Is there a better way?
by: Lou Angeli
Suburban Philadelphia, PA -- (November 22,, 2010) During the next 6 weeks thousands of suburban firefirefighters around metro Philadelphia will have the opportunity to decide who will lead their volunteer department during the year 2011. For nearly 200 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 or 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 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.
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.