Electing Fireline Officers: Is there a better way?

by: Lou Angeli


Suburban Philadelphia, PA -- (October 18, 2011 )  During the next 6-8 weeks thousands of suburban firefirefighters around metro Philadelphia will have the opportunity to decide who will lead their volunteer department during the year 2012. For nearly 300 years, they will determine by 'popular vote', who is best suited to command the department, which protects a community of tens of thousands and has a budget in the millions.

Of course, the civilian population isn't aware how the department is actually operated. In fact, most assume that their department is staffed by "career" personnel, because of the high level of training and professionalism exhibited by most volunteers at emergencies.

But does it make sense to "elect" emergency management without regard to qualifications or experience? No. But the fact is that America's most dangerous avocation is sometimes run by individuals who have neither the qualifications nor skills to lead a fire department or rescue agency.

As I was browsing through posts on a popular fire and rescue discussion forum the other evening, I was shocked to read that a familiar contributor had resigned from his own department. Why? Because his department's members had elected chief officers with a total combined fireground experience of five (5) years.

Jason Zigmont, content provider for VolunteerFD.org, found that the election process is a pain the axe nationwide. He says that volunteer officers should be held to the same standards as any ‘active’ firefighter. But in many departments, those seeking office may only have 2 years of training and even less experience.

In my former department in Missouri, the annual election of fireline officers had become somewhat of a joke. Those who were vying for the top job began lobbying as early as mid-summer by throwing barbeques and pool parties. By October, morale became a major concern as members split up to support "their man" or "woman.". And without fail, the individual most qualified to lead the department, would lose out to the guy with the nicest lake house.

As I look through my screen into cyberspace, I see that there are those of you who are reading this with a puzzled look. It's for real California! It's how most volunteer departments on the East Coast still operate. A century ago, when these very same departments protected smaller communities of 200 or so, the system worked. But today, operating even the smallest of departments is like running any business. And the folks who run the department need to be more than just brave firefighters. They’re dealing with large budgets, dwindling staffing, a broader variety of emergency incidents and a very demanding general public.

Now, when it comes to the 'election' of individuals to serve in a department's 'administrative' positions, such as a Board Member or Recording Secretary, open voting carries a valid argument. After all, it's how we run our own government. But when it comes to choosing fireground command, or any line officer's position for that matter, the decision must never be based on popularity.

But how do you change the system? It isn’t easy, because no one wants to serve on that committee. In many cases it's extremely difficult to alter the by-laws of a “fire company" or "sub chapter S corporation" because it usually takes a 2/3 vote to override or change existing by-laws.

In nearby Kennett Square, PA, the volunteer fire department did away with the popular vote over 10 years ago, replacing it with a Board of Fire Commissioners, who promote Commanders and Line Officers based on resumes submitted for their review. Administrative management is still elected by the general membership, but the operation of emergency incidents now falls in the hands of qualified, seasoned personnel.

In the 1700's, Ben Franklin helped create the volunteer system to replace the Insurance Brigade system, which had become a failure in Franklin's eyes. 300 years later we're still working from the game plan he scratched on the table at a riverfront pub. I don't think ole’ Ben would object to us making a few play changes here and there.


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Comment by Chief Harold Williamson on November 12, 2011 at 2:20pm

It just somewhat happened to myself so I know first hand.

Comment by Mark Klaene on October 24, 2011 at 10:13pm

no question a fire chief should not be elected solely  by popular vote .  Around here the person elected is usually the one that failed to show up for the election, or stepped out to the bathroom.  Finding ANYONE  to take on the responsibility, liability, and  the extra work is difficult. Not enough folks around here want it. 

So finding the right person who can do all of this in their "spare" time and lead a bunch of volunteers is not easy. They have to be well liked and respected  inorder to get anything done yet they must have knowledge and experience like few other jobs.

It is a tough decision.

If I had to create a system it would be -- specific qualifications and experience, popular vote of the department , and ratification by a board of either county fire chiefs or commission

Comment by FETC on October 24, 2011 at 8:07pm

I personally dislike the popularity voting process for many reasons.  My volunteer fire department back - 20 years ago got rid of the popluarity vote. They do not have appointment terms either. They decided to run the process like a fulltime fire department by creating a job description, minimum qualifications that are professional, and then had to submit a letter of intent, resume, certificates, take a written exam, sit in an oral board / assessment center, and then through a peer chief officer interview. Candidates were ranked by each section and scored. First place got the job. There is no turnover with this system. Voting annually creates inexperienced officers who are buddies with the largest group. Many say well, what if you don;t like the guy that got the officer position? Well he was the best qualified and too bad. When retirement comes or if an officer decides they are done with the rank and wants to step down (never has happened there) then the process is repeated just like in a fulltime department. Fire departments who vote or have terms have no real consistent command and leadership organization. Everytime a new officer (s) or Fire Chief comes along, then he or she has to establish themselves, a vision, mission, create goals etc.  Ever hear of a fulltime officer asking to step down? It is very rare and if seen it is usually from a staff position (like fire inspector or prevention) back to the floor. Who said back in the day, maybe we should set up the rules (length of term) so everyone can get a chance to play?


Comment by Brian Mackie on October 22, 2011 at 2:07pm

A better way? hmmmm well not sure that my idea would be a better way to elect inexperienced and unqualified persons.. but it just might be a good way to deter them from wanting to have the title and power that goes along with it, right from the get go. Lawsuits! I have to wonder if these so called FIRE OFFICERS realize the implications (legal and otherwise) that being in charge of a fatal incident could have. Forget the good samaritan crap. I think in some jurisdictions, the officer in charge can NOT be considered a good samaritan if he knowingly accepted the responsibilities (or even potential responsibilities in the case of a very inactive department). Perhaps some of these newbie so called officers ( from here on in I will refer to them as IFFicers) are unaware of what can happen if they make a decision ( or fail to) that results in the death of a firefighter or civilian. Especially in this litigous world we live in, alarm bells ( and not fire alarm bells) should be going off in the heads of these IFFicers each and every time another fire department or fire officer is sued into oblivion. The lawyer would have a hayday.. "tell the court, how many years of experience you have as a firefighter or fire officer, and tell the court how two years of being on a volunteer dept. has allowed you to gain all the experience and knowledge required"

I find it sad that an experience and knowledge filled fire officer is forced to resign due to the election of some inexperience yet popular beer buddy of the department. How sad indeed!

My thoughts, in volunteer depts.  to qualify for Captain... minimum of 10 years right off the bat. Plus, the proper training certs. that give this candidate the minimum standards. You all know what those qualifications are... if you don't qualify, what gives you the right to accept the rank of Captain or beyond just because you belong to a volunteer dept. Of course there are those vollies who like to argue that their job is the same as a career or professional.. well if that's the case.. step up and get qualified. Don't hide behind the "we are only volunteer" thing. Your customers and fellow firefighters DESERVE better. 

Gee that kinda felt good. I have been away a while.. but was kinda fun venting my two cents..even if it doesn't make sense to anyone. lol

Stay Safe everyone.



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