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Date last updated: Tuesday, January 30, 11:02 PST


Electing Volunteer Fire Officers

Over the past two weeks we have discussed the importance of good management, and the qualities that make a good officer. This week I will look at how to actually get that ‘good’ officer into the position.

While researching this topic, I found that there were more options for election and requirements then I would ever have believed. Therefore, I will try to take a broad look at the issue, but will focus on fire fighting offices only.

Now that we know what we want in an officer, how do we make sure that the right person is chosen for the right position?

The one common denominator in all election or appointment procedures is some type of minimum requirements. These requirements commonly include meetings, drills, calls, years in service, and/or certifications. Some may say that minimum requirements aren’t needed, as the best person will always win… Those of us who have been in the service for a while know that it is actually often the most popular, rather then the best qualified who wins…

So what requirements are fair? The answer varies by department, the number of members, number of calls, and duties of the officer. Minimally, the officers should be held to the same standards as any ‘active’ firefighter. Ideally, they should be setting an example, and be held to a higher standard. To require attendance at half of the monthly drills/meetings is reasonable. (Exemptions can be made for extreme circumstances, but needs to be the same for everyone.)

Requiring a minimum call attendance is nice also. After all, the primary duty of a fire officer is to respond to fires. The hard part is to require a percentage of the overall calls, since we all have work and family obligations. One option is to require a minimum of responses during a member’s ‘available’ time. This system tracks that a member may be unavailable from 0600-1800 due to work, or whatever time frame, and therefore does not penalize them for not coming during that time. The hard part is tracking availability. Luckily, most computer NFIRS reporting systems track availability and can report percentages easily.

Most departments have some time of minimum years of service requirement. After all, would you want your new probie getting elected Chief? But, as I stated last week, a year of time for someone coming to 30% of the calls is different then a year of a member coming to 70 percent of the calls… Two years seems to be a common minimum before someone can run or be appointed to an office. Many departments also have a sliding scale of year requirements. (i.e. Lieutenant 2 years, Captain 5, Chief 7) Some departments allow credit for years of service in other departments, sometimes prorated at a 2:1 basis. (or more.)

Controversy begins when you start requiring minimum years of service in rank, before progressing to the next rank. (i.e. 2 years as Assistant Chief before becoming Chief) While this concept looks good in principle, when you have a limited number of positions, you may end up with only one candidate. An alternative is to require a minimum amount of years as a ‘junior officer’ (Lieutenant, Foreman, Captain) before running as for a Chief officer position.

Even more controversy begins when you start requiring minimum certification levels. (Enter the dinosaur vs robot battles…) It would be nice if every officer had every certification available, but we need to be realistic. Minimally an officer should have the same required certifications as the firefighters underneath them. Ideally, they should have more knowledge then their firefighters. Of course, certifications are just a piece of paper, and will never make up for ‘on the job’ training. To account for years of experience, you might try requiring a certification or having been active in the fire service before xyz date. (i.e. Firefighter II or have been active before January 1, 1986.)

The Presidential Lakes Fire and Rescue Squad submitted their bylaws to VolunteerFD.org, and have some good minimum requirements. (http://www.volunteerfd.org/bylaws_display.php?did=1082 ) They require “(30) percent of all calls, seventy five (75) percent of all company meeting and fifty (50) percent of scheduled drills”. An interesting point of their bylaws is that after seven years, a member can become an “exempt member”. This lowers the requirements to 15% of calls, 50% of meetings, and 25% of drills.

Once you have set your minimums, the next question is how to elect, appoint, or nominate your officers… Each department does things slightly differently.

Both elections and appointments can lead to a department’s officers consisting of the ‘old boys club’ and being a popular vote. One member of the VolunteerFD.org website wrote me about the situation at his department. The bottom line of his message was that after the incumbent Chief lost one year, the following year he brought in all his old friends, who were ‘life members’ and stacked the vote to get back in. While you can never get around popularity contests, sometimes there are ways to add to the minimums and raise the bar.

One option is to have a ‘nominations committee’. This committee can meet with potential candidates before your election to determine the candidates reasoning and eligibility to run for office. The committee can then report its findings and recommendations at the election. By having an investigation process, and recommendation, you are less likely to get officers who are doing it on a ‘whim’ or because of their popularity.

The Snelling Volunteer Fire Department has a combination of elections and appointments. (http://www.volunteerfd.org/bylaws_display.php?did=938 ) Their bylaws state: “Officers, not appointed by the Town, are the elective officers. They are elected for an indefinite term. When a vacancy exists, any member with 5 years experience or any member that is felt to be qualified, may be nominated with a second. When all nominations are in, a secret ballet will be taken and a simple majority shall elect. This may be done at any meeting having 10 members present that are eligible to vote.”

I find SVFD’s bylaws interesting as some of their officers are appointed by the town, while some are elected. Also, they have indefinite terms, and require 5 years experience or “any member that is felt to be qualified”. While I could not find any reference to what ‘qualified’ means, I would be interested to find out how that decision is made in their department.

On the other side, the Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department has term limits for their President and Chief. (http://www.volunteerfd.org/bylaws_display.php?did=218)Their bylaws state: “Term limits will be imposed on the president and chief. These officers can only serve for two consecutive terms before stepping down for one year. These are very demanding offices. Limits will keep members from burning out and will keep the department running smoothly.”

Term limits are an interesting idea, and I can see their point. While I do not agree with indefinite terms, a Chief officer needs to have at least 2-3 years to make any long term changes.

As you can see, there are many facets to the selection of officers. What works in your area may not work in others, and vice versa. Just remember to think through the requirements you place, and make sure they are for the good of the company, rather then one specific individual.

Discuss this column at: http://www.volunteerfd.org/phorum/read.php?f=20&i=1&t=1






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