Combi Concerns: Fostering unity & diversity in a traditionally competitive & conflicted environment

Combi Concerns

Fostering unity & diversity in a traditionally competitive & conflicted environment
By Dan Eggleston, EFO, CFO, CMO

The definition of the term “combination” is the act of combining or the state of being combined. It seems rather simplistic, doesn’t it? Like a recipe, just combine a number of ingredients to create the end product. Unfortunately, some fire service and government leaders believe that leading a combination fire department is just a “simple recipe,” and they become frustrated and ineffective when conflict consumes the department.  

Conflict surrounding combination departments has been around for years. As cities continued to urbanize during the 1800s and fire losses increased, career firefighters—or “hirelings,” as some were called (talk about a label)—were integrated into volunteer departments in what are now large cities across the country. Conflicts were often settled with fights in the streets, newspaper articles demonizing one side or the other, and acts of revenge, such as volunteers being locked out of stations or career staff’s equipment being vandalized.

Oh, wait—we have the same things going on today. So what have we learned? Is conflict just inevitable? Although there’s no magic bullet in the leader’s arsenal when it comes to leading combination departments, there are a number of strategies we can use to reduce conflict and keep a combination system focused on the mission of saving lives and property.

Drop the Labels
Remember back in grade school when the teacher lined up the kids at recess, assigned captains (and for the record, I don’t recall the teacher following any established promotional process), and the captains went about choosing their teams? Sure, there was that painful process of choosing the last set of kids for the teams, but what also occurred was the establishment of labels or identities: red team, blue team, etc. Granted, you can’t have a kickball game without having competing teams, but take a step back and consider how we set up teams in our own combination departments.

Competition, if managed effectively, can be a healthy motivator for any organization, especially for a fire department packed with type A personalities. However, are we setting ourselves up for failure when we have the career staff “red team” and the volunteer staff “blue team”? I’ve been in many stations that have a volunteer engine and a career engine or segregated day-rooms and bunk rooms. It sounds obvious when someone suggests combining teams with a mixture of career and volunteer, but the missing ingredient to this simple approach is to drop the label of career or volunteer.

Individuals are now part of a team, and although the members have differences in terms of backgrounds and talents, they should share a unified mission and a set of organizational values.
Volunteer and career firefighters join the fire service for the same reasons: to serve and protect the public. We should have fun at our jobs and enjoy what we do, because satisfaction through our work is the long-term motivator, not money or extrinsic rewards.

At the basic level, firefighters should be competent at their jobs, whatever their role in the department; conduct themselves in a professional manner, both in appearance and interaction with each other and the public; and contribute to the department’s mission. Quite honestly, a volunteer or career member with any other primary purpose should find another place to work.

Beyond this basic purpose, career and volunteer firefighters share common interests of family, sports, recreation, etc. (it’s best to stay away from religion and political views when searching for common interests). In fact, many departments find it beneficial for volunteer and career members to share their common interests by participating in activities together outside the department. The bottom line: Take away the labels, and we’re more alike than we are different.

Develop the Teamwork Triangle
Remember the fire triangle you learned years ago? Of course, the fire triangle has been replaced with the fire tetrahedron, but in simple terms, the logic behind the fire triangle is that a fire naturally occurs when the elements are combined in the right mixture, and it’s prevented or extinguished by removing any one of them.

Now, replace fuel, heat and oxygen with volunteer, career and commitment. A leader should consider their combination department’s teamwork approach using this analogy. That is, a unified combination department that is mission-focused takes the contributions of the career staff, the volunteers and the commitment from all players to make the department successful. Take away any one of those elements, and the “flame” will go out. This teamwork triangle analogy helps to illustrate that everyone contributes to the department’s ability to deliver services, and that attitude and commitment are vital elements.

I recognized this teamwork triangle when I was a fire chief of a combination department that had a demanding workload in terms of daily activities and emergency calls. The department had a small career staff that primarily took care of daytime operations—responding to calls, maintaining equipment and dealing with administrative duties. As evening hours approached, volunteer crews came in to boost staffing levels to meet the busier demands and to relieve career staff from a full day’s work. When the department had problems filling volunteer duty crews, career staff stepped up to make calls to help fill vacancies. When career staff needed a break or time off, volunteers filled in.

This climate created an opportunity for volunteer and career staff to build a team based on mutual respect. The department realized that it takes the contribution of volunteer and career staff to make the department work and that no one individual is more important than the department as a whole. Because of the interdependent relationship, firefighters looked beyond the traditional labels and realized the value that each contributed to the team.  

Start Small, Think Broad
So where do you start? A wise leader once told me, “Son, don’t boil the ocean.” Start small. Choose a shift or crew that has the best attitude and build your team from there. Choose natural leaders who understand and respect people, people who embrace the vision and can inspire others to do the same. Think about opportunities to create shared experiences, such as training events, projects or other tasks that keep people focused on the purpose. Remember to build on small successes, because teamwork and trust take time, and long-term results must happen at a natural pace.

Leading combination departments can be one of the most challenging jobs of any fire service leader, but at the same time, it can be one of the most rewarding. Combination departments are inherently destined for conflict if we allow ourselves to concentrate on differences rather than similarities. But this problem isn’t going away; as the number of available volunteers continues to dwindle, especially during daytime hours, more departments  are becoming combination career/volunteer.

We cannot allow the past to define our future. The responsibility to lead the way and develop an organizational environment for combination departments that fosters unity and purpose is left to us—today’s fire service leaders.

Chief Dan Eggleston began his fire service career in 1978 and is currently the career fire/rescue chief with the Albemarle County (Va.) Department of Fire Rescue. Eggleston holds a master’s degree in Emergency Management and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and a Chief Fire Officer and Chief Medical Officer. Eggleston is an at-large board member with the IAFC’s Volunteer and Combination Officer Section (VCOS) and conducts leadership courses throughout the country.


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