As we get through the election season, I wonder if voting is the right thing for the fire service. I am not talking about voting in the federal elections, but voting for our own leadership.
It is somewhat of a time-honored tradition in most volunteer departments to elect their leaders annually, resulting in a popularity contest and sometimes the wrong person is elected. Do we really want to choose the person who is leading us into some of the most dangerous situations we will ever face by popularity?
One of the big differences between a paid department and a volunteer department is the way we choose our leaders. In a paid department, a competitive process that requires length of service in a grade, testing, oral boards and a selection committee, usually chooses officers.
This process is often so competitive that it may take decades for someone to move up the ranks. Although it is not a perfect process, the rigor is admirable.
On the other hand, requirements of volunteer departments vary greatly and may even vary year to year in one department. Some departments have worked on outlining minimum standards both in years in grade and certifications, but all too often these requirements are waived or changed at the whim of the department.
Even worse, sometimes these requirements are changed just to get someone into office who is not qualified. This leads to the classic good ole boys network and huge department fights.
The voting system in a volunteer department is an honored tradition reaching back to the origination of the department. Often the first chiefs were chosen solely because they started the department, or were the ones who lead the first meeting.
The chief then may have picked his officers or there may have been another vote. If you weren't liked, you were blackballed. In many departments this has gone beyond officers and every member is voted on when they join, get off probation or have any change in membership.
Consequences of voting
The problem with this historic voting system is that the wrong vote can lead to large liabilities, closed departments and public harm. Voting not to accept a member can lead to a discrimination lawsuit. Voting in the wrong officer has lead to departments closing their doors and even worse, members being hurt.
Voting has divided departments and caused members to quit. With all of that said, voting gives members (or at least the majority group) control over their department.
Maybe there is a way to get the best of both worlds. In the best-case scenario you would have a rigorous selection process that determines that all candidates are qualified for the position and then a vote by the members.
To do this, we need to have accepted standards of what determines a qualified officer and it needs to be upheld. We also need to have enough qualified individuals to make a choice possible.
Maybe it is a pipe dream in the volunteer service, but to be a professional volunteer service we need to try to make it happen.