Taking the Volunteer Out of Volunteering!

“Please don’t tell my parents I’m a volunteer fireman, they think I’m a piano player in a cat house.”

That’s the tongue-in-cheek message printed on a bumper sticker that used to be pinned to the bulletin board in our chief’s office about 25 years ago.

Decades later, have we overcome the stigma of being volunteer firefighters, or have we perpetuated it?

Maltese_Cross_8_inchThere’s no doubt that those were different, if not easier times with different public perceptions and expectations of those who stepped up to volunteer to serve their community. In many neighborhoods, the volunteer firehall was the social epicenter of the community where boy and girl scouts gathered, where the community turned out for the annual carnival, fish fry or ham and turkey raffle, and it was the place where members and their families relaxed over a couple of ‘pops’ on a Friday night.

Back then it was socially acceptable to occasionally mix business with pleasure as we were often given a free pass on negative press because we were the good guys for putting our lives on the line for free. We worked hard and we played hard and back then, it was even ok to sometimes play harder than we worked. After all, we were just volunteers, doing the best we could, weren’t we?

The good news is that we’ve come a long way since then, haven’t we? With few exceptions, we’ve managed to overcome the image of beer-guzzling buffoons, members of an elite social club who responded to put out the occasional fire.

We’ve worked hard to put the professional in professional fire and emergency services. We wear the same uniforms as our paid counterparts, our fire stations look nicer than most city firehouse, we recruit public information officers and even hire marketing firms to make us look and sound more professional, and in a last ditch effort to permanently dismiss our formerly unprofessional reputation — we’ve erased the word ‘volunteer’ from virtually everything we own.

It’s an easy trap to fall into and there was even a time when I bought into it’s seemingly positive virtues.

I received an email the other day from a firefighter who was concerned that his fire district was going to remove the “Volunteer” from the name of his Volunteer Fire Department. His concern was that his organization would lose its identity and lose sight of its roots and the proud heritage they’ve built. He was looking for advice.

I share his concerns.

7318I often refer to a ten-year gap in the volunteer fire service when we focused so much on being professional that we forgot that it’s people who provide our services, and those people still volunteer their time to serve.

We lost sight of the fact that all of the shiny apparatus, rugged equipment and fancy gadgets we invest so much time, energy and especially money in — are absolutely useless without the proper quantity and quality of people to make it work.

To remove the word ‘volunteer’ is to ignore the challenges our people face in volunteering, which get more challenging every day. Even worse, to denounce our volunteer title is disrespectful to the people making the real sacrifices — the ones who don’t leave the dinner table, who don’t get up in the middle of the night and the ones who are left behind at family gatherings. My incentive for volunteering is that that every time my pager is activated, it is another opportunity for me to go do what I love. That’s a direct dis-incentive to the people who care about me, the people I leave behind.

So why is it that some of us are so intent on erasing ‘volunteer’ from our identity and thus our history?Old-Unfrmd-Firefighter-Psngr

This is by no means a knock on paid firefighters any more than it is an excuse for volunteer firefighters to ignore the fact that while they may have volunteered to join their fire department, that fire department has a moral, financial and contractual obligation to its community to be adequately and reliably staffed by trustworthy people who provide caring, professional services.
It’s no secret that the public trusts no other occupation more than they trust firefighters. And, I’m a firm believer that people pay taxes because they need fire protection and emergency medical services. I’m also convinced that if they give you a dollar more in donations or by supporting your fundraisers, it’s because they recognize the fact that their calls for help are answered by volunteers. If they can see the value in that, why can’t we?

I’m currently assisting another volunteer fire department that is dealing with some recruitment and public perception challenges. A recent survey of their residents indicated two key points:

  1. Their fire department is perceived as being very professional, and
  2. Their firefighters and officers are paid.

That’s a problem.

There is nothing about them, not their name, their apparatus, their facilities or what they wear on their back that includes the word ‘volunteer’. If it looks like a paid fire department, it acts like a paid fire department, it must be a paid fire department, right? Why then would their citizens assume anything else?

MVC-880FMy volunteer fire department built a brand-new fire station fifteen years ago, the first new headquarters in 50 years. We put tremendous emphasis on making it a neighborhood firehouse, insisting on glass doors covering our apparatus bays so that anyone traveling by foot or vehicle could always see inside and feel welcome. Being a small rural volunteer fire department, we had a very finite budget to work with in constructing the new station.

Funds were so tight that it came down to how we were going to letter the front of the station. Our president indicated that we could only afford so many letters to spell out our department name: the Evans Center Volunteer Fire Company. We couldn’t afford all those letters and would be forced to abbreviate. Truncating Evans Center and Fire weren’t an option, so we had to decide which word was more important to spell out: Volunteer or Company?

I’m proud of the fact that the front of our station displays our name as the “Evans Center Volunteer Fire Co.”, reminding our citizens that no matter how professional our members act, or our apparatus or fire station looks – the folks providing the services are professional volunteers and always have been.

The department I mentioned earlier with the recruitment and public perception issues is struggling to re-capture their highly revered place in their community as a professional fire department staffed by volunteers.

Our status as volunteers is like the public’s trust. It’s a pretty easy sell when we’re asking for financial or other support, but it’s almost impossible to regain once we let it slip away.

Act professional and be proud of the fact that you donate your time to caring for your commNew-VolFirefighter-Psngrunity. Wear it proudly on your sleeve, your apparatus, your letterhead, your fire station and anything else you’re willing to put your name on. But never, ever use it as a crutch or an excuse for being anything but the best at what you and your volunteer fire department do.

When it comes to the word ‘volunteer’ – let your actions leave no doubt that you’re a true professional.


For more insight on the connection between professional and volunteer, read my good friend Chief Tom Merrill’s series: “The Professional Volunteer Fire Department” at LeadershipintheFirehouse.com, visit his Facebook page or better yet, bring him and his great ideas to your firehouse or conference by contacting him at [email protected]
  • Darrell

    I found that even if we put the word volunteer on our station, website letter heads, we have had people come in asking about being paid or getting a job and we give the info for the county fire service or surrounding career depts. We have combination system in our county but the lack of people volunteering is very low so the career side has picked up where the volunteers are not. Most stations and equipment belong to the volunteers but career man them. Some volunteer stations shut down at the end of the day and reopen in the morning when the career come back in because those volunteer companies won’t allow the career crews in the station after their working hours or the number of career personnel is not enough to man them around the clock.

  • Don

    I just retired from 30 years in EMS as a volunteer EMT. Your last statement “When it comes to the word ‘volunteer’ – let your actions leave no doubt that you’re a true professional” , volunteers have stated to me, “I am Just a volunteer, I don’t have to if I don’t want to”. the professional who is a volunteer says “What do I need to do”? I also appreciate your comments regarding our families and friend who are left sitting at the table at a holiday gathering because your pager interrupted the conversation and you had to leave. Thank You, my family, for volunteering your time/understanding to my dedication to our community.

  • Rob

    Here in Ontario Canada we tend to use the term volunteer, but most departments within 100 miles of a fairly major urban centre actually have paid part-time members. True volunteers, who are unpaid are normally found in the more northern regions where there is less population and a smaller tax base to draw from. Most fire departments in Ontario are funded from a portion of household taxes. In general our tax laws use the term volunteer and allow certain exceptions, so to make a claim you must report as being a volunteer. Volunteer fire associations have argued this point for years and even within the directors of these associations there is no consensus. Most are quite content to use the term volunteer while getting paid for training and calls. All fire departments in Ontario must now train to a minimal of NFPA standards. So in general most firefighters want to be paid if the community wants to maintain volunteers. The social life has mostly disappeared at the fire house along with the woobly pops. The general public doesn’t care if your are a volunteer or career firefighter when you attend a call. They look at the bunker gear and expect the same service whether in a large city or a rural town. With all the safety regulations, the training and the possibility of civil litigation the fun of volunteering has mostly been eroded. I think this brings delight to some career associations, as the pool of volunteers is starting to dry up and the full-time wagons are circling in wait to assist the communities with their fire service needs, but only if they will be able to afford it. Times have and are changing and many people have just lost interest unless there is a monetary value to it. Volunteering was a more virtuous term, but show me the money and full-time positions is where we are heading.

  • Jack

    I just retired after serving over 39 years as a volunteer firefighter/EMT in the heart of the midwest (Nebraska). It seemed when the next generation started joining the department is when the true volunteer started to leave. As a young member we had Volunteered not only to help our community members, we did fund raisers to buy help run our department. Now days the young want the word volunteer removed because the want rewarded for everything the do. One reason I retired, it just wasn’t the same when members expected to receive some just for helping your neighbor.

  • Alan Crawford

    As a proudly volunteer of 30+ years in a combination department. I recall something our chief told one our paid firefighters who boosted he was a professional firefighter and I was ONLY a volunteer. We are all professionals the only difference is you get paid for doing this and he does it for free.

  • Excellent article! PR is a huge issue in the volunteer fire service. I have been a fire chief for 6 years now and I have learned that whatever your department is doing you have to look at 2 things at all times. 1 is what you are doing tactically sound? 2 is what you are doing PR sound? And sometimes PR will out weigh tactics but not safety. Running out of water is bad PR. So we use lower gpm settings until our supply is established. The volunteer fire service continues to shoot itself in the foot with 70 year old fire Chiefs and the “good one boy” system.

  • John

    Paid Volunteer or Unpaid Volunteer, the men and women that serve their community would hardly care less. My Volunteer department is barely Minimum wage here in Ontario. It’s not a get rich quick or even considered a pt job. We all do it to help and serve our neighbors in their times of need. I know my self and a few others would do it without the monetary reimbursement as it barely even covers the gas. We leave our family and give up social events or the after work ‘pops’ so we all can be at our best for our community whenever they may need us. Be proud of who you are and where you come from but don’t be caught up in the wording. We are all Firefighters and have earned the title to be such. Volunteers should appreciate how hard it is to become career and career fire should appreciate we may little to none to do the same thing they do. We are all on the same team and at the end of the day the people of our community no matter where we serve are the most important people of all. Remember to keep them out of the politics and always do you very best, be proud of who you are and what you do.