Live at FDIC: Risk Management the Volunteer Way

Risk Management the Volunteer Way
VFDs face unique—yet surmountable—challenges when it comes to managing risk
By Shannon Pieper

Keeping firefighters safe involves identifying the factors that pose them risk; this is the core element of a risk management strategy. But even large career departments struggle with effectively managing risk. How then are volunteer departments—strapped of time, resources and staffing—supposed to do it?

This is the question Chief Richard Kline, of the Plymouth (Minn.) Fire Department, is attempting to answer, and it was the focus of today’s FDIC seminar, “Fireground Risk Management for the Volunteer Fire Service.”

Unique Risks
“As a fire service, we’re very poor at risk management,” Kline says. “We have put a lot of lip service to risk management, but have done little in educating the fire service in how to evaluate risk and develop strategies to reduce risk to our first responders. We continue to kill firefighters, about 100 a year; many because of poor risk management approaches to the fireground. Until we do more than just talk about it, it’s just talk.” Departments that do possess effective risk management strategies often developed them in response to line-of-duty deaths.

And if the fire service as a whole lacks effective risk management strategies, volunteer fire departments (VFDs) specifically face additional challenges in developing them. “It’s not that volunteer departments don’t want to manage risk; it’s the issue of specific barriers related to the volunteer model that impact fireground risk management.” The primary obstacle that impacts us the most is staffing,” Kline says. “In a career department, you can look at who’s on duty, skill levels, as well as host of other things that make staffing in career departments dependable and predictable. Many volunteer systems can’t say that, and it impacts our fireground decision-making, because the experience, training, dependability, predictability and motivation of our staffing vary.”

VFDs face other challenges, too. They often have difficulty obtaining and maintaining the right equipment. “If you’re putting on a chicken dinner once a month and you get $300 from that, you’re not going to be able to fund things.” Kline says. Yet VFDs may try to do more with less, putting members at risk. “Some volunteer departments possess very little PPE or suppression equipment, and yet when Ms. Jones calls them to come to her house fire, she has an expectation that the fire department will do what the media has told her they will provide,” Kline says. “The fire department isn’t prepared to deliver the service, but they might do it anyway, because it’s our culture.”

And then there’s the big one: time. NFPA guidelines, OSHA regulations, regular training—what VFD has time for risk management on top of all that? “For many volunteer chiefs, their full-time job isn’t the fire service,” Kline says. “They don’t have the time to read or learn or be educated about risk management.”

Although these challenges may seem daunting, Kline notes that there are solutions. “Sometimes there’s a lack of knowledge of those solutions,” he says. “Form partnerships with local organizations, whether they’re businesses or state organizations, to bring training to you. Adjust expectations, pursue grants, use mutual aid and task force/strike team concepts. Study examples that are working.”

Core Components
Although each department’s risk management plan must be based on the individual risk and response profile, there are some common components to reducing risk for VFDs. One is to bring more consistency to staffing.

“In the last decade, generational expectations have changed,” Kline says. “The randomness of being paged and responding doesn’t work as well for the newer generations of volunteers. In my department, we’ve created a program through which they can get active-duty credit through participation in the staffing plan.” The plan works more like a career shift schedule, with firefighters signing up for days in which they’re available to respond. “That means so much for our volunteer firefighters; they can schedule their time, and it benefits the city because it gives us predictable and dependable staffing. I know I’m getting four people and a supervisor in 6 minutes, which in turn impacts my decision-making,” Kline says. Automatic and mutual aid are other options to increase predictability in staffing.

Training is another core component of risk management. “Some states’ training programs are more adapted to the volunteer service,” Kline says. “Pennsylvania is a good example. Pennsylvania is predominately a volunteer fire service, so their fire service training is geared toward the volunteer sector—they offer programs year-round, and they recognize the time limitations.”

Lessons Learned
High-profile LODDs, such as the Sofa Super Store Fire, produce valuable reports that can be powerful templates for risk management plans. “Investigations into why people die drives improvements in the fire service,” Kline says. “If not, we’d be doing what we were doing in Ben Franklin’s days.” Ideally, however, the volunteer fire service will incorporate such plans before tragedy strikes.

Kline notes one additional factor that may spur more VFDs to develop risk management plans: liability. “If I’m the chief and I make poor decisions, am I going to be held legally liable for negligence or involuntary manslaughter?” he says. “This is happening in the wildland arena, and also in the U.K., where we’re seeing that the courts are willing to go back to the leadership and hold them accountable for LODDs. This will drive change too. Hopefully, we don’t get to that point.”

Shannon Pieper is senior deputy editor of FireRescue magazine.

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

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