When it comes to personnel, volunteer fire departments are no different than corporations or nonprofit groups. They all need people in the boat rowing toward the same agreed-upon destination. And while that rowing requires hard skills, like a strong back, it also requires soft skills — such as the ability to work as part of a team. In firefighting, the hard skills are critical for a successful fireground or rescue operation.
Whether it’s rolling a dash or repacking a hose bed, hard skills are essential. But the soft skills also play a part in these successes, and just as importantly, they are critical for running a successful volunteer fire department — that is, everything that happens in between the tones.
Hard skills can be taught. With practice and guidance, people can learn to ladder a building, run a pumper, set up a dump tank, and vent a roof much the same as they can learn to code software or manage a business’ tax obligation. The soft skills, how we approach others, are often learned as children. Volunteer fire departments may not be able to teach something like ethics the way they can teach removing a car door, but department leaders can set expectations and live by example to promote those soft skills.
While not an easy task, it is important to approach recruiting and hiring volunteer firefighters with those soft skills front of mind. It will make running emergency scenes and the department much easier with people on board who are all willing to row in the same direction at the same time.
Here’s a look at the six top characteristics, soft and hard, to look for when recruiting volunteer firefighters.
1. Integrity and Ethics
This may be the most important and the hardest to test for in any recruitment process. There are some low-cost test options that volunteer chiefs can include in their application procedures to help weed out those who don’t adhere to a high standard of professional and personal ethics. Background checks are also a must to determine if the individual has a pattern of questionable judgment. Of course, the first step is to ensure you have a sound application and interview process that includes these background checks.
But ethics is more than an individual thing, it’s cultural. Volunteer fire department leaders can steer the culture by setting clear expectations for its members’ ethical behavior — and following through when those expectations are not met. They also need to set an unwavering example for department ethics. This needs to be conveyed from the grand scale — don’t steal items from a house fire — to the everyday behaviors — if there’s an honor system coffee fund, pony up every time you take a cup, without exception.
2. Desire to Serve
Fighting fire is exciting and there’s no denying it. But even the men and women on the Chicago Fire Department don’t see as much action as do the actors on “Chicago Fire.” And for volunteers running a few hundred calls per year, if that, there’s not a lot to satisfy the adrenaline junkie’s cravings. Most of the calls involve helping Mrs. Smith off the floor and into her chair, dumping oil dry at fender-benders, telling someone their carbon monoxide alarm is going off because it’s 15 years old, and picking Mrs. Smith up off the floor, again.
To run calls like that, and to do it with the same care and professionalism as a smoke-showing call, takes a person who wants to help others. If helping others is not your potential recruits’ main driver, they will quickly grow bored and quit — or worse, grow disgruntled and stay.
Be upfront during the interview process about the less-than-exciting aspects of volunteer firefighting. And look for clues in your applicant’s past that indicates a desire to help. Ask to see what other groups, causes or events they’ve donated time and energy to. Those other civic groups are often fertile recruiting grounds for volunteer firefighters and where you may find more viable candidates.
As Chief Alan Brunacini often said, “Be nice.” That’s easy enough when you are helping someone you know, like or who looks or acts like you. But Mrs. Smith, who only seems to fall at 3 a.m. in the morning, can be difficult. She may be a retired school teacher who busted your chops in the second grade, someone whose yard sported a political sign for “that” candidate, or someone who calls the council to gripe about you tracking mud on her carpet at 3 a.m. Yet, you have to be nice to her—she’s the customer. They all are.
It takes a high level of emotional maturity to set aside prejudices and personal pet peeves to treat everyone who calls for help with courtesy, respect, and kindness. It is equally important that the new volunteer can treat fellow firefighters with these same behaviors. Check with past and current employers to see how your applicant interacts with coworkers and customers.
4. Willingness to Learn
Technology is now advancing faster than the human brain can adapt to it. There are few places to hide from change, and the volunteer fire department is not one of them. Even if the department never gets all the latest whiz-bang gizmos, there are constant changes to firefighter training methods, understanding of fire behavior, and to the new threats that the team may face. A firefighter stuck in the past and unwilling to learn new tricks is a danger to himself and the crew.
As is true in the private sector, volunteer fire departments will be more successful when their members are life-long learners. Seek out candidates who exhibit intellectual curiosity. Ask interview questions like: “Tell about something you recently learned” and “What do you hope to be good at in the next two or three years?”
5. Physical Fitness
Physical strength and endurance may seem like a purely hard skill, but it’s not. Some individuals are naturally stronger than others. However, a lifestyle commitment to healthy eating, exercise, and good life habits speak to a person’s drive and ability to delay instant gratification for long-term achievements.
A physical aptitude test during the interview process is a good starting point. It not only gives you a baseline measure of how fit the potential members are but it also conveys the importance your volunteer department places on physical wellbeing.
A candidate with firefighting or EMS certifications and experience can be ideal. It’s why two-hatters make such great additions to volunteer departments. But most candidates do not show up with a stack of certifications in hand. Question them in the interviews about their talents, hobbies, jobs, and skills. Mechanical, carpentry or electrical skills are at a premium and help both on the scene and in the apparatus bay.
But don’t overlook the other skills that can help your department. If your applicants are skilled accountants, publicists, computer technicians or a host of other professions, consider how those talents can be plugged in to fill your department’s needs or untapped opportunities. For many departments, running the department and raising money occupy more time than do emergency response. A good fire academy and ongoing training program will teach emergency-scene skills. But those other skills applicants bring to the table can be a terrific asset and help make your fire department more successful overall.