Combination Department Problems?

Combination Department Problems? Perhaps it’s time for some: Creative Professional Development.
     The situation presented before us is not an uncommon one. Many combination departments today are struggling with recruitment, resources, and training. Each department, no matter its circumstances, needs to begin with an honest evaluation of where they currently are: their strengths, weaknesses, deficiencies and where do they want to be in the future. This is the strategic planning in its basic form. In this case, the department would be focusing on the area of training.
     First, a plan must be established, one that is expandable and that is feasible for the department to sustain. After conducting an assessment of the department; areas that would be identified could be:
Current number of members who are certified vs. proficient members
-Or-
Current members who are not attending or not maintaining their hours. 
The Fire Department  leadership should meet with them and assess whether or not they will continue as active members or consider another role within the department. This seems harsh but is a necessary burden of leadership in order to maintain the services that the community depends upon.
Fire Department Leadership should also consider the current department resources for training such as: budget, members who have outside resources such as access to construction materials etc., and grant opportunities for training.
     Consider the example of a two station combination volunteer department who are struggling to get their members to attend training:
    In a combination department, the training must be offered where all members can attend (paid and volunteer). Thus the standard Monday night training schedule may not be adequate for the organization. A recommendation that may be helpful would be to develop the training curriculum and a training calendar. For example, Station 1 training would be offered on the 1rst Monday of each month during the day and night and Station 2 training would be offered on the 2nd Monday of each month day and night. 
     This calendar would give the company officers a monthly topic that they must focus on. The topic will have clear outline and objectives. Every quarter the two stations will have a special training that allows them to perform the past three consecutive skill sets in an incident based training format. For example if the preceding three months were on hose, ground ladders, and SCBA. The incident based training could be a VEIS scenario or a room and contents fire while simultaneous vertical ventilation efforts are being conducted. 
    This format allows for flexibility but the quarterly training would be the most critical as it serves as a quality assurance standard. The organizational leadership would review their performance and thus would show if the company officers have been doing their job. If individuals fail to meet the objectives, a meeting with the leadership is conducted, and the members are given the same training again with additional help by leadership to insure their success. These hours and training sessions are documented and assist in maintaining the required training hours by the state of NC (36 hours per member). During the course of these quarterly assessments, the department’s leadership could use this as an opportunity to identify potential future leaders and document their performance as criteria for selection. This helps prevent the election bias that is prevalent in many combination departments. In short, the organization would be choosing the most qualified rather than the most liked member.
     Certain fire service training is often deemed cost prohibitive but in reality “if we have a fire station and a fire truck we have all we need to train.” (Billy Goldfedder). The fundamentals of firefighting are based upon each member’s ability to execute them flawlessly. The training curriculum and drills are only limited by the imagination of the training officer. With the tremendous amount of free resources on-line, a training officer can easily come up with drills lasting as short as five minutes up to eight hours or more. 
     As the department implements the schedule, conducts quarterly reviews, a fire department representative should be looking into grants to assist with purchasing and building training props. A simple outbuilding can house a forcible entry prop, a Pittsburg drill, a Denver drill, and more. Our station had a custom made forcible entry prop for $1200 by a firefighter who is a welder. 
     These training sessions do not have to interfere with minimum staffing and can actually enhance staffing. For example, if the Monday night training sessions are not well attended and now due to the popularity and enjoyment of the training the department has 50% of its members their on Monday night let us consider how much better the response to the community will be because of this initiative.
Organizational Buy-In:
If we build it, doesn’t necessarily mean they will come. As the department plans out their training calendar these points should be considered:
Firefighters need to be given more than one opportunity to attend training per month. Volunteer firefighters have families and full-time jobs thus their time is limited.  A Monday night and a daylight training session should be offered to allow training opportunities for both paid and volunteers. As previously mentioned, if it is split between the two stations there could be four different opportunities for training each month. As studies have shown, that most paid firefighters for combination departments do not live in the response area.
Make it worth their time: One might stop reading this and say “All training is worth their time! Heresy! Burn this guy at the fire department stake!” But stay with me for a moment, every department is different but we all have the same problems. We suffer from a lack of time to complete everything on our list and if we have the time we don’t have the financial resources. Consider what you do have: Internet connection, Big Screen TV, fire trucks, and a bay? A simple training facility was just described based on what this department already has. The department’s leadership should consider making the training fun, applicable to their department, and to the point. Many firefighters know other firefighters who are top notch instructors and many of those same instructors are willing to teach such organizations or develop training curriculum for free if we would but ask them. 
Enlist the support of the youth: Firefighters today are young and they are smart. Many of them know how to do things with technology that we couldn’t imagine. For example, for $50 dollars one can plug an I-phone into a flat screen TV and use a fire simulator app to conduct Fire ground simulations with photos taken from your own response area. Find the firefighter who loves technology and encourage them. A leader would be wise to collectively analyze the strengths and expertise of its members and use them accordingly. Consider making training videos and sharing them with the membership to encourage them. There are movie apps available on smart phones and I have personally made training videos in as quickly as an hour.
Other resources: Many combination fire departments have Fire auxiliaries. A primary reason for volunteers failing to attend training is the prohibitive nature of removing them from their families. If the membership embraces the auxiliary concept, becomes organized, they could feasibly provide a covered dish meal each Monday night training session. These members could provide child care and thereby allowing the membership to grow and become what the fire service truly is: a family!
In conclusion, the combination fire departments face many challenges today but the creative minds of today can offer many solutions to these challenges. Each department has a wealth of knowledge under their roof. The department leadership should ‘get to know’ each member and conduct an assessment of their hobbies, likes, expertise, and any special skills. They should know about their family, their work schedules, and what their member’s priorities are. For example if 50 percent of your membership is devout Catholic then scheduling training on a night when Mass is normally held is a bad idea. Our departments are comprised of people who have lives outside of the fire service. If a combination department, or any department for that matter, wants to be truly successful they have to care enough to know their people. In this way, the relationships are strengthen and as a leader one would know who to select, when to schedule an event, and how to do it because they know their people.
Instructor Andy Starnes
Copyright 2014

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