Handling the “Leadership Absenteeism” Crisis Ahead—a Volunteer Perspective

By Tiger Schmittendorf

The following article focuses on a growing issue in the volunteer fire service: the “leadership absenteeism” created by a generation of leaders retiring. Read a complementary article by Jeff Johnson about this issue’s impact on the career fire service here.

Regardless of these real or perceived obstacles, the demand for good leadership in the fire service has probably never been greater than it is today. We are at a crossroads of leadership supply vs. demand. Your attitude and willingness to accept the challenge will determine the outcome.
Photo Ryche Guerrero

Firefighter, officer, chief—these are the titles of the jobs we sign up for. But just like “bingo chairman,” “corresponding secretary” or “roads and grounds committee member,” the title of “leader” is not something at the top of our list of “I want to be that guy” jobs that we strive for when we first join the volunteer fire department.

Although almost everyone who joins the fire service dreams of being chief one day, they probably don’t dream of being a “fire service leader”; that is, it’s not necessarily an inherent thought process to connect the title of “chief” with “leader.” And while the title of fire chief may conjure up images of flashing lights and standing in front of a burning building barking orders into a portable radio, as we know all too well, being a “fire service leader” requires a lot more preparation and hard work than that.

Supply vs. Demand Challenges
Leadership turnover has always been a challenge in the volunteer fire service due to the cyclical nature of the election and appointment process. For years the volunteer fire service was able to compensate for temporary staffing losses because there were more people in the pipeline to fill the voids. Unfortunately, in some instances, people became disposable, and now this “Revolving Door Syndrome” has come back to bite us. And as recruitment and retention gets more challenging, the people pipeline gets narrower and shorter, in some cases reducing the flow of volunteers to just a drip or a drizzle.

Regardless of these real or perceived obstacles, the demand for good leadership in the fire service has probably never been greater than it is today. We are at a crossroads of leadership supply vs. demand. Your attitude and willingness to accept the challenge will determine the outcome.

So, how do we overcome the current demand by creating enough leaders to sustain the volunteer fire service? I’ve come up with a few ideas, but you’ll have to choose which, if any of them, will work for your organization. I’ve organized these potential solutions into three different but interconnected approaches: dig in, dig deep and dig out.

Dig In
First off, as my good friend and fellow instructor Tom Basher says, “Look, listen, lead.” After all, before our “followers” can understand us, we need to understand them.

Surround yourself with the newest/youngest firefighters in your organization (the Next Gen/Web Gen/X-Box generations firefighters) and drown out all the excuses as to why you think you don’t like them, why they don’t appreciate you, blah, blah, blah. Understand them or not, like them or not, they are the future of the fire service. The reality is that there is no other generation from a parallel universe about to swoop down and save the volunteer fire service.

Despite what you think you know about them, what you’ll likely find once you dig into this generation is that they’re starved for strong, effective leadership. The flip side is that they’ll expect more of you as a leader than anyone ever has, and it will require a larger investment of your time and energy in leading them and teaching them to lead. With the proper amount of effort, however, you’ll see a return on your investment many times over.

Next, attempt to bridge the experience gap. Due to several circumstances, many of which were within our control but we chose to ignore them, we’re faced with a huge gap in experience in the volunteer fire service. Many departments report having a dwindling cache of firefighters with 15 years of experience or more, and worse yet, we’re even leaner in the 5-to-15 years of experience range—often the officer development phase. Essentially, we lack depth—qualified bench strength in our organization.

So if you’re currently a chief, an officer or a wannabe officer, I have two words for you: Dig in! If you’re serious about the success and survival of your department, dig in and plan to be in the ranks long enough for the others to catch up to your experience level.

That may be a tough pill to swallow, but while you’re hunkering down to ride out this storm of leadership absenteeism, there are a few other approaches you can take to bolster your ranks.

Dig Deep
It all starts and ends with training, both the quantity and quality, and there’s no lack of leadership training opportunities. Search for “fire service leadership training” on FirefighterNation.com and you’ll find 141 pages of results, including Billy Schmidt’s group, TalkLeadership. What’s lacking? The people looking to take advantage of the opportunities. So dig deep and focus on training that emphasizes meeting the needs of tomorrow’s leaders (Gen Y).

Infuse leadership training at the point of entry. Create a common thread that strings through their entire career in the volunteer fire service. It can start with something as simple as applying the “train your own replacement” theory right from the start.

A few years ago, the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs (www.nysfirechiefs.com) embarked on a gutsy effort to rebuild the fire service from the ground up. They invested heavily in adapting the world-renowned and highly successful Franklin-Covey “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” training program into “The 7 Habits for Firefighters” signature program. While touted as a leadership course, “7 Habits” teaches firefighters basic life skills and basic human relations skills. The theory is that if we teach firefighters to live more balanced, fulfilled lives, then we create better firefighters—and that better-rounded firefighters make better leaders. I couldn’t agree more.

But it starts even earlier. I’m currently involved in the formation of a local Boys & Girls Club (www.bgclakeshore.org) in our town. Based on the premise of giving our young people the basic human relations skills to become contributing members of society, The Club creates a natural path toward community service.

The fire service will reap the benefits of these efforts over time. I consider it firefighter recruitment and leadership training at its lowest level. Like other positive youth programs, such as Cub Scouts, Brownies, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and Fire Explorers, I envision our Boys & Girls Club simply as a “farm system” of sorts for future firefighters.

Think about creating a stronger connection to the youth in your community and start them on a path to leadership. Dig deep and make important long-term investments now that will bring your fire department big returns in the future. Do it now—there’s no time to waste.

Dig Out
Don’t be afraid to look to the more experienced (notice that I didn’t say older) members of your organization for inspiration and insight to addressing the challenge. Those inactive or retired firefighters can be a great source of information and mentoring, sharing their experiences of what worked and didn’t work in their time. We can all learn a lot from them and their stories.

Another idea: Look outside the fire service for solutions to fire service challenges. Invest heavily in education—both yours and theirs. Read books and magazines about leadership success stories, and failures, too. Magazines like Fast Company and books like Dan and Chip Heath’s “Made to Stick,” Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” and Rudy Giuliani’s “Leadership” are some good places to start.

And while we’re looking for solutions outside the fire service, I’ve said before that the survival and success of the volunteer fire service depends on our ability to create more opportunities for more people to volunteer less time. This means breaking down the total workload into more manageable parts, even the leadership.

Diversifying the makeup of your team can help solve some of your existing leadership issues. So many officers today are tasked with managing so much that they physically run out of time to lead. Delegating responsibilities may offer you the freedom to lead—to look at the big picture instead of being blinded by all the little ones.

The Fire Corps (www.firecorps.org) program created by the National Volunteer Fire Council (www.nvfc.org) is designed to provide fire service personnel with people to whom they can delegate many non-operational functions (you know what I’m talking about—all those functions that we as firefighters didn’t sign up for).

From auto mechanics to accounting and everything in between, Fire Corps members can not only perform back-office functions that relieve your management burden and free up time for you to lead, but those same folks from varied backgrounds in business and other non-profit service organizations can offer valuable leadership insight, too. They may offer you the organizational management skills to make your team successful, or free training for you to do it yourself.

If it’s people problems you’re challenged with, then look outside your department for human resources management assistance.

Reach out to local community and business leaders for parallel solutions. Your Chamber of Commerce is a good place to start. Take notes. Talk to people who have had success in successful organizations. Learn from their experiences. Maybe just a simple brainstorming session over breakfast will do the trick or perhaps a longer-term mentorship is in order. Remember: Admitting that we have a problem and asking for help is always the first step in any multi-step program.

Can You Dig It?
Let’s face it, we’ve all suffered through the equation, “A good firefighter does not necessarily = a good chief does not necessarily = a good leader.” But where do we begin to address the leadership holes that exist (or will soon exist)? The first step may be to have a quick reality check: There’s no quick fix, no silver bullet solution, no “Bam! You’re a leader” waving of a magic wand. This is no easy challenge. It’s going to take imagination, perseverance and sheer will to change. Ultimately, like many of the challenges we face in the fire service, it’s more about changing our mindset as to how we address the issue than it is about the money or materials it may take to change our organizations.

So whether your plan is to dig in, dig deep or dig out of the leadership hole in your fire department, dig into your people to better understand what they demand in today’s leader and supply them with the tools and resources to be the leaders of tomorrow. Do that and I bet you’ll dig the results.

Tiger Schmittendorf serves the Erie County Department of Emergency Services as deputy fire coordinator, overseeing training for 97 fire departments and 5,000 first responders. He is an author, emergency manager and frequent presenter on the subjects of leadership, safety, incident command, and recruitment and retention issues. Schmittendorf is a nationally certified fire instructor and has been a firefighter since 1980. Connect with him on www.FirefighterNation.com or visit his blog at www.tigerschmittendorf.com.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Comment by Wes on April 29, 2011 at 11:26pm

Good reference article, thanks. We will review it at the next recruitment committee meeting. I am hunting for a short mentor guide to help them get a good start. So much material out there. A lot to digest.

Recruit NY-Two days, 50 visitors signed in maybe 10+/- actual potential members, 6 app's out and maybe 4 potential members. Not bad for a small community. The two days were a success on many levels, not just new members.
Comment by Tiger Schmittendorf on April 18, 2011 at 10:22pm
Wes - Look no further than right here at FirefighterNation for the answers.

This article provides a great start: http://www.firefighternation.com/profiles/blogs/mentoring-advances-...

Let me know how I can be of assistance. I travel.

Stay safe. Train often.

PS - How'd you do at the open house? Any leads?
Comment by Wes on April 13, 2011 at 11:10pm
A great continuation to the Open house weekend in NY; guess it's time to do some homework. Ironic thing for our co. is the recruitment committee planning for this past weekend led us as a fire co to realize the thing we need the most right now, is a plan. The short list, mentoring program and trainee/probie checklist for the mentor to use. Any suggestions on a quick read for a mentor? Great info.

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