I’m sure some fire-service leaders are going to disagree with this assertion, but I’ve pondered this matter for a long time. It seems very clear to me that the toughest job in the fire service does not belong to the United States Fire Administrator or the superintendent of the National Fire Academy. Nor does it belong to the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters or the head of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. The most challenging position in emergency services work is not held by the commissioner of the FDNY, and you wont find it in other metro departments, such as those serving Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta or Chicago. The toughest job in the fire service doesn’t belong to Firehouse magazine editor or president of an apparatus company. And it cannot be found in any government bureaucracy, big city department or national organization.
The toughest job in the fire service is a position held by thousands of men and women across the United States. I’m talking about the volunteer fire chief of any rural fire department. As a long-time career chief, I’m in awe of the responsibilities and burdens that my colleagues carry when they hold that job. I sometimes wonder how small, remote communities can get anyone to assume the role of fire chief. It certainly takes someone with an intense dedication to fire protection and a deep commitment to his community. Simply because they represent very small departments which usually operate with astonishingly limited resources these rural volunteer chiefs are frequently overlooked when accolades are handed out. I think that’s a shame, because they take a back seat to no one when it comes to fire-service leadership. Let me explain.
Small communities and rural areas that can support a volunteer fire department (and many of them cannot) are rarely able to provide that department with sufficient dollars or manpower to adequately meet even the minimum fire-protection needs of the community. All of us cry budget crunch, but what if you had to fight and scrape just to get a 30-year-old, well-used government surplus tanker? And what if that was your only apparatus? Or you had to accept 10 to 15-year-old twice-handed-down turnout gear just to get some protective clothing for your personnel?
Talk about doing more with less: Just imagine trying to recruit volunteer firefighters in a community that’s rapidly losing its young people to faraway cities, because there are so few jobs to be had locally. And how would you administer a training program that consists of nothing more than a handful of out-of-date textbooks, with no additional money to send anyone away for training and no locally available certified fire instructor to provide it? How comfortable with fireground communications could you be with 25-year-old surplus handy-talkies? Or consider that your company officers are 19-year-olds with so little experience that they can remember both of the house fires they’ve witnessed. Or try managing logistics when you have to send a firefighter in his private pickup truck more than 40 miles (round-trip) just to get your departments only three SCBA bottles refilled.
If you think I’m exaggerating, you’ve obviously not stepped out into the real world of fire and rescue services, as it exists in many regions of this nation. I’ve always believed that the smaller the fire department, the more difficult it is to lead. Small departments and volunteer fire chiefs don’t have secretaries to handle their administrative workload but that doesn’t reduce the paperwork load any. In many States they must meet the same regulatory requirements as career departments. These chiefs don’t have staffs of training officers, fire marshals, operations chiefs, public education specialists, arson investigators, apparatus maintenance technicians, research and development officers, public information officers, purchasing agents or administrative assistants but they still must handle the same variety of tasks that have to be performed in any department, large or small. If these rural fire chiefs are truly blessed, they may have a dependable assistant chief to help them face the challenges confronting them.
In many places, the rural volunteer fire chief must answer to a board of directors (or commissioners) made up of citizens from the community folks who know little to nothing about fire protection and are frequently serving on the board only in hopes of keeping department costs down. Anyone who thinks big-city politics is rough has not experienced how really personal and nasty small-town politics can be. In yet other departments, the chief answers to an elected board made up of the very same firefighters he or she must lead on the fireground. A volunteer fire chief in such a position must cautiously navigate this turf in order to have any success in moving his department forward. And he must frequently do this alone, with no one watching his back. These remote departments rarely have other departments close enough to provide networking opportunities with colleagues who may be in similar situations.
These small and rural volunteer department chiefs must be able to do it all! They have to recruit and train firefighters, keep records, manage the books, raise funds, find affordable equipment, buy fire trucks (if they are lucky enough to have the money), maintain the firehouse (provided they have one), respond to and command all incidents, enforce the fire code (if possible), determine fire causes, write reports, deal with dwindling water supplies, direct the cleanup, answer to the community and be all things fire to everyone’s satisfaction. The remarkable thing is that many of these dedicated fire-service leaders hold their positions for many, many years without receiving a dime of compensation and no recognition at all, except for the title of fire chief.
And now we also expect volunteer chiefs to write grant proposals and create programs that politicians can point to (and take credit for). In many cases, these volunteer chiefs are holding the limited fire protection of their communities together by the sheer force of their leadership. They rarely receive help from sources outside their own communities, and the limited resources that they must work with are all that the community can provide. In many places, the local volunteer fire department is the sole community service because there is no incorporated municipality or even a legally created taxing district. These departments literally try to buy equipment with proceeds from bake sales, car washes and donations. In some cases, the fire chief holds that title because he or she the only person in the community with any formal fire training. Fire chiefs can be young or old, male or female, farmers, businesspeople or tradesfolk. They take many hours from their work and families to keep the local fire department viable.
I think we should all take time to recognize that much of our country would have virtually no fire protection at all if not for the personal dedication and energy of rural volunteer fire chiefs. If the rest of us were put into a similar leadership situation, I wonder how many would demonstrate the same extensive commitment that these fire-service heroes do. The size of the community does not determine how tough the fire chief’s job is. The most challenging jobs are most likely found in the nations smallest communities.