VOLUNTEERS! The very best and worst of the American Fire Service

When I think about who is most capable of embodying the best qualities of the fire service the group that comes to mind, without hesitation, is volunteers. If you are one who is able to balance a job, calls, training, and family with the high risk and zero monetary reward of volunteering then you have truly got something. But what about those who don’t meet the standard? How do we deal with the volunteers out there who chose not to rise to that calling? I believe that bringing up a group of proud, dedicated, “all in,” volunteers is more than just some pipe dream. I have personally spent over five years as a volunteer, both as a firefighter and an officer. A portion of that time overlapped with my career service. The volunteer side of the fire service was one of the best things that I’ve ever been able to participate in and I will always look with fondness upon my time there. Now that I’ve done a little bit of hero worship and most of you have put your pitchforks away after reading the title, let’s get into some issues.

Most of us have pride in the work we do. I can think of numerous situations where word got back to a member of my volunteer department that a member from a nearby career department had spoken ill of our work. First off, fuck those guys. But secondly, they might have just a smidgeon of a reason to say those things. As volunteers we break out the war drums over statements like these but maybe we should first be asking ourselves if we really are meeting the standard. If we are not, then there needs to be a plan on how we are going to get there. I know from experience that many of the people who seem to be the most concerned with being considered, “just as good as those guys,” are the same guys who I would have wanted nowhere near my families’ emergency. The same people who had plenty of time to drink their weekends away but no time to better themselves at the job they were supposedly so proud of. The same people who couldn’t deploy our minute-man 6 months after they had been put in service. The same people who will work harder to stay unsatisfactory in their skills than they would to accept new trainings. You want to be the best? You might have to get out of bed for that 3am frequent flyer every once in a while. You might have to put in the same amount of effort as those paid jerks. “Well we just don’t have all day to sit around and train,” is a cop out, plain and simple. But that’s what makes a good volunteer so great–the denial of self. Volunteers who consistently choose to deny their comfort in pursuit of excellence are the ones who make the volunteer service something in which to be truly proud. They say water boils from the bottom up. Promoting and nurturing a culture that has no acceptance for mediocrity is going to address these problem individuals. This promotion of excellence needs to be a movement that eventually involves all levels of your organization. This is a process that may take years to bring about. Keep in mind that once you initiate this process you are going to make yourself a target of the recliner jockeys. This culture change is hard work and will require a spirit of patience and persistence. Don’t forget that what you’re working towards is greater than your temporary comfort. Confucius is attributed with saying, “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

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I believe for many volunteer departments the bar is set entirely too low. An excuse I’ve heard from some volunteer chief’s for their acceptance of failure is, “Well if they can just show up every once in a while and drive a tanker then that’s alright.” It’s not alright. It is not alright to suck. Period. Furthermore this attitude of acceptance of mediocrity only breeds more mediocrity and places undue stress on those company officers and senior firefighters who will have to deal with those individuals’ PPP (Piss Poor Performance) on a regular basis. Look I get it, they wanted the bugles but let’s not add unnecessary bullshit to their plates when they’re already overflowing. In response to the aforementioned statement, I believe for the most part that people are far more capable than we give them credit for. I also believe that higher standards will breed a higher level of performance. A rising tide lifts all boats. Most people gravitate towards excellence and those who don’t will get the picture real quick. If my children don’t meet the standard I set for them should I lower the standard? Hardly. If I am a father worth my salt I will work tirelessly to bring my children up to the standard rather than just lowering the bar to meet their current level of performance. Likewise should we be lowering the bar to whatever depths we find the boat anchors sinking to? I think you can answer that one. If you can identify that you have a problem with unqualified volunteers then don’t just stand around with your hands in your pockets, shoulders shrugged saying, “Well gaaaaawlee, I just don’t know what to do about this.” Start taking steps to remedy the situation, for your community and for your firefighters. Along with keeping proficient with skills, your company officers should be conducting trainings that promote decision making. If your station is out together ask questions that relate to different structures and your operational guidelines.

-How are our drivers going to handle this driveway?

-Fire on side Charlie, how will we stretch?

-Where is our nearest draft site?

-What hose lines will we deploy on this structure for a room and contents? What about 50% involvement? Who will be paged on the initial alarm?

Keep your team sharp and don’t ever pass up opportunities to get better. If you need more ideas, start with YouTube (don’t forget your bullshit detectors though). Fire Engineering and FDIC’s page both have a wealth of drills, webcasts, and podcasts on their, “Training,” pages.

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I know from conversations at gas stations with ol’ Joe Public that most of them have no clue if we are volunteer or career or if our stations are staffed for 24 hours or not. With that in mind they also just expect service. No wants to call 911 and have the b-team show up to their emergency. This is why we need critical thinkers! They expect top shelf performance and maximum effort because they can’t just call the other fire department when they have a, “real emergency.” By accepting the label of fire department you are saying that whoever shows up is going to know their stuff.

The truth of the matter is that while our problems may vary in size or frequency both volunteer and career experience many of the same problems. It doesn’t matter which side you fall on, you need to identify your excuses and cut those things out like a tumor. We have a long history of putting others before ourselves out of a selfless sense of duty. Don’t let that traditions that make this the greatest job in the world fall by the wayside.


As always #trainon


Firefighter Burt Roberts

Senior Staff Correspondent


  1. Great article, you hit the nail on the head.

  2. True, but I don’t believe you cannot make blanket statements, broad brush remedies or demands when you’re talking about this many people, with this many life situations who volunteer for the sake of giving. If one person can give 50 hours a week, 20 or even two, we need to best utilize what is offered. Not saying standards or expectations should be lowered at all, but one size never fits all unless all have the same size foot and ability to fill it.

  3. Not only does the public not know if we are volunteer or career, the fire doesn’t care which we are. The dangers are the same on each response.

  4. Commenting about those 3am frequent fliers, i think part of our downfall as volunteers is discouragement from other guys who are the cancer in the department. I know it happens to me, i wake up for the CO call at 3am, and im the only one at the house, or we have a crew and no driver. after a certain number of times, im going to say fuck it and roll over too, gaining a bad habit. also ive noticed a certain group of guys whos face you only see when the pager says confirmed fire. We need to help ourselves, but sometimes we are our own worst enemy

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