If you’ve been a volunteer firefighter for any length of time at some point in your career you’ve heard one of your brothers or sisters say, “I’m just a volunteer”. Usually this phrase is used when the user is looking for an excuse NOT to do something. Over the years I’ve heard this phrase most commonly used when it comes to training. It’s usually stated something like this, “All of these training requirements are killing the volunteer fire service. Don’t they understand that we’re just volunteers!” Let’s think about that statement for a moment. How is our job as a volunteer firefighter any different than that of our career brothers and sisters? Does the fire stop you at the front door and ask for your union card? Sure there are some differences, most of us don’t work a dedicated shift, we don’t know who we are going to be working with from call to call and the obvious difference, we are not being compensated for our time.
Just because you put the word volunteer before firefighter doesn’t give you the right to be any less prepared to do your job or any less prepared to provide those that you protect professional service. When a citizen dials 911 in need of the fire department, it’s typically the worst day of their life. They aren’t concerned with whether the crew that arrives on the scene is career or volunteer, but they do expect trained professionals that can address the emergency at hand.
There are social media pages dedicated to the mocking of volunteer firefighters. Often we are referred to as hobbyists, pancake flippers or foundation savers. Are we deserving of these titles? Some of us are and those that use the “just a volunteer” excuse are included in that group. Are your members posting videos of themselves dancing around their bedroom or the fire station in their turnout gear? Is this an acceptable practice within your organization? Sure, we want our members to enjoy being a part of our organization and proud to be a firefighter, but they shouldn’t be on social media portraying us as a bunch of circus clowns. This is not acceptable and doesn’t portray us as people that take our job seriously.
Can a Volunteer be a Professional?
Yes we can! I once heard a Chief say that you only volunteer once; the day that you hand in your application. After that, it’s your job! The first step in being a professional is to separate the word volunteer from firefighter, because that’s what we are or are aspiring to be, firefighters! Let’s look at the definition of the word “professional”. When used as a noun, professional is defined as “a person competent or skilled in a particular activity”. How does one become competent or skilled? Simply stated, training and on the job experience. On the job experience should not be confused with years of service as these metric can differ greatly depending on location and call volume. We as firefighters, regardless of whether we are career or volunteer, need to dedicate ourselves to the art of being a firefighter. In order to do that we need to dispense with the excuses and get to work. As a service we should be promoting the highest of standards, not low or mediocre ones. When we look at the training standards that I referred to earlier, let's remember that those are typically the minimum requirements. As individuals performing tasks that can at times lead to saving a life or losing one we should not be satisfied with the minimum. If you dedicate yourself to the job of being a firefighter, you can operate as and become a skilled professional. This requires you to work consistently at being better at your craft and to set your performance standards high.
When the Alarm Sounds, Nobody Cares if You’re Career or Volunteer
The public expects professional and competent personnel to help them in their time of need. Have pride in yourself and realize that professionalism has everything to do with your attitude, commitment and dedication. Most importantly, how do we approach the job? Do we approach it as a professional or do we have a “just a volunteer mentality”? There are countless organizations in need of volunteers across the country, but few of them require you to put your life on the line and the lives of others in your hands. If that’s not what you signed up for, then I would suggest that you reevaluate your decision to join the fire service. If it is, immerse yourself in being the best that you can be.
Remember, a paycheck doesn’t make you a professional, how you approach the job does!
-Brian Soller is a 30-year fire service veteran. He currently serves as the Chief of the Rock Hill Fire Department and as a State Fire Instructor in Sullivan County, NY. Brian speaks extensively on the promotion of professionalism in the volunteer fire service through his podcast, “The Professional Brotherhood™” and via Facebook and Instagram.