunteer departments.