A New Pyramid Scheme for Your Volunteer Fire Department




Scheme for Your

Volunteer Fire Department


One of the biggest challenges faced by today’s emergency services managers is people. Not enough people to respond, not enough people to serve on committees, not enough people to take on added responsibilities and not enough people to do all the jobs that need to get done.

The biggest challenge faced by today’s volunteer firefighter or EMS provider is time. Not enough time with the spouse and kids, not enough time to devote to our careers and not enough time to do what we love to do: volunteer.

The volunteer’s challenge thus becomes the volunteer manager’s challenge. Inasmuch as the fire department struggles to be everything it once was to the community 20 or 30 years ago, few individual volunteers have the time to be everything they once were to the fire department.

For over 200 years, the fire department has always been the go-to guys for virtually everything. If you needed your flooded basement pumped out, whom do you call? If a storm knocks down a tree and it blocks the roadway –the fire department gets called to remove the hazard. Who do even the police call when they can’t handle a situation? When the power goes out and the traffic signals are dark at every intersection in your town, the police call on the fire department to fill in and take over until power and order are restored.

In addition to being the “Jacks-of-all-trades” in natural and man-made emergencies, the fire department was once the social epicenter of the community. The firehouse is where your kids go to Boy or Girl Scout meetings. It’s where the community comes to vote, and it’s where they gather to demonstrate their support for another community member who has fallen on hard times. And it’s the place your friends and neighbors go to on Friday nights for a Lenten Fish Fry or just to enjoy a beverage. Our fathers and mothers joined, as did their fathers and mothers. And we joined too.

But things have changed, haven’t they?

The advent of DINKs (Double Income-No Kids) and MWCs (Married with Children), the infiltration of countless activity opportunities, and the influence of and dependency on technology have created a time warp that is working against the volunteer fire service. People have more choices but seemingly less control over their “disposable” free time.

So, how can we get the same job done with the same set of people who have less time to volunteer? The blunt reality is: we can’t any longer. Doing more with less isn’t working.

Ouch. That’s harsh.

OK then, what are our options? One option is to cut down on the overall workload to be done. It sounds easy but how do we accomplish it?

Look at the services you provide to your community. Which are mandated and which are enhanced or “plus” services you’ve tacked on over the years simply because you recognized and fulfilled a need – not because you were asked to.

Which are essential – and which can better be served by another town (fire or other) department better suited to deliver that service? If your manpower situation warrants it, face the hard facts and cut back to delivering only those services for which your municipality contracts and pays for.

For example, if your volunteers are struggling to keep up with the training and response requirements associated with your basic service offering, yet the added burden of specialized rescue training is keeping them from building on their core competencies – you have to ask yourself “Is it time to cut back on the number of services we provide?”

When we volunteers take on a job – being the over-achievers we are – we typically jump in with both feet. Unfortunately, we’ve jumped with both feet into so many jobs that we often spread ourselves too thin. We end up being fair or poor at a lot of things instead of being good at few.

I’m a firm believer of truly getting into a business – or getting the hell out. However you choose to address a particular task – do it completely. Do it right or don’t do it at all.


It’s pretty obvious that employing the option just discussed can be a double-edged sword. Reducing services can lead to reduced public support – financially and morally. Tread cautiously.

Fortunately… there are alternatives. Read on.

Another option is to attract more people to do smaller jobs individually. In other words, reduce the workload of each volunteer, but utilizing a larger total number of volunteers, collectively get the same or more work done. This option doesn’t come without its own set of challenges, though.

First of all, there’s the small problem of “where are we going to find more people?” You might say to yourself, “They’re not exactly breaking down our door to get in now!”

It all starts with a needs analysis. This is an idea that’s not new to traditional businesses and it’s an idea well covered in recruitment and retention resources like Chief Jack Snook’s “A Breed Apart” program and the “Problems and Solutions” guide published jointly by the National Volunteer Fire Council and the US Fire Administration.

What do you need more volunteers for? What specific jobs do you need them to perform and how many volunteers do you need to perform each job function? What type of volunteer is best suited to get the job done? Do you need someone capable of running into burning buildings or someone just as capable of balancing your department’s financial books?

An honest needs analysis both quantifies and qualifies your need for more volunteers. It sets the stage for how you structure, or re-structure your membership, as well as how you plan to attract the new volunteers you need.

Once you’ve completed the analysis you then need to create the opportunities for more people to volunteer. Your challenge is to create a work environment where people are allowed to work within their comfort zone – to specialize.

Thus, I encourage you to subscribe to my “new pyramid scheme” theory. But this is not your typical pyramid scheme. It’s no scam and it’s certainly no get-rich-quick scheme.

Take me for example. I don’t change the oil in my own car. Why would you want me responsible for maintaining the mechanical needs of a quarter million dollar piece of fire apparatus? It doesn’t make sense. It still needs to get done; it’s just that I’m not the right person for the job. It’s not that I’m not capable; it’s just not my forte.

But I do have my own comfort zone – my own set of talents or specialties. I can write, I can use a computer and I’m one of a few people who are comfortable in front of a camera articulating the needs of my department and the community in an emergency.

My fire chief, who through no fault of his own, is not as comfortable in front of a camera or microphone as I am. Thus, he appointed me as Public Information Officer and trusts me to deliver an accurate portrayal of the given situation and to promote our department in the proper light.

As a good manager, he lets me work within my comfort zone and, as a result, I strive to do a good job for him and the department. His challenge, and that of every other fire service leader, is to identify each of our strengths and weaknesses and to leverage us to the best of our given set of talents.

Let me take this concept one step further. To those departments who require/force new volunteers to be certified in everything, and in a short time frame: Firefighter 1 & 2, EMT, Rescue Technician, etc., etc. – I say good luck. While cross training is essential to a certain extent – going overboard can easily overwhelm most volunteers, burning them out prematurely.

I’ve coined a recruitment message that says, “Firefighting isn’t for everyone – but volunteering can be.” Not everyone has to be the person running into a burning building while all the sane people are running out.

We recognize that there’s plenty for everyone to do, on and behind the scene. It just takes good leadership and good management.

Thus, my department allows our individual volunteers to specialize, to be good at a few things instead of poor at a lot of things. We’ve opened our membership to offer the ultimate in flexibility. You can join to just do firefighting, EMS only, rescue only, fire police only or as a Fire Corps (www.firecorps.org) member to serve the department in a non-emergency role for administration and support.

We’ve had what we’ve called corporate or associate, and now Fire Corps members since 1990. The nationally coordinated Fire Corps program allows us to attract quality people to help us run the business of delivering emergency services to our community.

Fire Corps is for people who physically can’t or don’t have an interest in providing the hands-on services of the fire department – it’s not in their comfort zone. It’s for people who bring time and talents to the fire department that we may not currently possess.

Our Fire Corps members help us by promoting fire prevention; maintaining our web site; taking photos; writing grants; mentoring our youth; providing administrative and clerical support, public relations, equipment and apparatus maintenance; fund-raising; canteen services; typing reports; answering phone calls; managing records; landscaping and facilities maintenance – to name a few.

We like to think that from accounting to auto mechanics and everything in between ... if someone has a skill, experience or just a passion to contribute to our fire company and their community – we offer an opportunity for them to get and stay involved.

Here’s my theory about Fire Corps members. The average active volunteer firefighter wears multiple hats, also serving as social hall manager, fund-raiser, mechanic, groundskeeper, director, committee chairman, treasurer, secretary, etc. – all the jobs they didn’t sign up for when they signed up to be a firefighter.

If we can bring in one non-emergency (Fire Corps) team member, we can use that person to reduce the average multi-hat wearing firefighter’s work load by 50%. We then educate and encourage our members to give 25% of that time back to their family where it belongs.

By inserting the Fire Corps member into the equation, we’ve just increased our firefighter’s effectiveness to 75% - a net increase of 50% of their value to the fire department. And they get to spend more time doing what they signed up for, and love.

However, here’s the watch-out-for. Adding more volunteers at the bottom of the typical fire department organizational pyramid can come with a price if not managed properly. While the division of workload is spread across the widening bottom of the pyramid, it causes a shift of management burden to the top of the pyramid.

As I say in my Top Ten Commandments for Recruitment and Retention: ”Be careful what you wish for. More members equal more help, but it also equates to more people to manage and more personalities and people issues to deal with. However, this can’t deter you from recruiting more.”

In fact you may have to look at adding more “middle management” just to support, supervise, communicate with and motivate more “specialists” at the bottom of the organization chart. This middle management may include Captains, Lieutenants or Platoon Leaders.

I also strongly encourage you to appoint someone from within, or bring in someone from the outside specifically to manage and lead your Fire Corps program. You may even need additional “upper management” with more Assistant or Deputy Chiefs as necessary to maintain effective span of control.

Because, as we’ve learned from our NIMS and Incident Command System training, without effective span of control, the result is chaos. In this case, as the bottom of the people pyramid widens, we run the risk of the pyramid imploding if we don’t plan for more volunteers, if we don’t bolster the middle of the chain-of-command. It’s simple; you can only tug on both sides of a wish bone for so long before it snaps.

We need to recognize and admit that a job that once took 10 volunteers - 10 hours a week to accomplish may now require 20 volunteers who only have 5 hours a week to offer. You do the math.

I’m big on balance these days. As a manager in today’s emergency services community, your challenge, should you decide to accept it, is to educate and empower your volunteers to achieve better balance at home, work, play, school and the firehouse.

This balancing act is based on another equation in my Top 10 Commandments that says, “peace at home = peace at the firehouse.” No easy task by any means, but necessary nonetheless to survive and prosper in today’s time competitive environment.

As I stated earlier, few volunteer fire departments today can continue to be everything they once were to the community and few volunteers can afford the time to be everything they once were to the fire department.

And, I realize that embracing the Fire Corps concept may require a significant cultural shift in our attitude towards perceived “outsiders,” but I believe that the potential for success far outweigh the detractors. After all, admitting we have a problem and that we can’t do it alone are the first steps in any good “12-step program.”

Simply put, it’s my belief that the survival and success of the volunteer fire service relies on our ability to create more opportunities – for more people – to volunteer less time.

Our success depends upon our ability to effectively plan for, lead and manage volunteers, whether you don’t have enough – or you have more than you can handle. The possibilities for their involvement are only limited by our imagination.

Tiger Schmittendorf serves the County of Erie (Buffalo NY) Department of Emergency Services as Deputy Fire Coordinator and created a recruitment effort that doubled his own fire department’s membership and helped to net 525+ new volunteers countywide. He is a nationally certified fire instructor and has been a firefighter since 1980, currently serving the Evans Center Fire Company as Chief of Training and Public Information Officer (PIO). He suffers from an extremely dry sense of humor and routinely makes an ass of himself, often in public. He can be contacted by e-mail at tiger5@firehousezone.com.

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Comment by Mary Ellen Shea on March 7, 2008 at 11:58pm
Comment by Tiger Schmittendorf on March 7, 2008 at 11:48pm
That's Frank's brother, Fred. Our former town supervisor's name was Paul.

I'm pretty sure they're all related.
Comment by Mary Ellen Shea on March 7, 2008 at 11:45pm
that would be FRED Garvin....but in light of the rest of your message....a minor error.
Comment by ILDisasterEMT on March 7, 2008 at 11:31pm
Nice blog, again, Tiger. As you talk about the idea of getting people with specialties, etc to take over things that tax the resources of firefighters. I wonder what has happened to the "rank" of fire sargent and what exactly that particular "NCO's" duties and authority within the fire service were/are. I know we used to have them in my department, but to my knowledge, we dont currently. As in the military, it seems that the sargent could be the backbone...the link between the firefighters and the line officers and administration. He/she could be given tasks that he could either complete him/herself or delegate to juniors, explorers, etc. Our problem is that we are firefighter heavy (approximately 100 volunteers) with relatively few officers. Perhaps after the probie year, and passing certain other requirements, the sarge could assist as liaison between the FFs and officers, be trained in public information, web admin, serve as a training officer to those who come in with absolutely no fire, EMS or rescue experience. If anyone can talk to me about the role of FireSarge, I would be glad to hear anything you have to say, as it is something that I am wanting to write a proposal for in my department. Thanks and once again, great blog/article, I like the idea of the Fire Corps and will be looking into that in great depth. Another direct hit rom the Tiger.

SK, FF2(Trainee) NPFD, Northern IL.
Comment by Tiger Schmittendorf on March 7, 2008 at 11:12pm
Thanks Art -

As you can see, my struggles with these same issues have exceeded my capacity to contain my inner-monologue, resulting in this blog.

I actually wrote this piece about 6 years ago but I feel its relevance is more time-sensitive now than ever before.

Unfortunately, some days I'm better at writing about balance than I am at practicing it. Nonetheless, I am ever-conscious of it.

As I've shared with you and others in my inner circle, recent events have caused me to repeat my own personal history of simply shifting my energies and priorities from one endeavor to the next. In the case of my fire company, their loss is many others' gain.

In doing so, I've learned firsthand some of the possible answers to your question of: "What do we use as the measuring stick to determine if someone’s plate is full?"

Often it takes a life-altering event to enlighten you as to when your plate is full. Sometimes the wake-up call comes from your family, your employer, your friends, your spouse or your body.

Or, if you're lucky, the message comes through loud and clear from your mind and your heart before the others catch on and it's too late.

I was fortunate enough to be blessed with that insight from my friends and confidants before my obsessions became obstacles to real success in my life. Whether you know it or not, you are one of those people.

That's not to say that I can ever be anything less than vigilant in identifying the warning signs, and diligent in striving for balance in my life for the health and welfare of myself and others I care about.

That being said: Thanks. I can’t wait to meet you.

PS – I would welcome the opportunity for all of us to discuss this at greater length. It would be quite the mass debate.


Frank Garvin
Male Prostitute
Comment by Mary Ellen Shea on March 6, 2008 at 12:53pm
I resemble that remark.

Comment by Art "ChiefReason" Goodrich on March 6, 2008 at 12:41pm
When I was younger and first starting out on our volunteer fire department, I was also an EMT with our local ambulance service, a village board trustee, a full time manager for a company and a summer league baseball coach. And I guess that I was “fairly” good at all of it. I made lieutenant after two years on, had some good saves as an EMT, got some new businesses to locate in our village, company that I worked for was profitable and I helped coach several championship teams. Of course, the people had a lot to do with it too.
But, you make me wonder how much better at any of it I would have been if I had cut my plate in half. You know the saying: “I ain’t fast; I ain’t slow; I’m half-fast”? I guess that was me.
I have looked into the eye of this storm that you describe in your blog for some time.
What do we use as the measuring stick to determine if someone’s plate is full? Is it fair to gauge everyone by your own strong commitment? Is it fair to expect the same level of involvement as our’s? Is it fair to expect the others to even learn at the same SPEED as us? Is it practical to tailor your processes to an individual’s schedule? What would be considered reasonable?
What constitutes “quality” time at the fire station? Training is quality time, most certainly, as long as the training is interactive, adds to the basic firefighter’s toolbox and provides a service that fits your community’s needs. Keeping the rigs clean is one that I waver on. I like finding the bad kids who have community service to wash our stuff. Who knows; may it will turn them around to where they might want to become a …COP!
Accurately gauging needs is absolute, because if you take the administrative, maintenance and other non-traditional firefighter duties and put them with non-firefighter personnel, then you have either given the firefighters more time with their families which to some will mean more time with their buddies or you have increased the amount of training hours that you can now deliver with the windfall of more hours.
Tiger, me boy, you have given me much to think about.
I will be consulting with the little guy in my head. Maybe we will do a Blog/Counter-Blog (Jane; you ignorant slut)! That would be a hoot. Crotty could referee. Mel could…naw; she needs to practice getting out of bed.
Always thought-provoking. Never dull.
Comment by LadyChaplain on March 6, 2008 at 12:52am
My english teacher would still beat you with a ruler though for starting a sentence with "and"...
Comment by Bob on March 5, 2008 at 11:07pm
Tiger, you make some great points and I hope it generates some productive discussion. If change can be made on a global level rather than one company at a time it would be more easily accepted. Thanks for bringing this up.
Comment by Mary Ellen Shea on March 5, 2008 at 8:41pm
This article is running in the March issue of FASNY's "The Volunteer Firefighter" magazine....go to www.fasny.com and follow the link to the current issue.

For those that may not be aware, Tiger will also be presenting a program on Leadership for the Fire Service at the FASNY Fall Conference on Oct. 25 at the Holiday Inn in Albany, NY. Save the date; you don't want to miss this one.

Nice job Tiger, as always. Thanks for making my job so easy. I wish all our contributors and presenters did the same.

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