Moments of maturity: Addressing career-volunteer issues

As a leader, it's your responsibility to define the culture through values and expectations and hold people accountable

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 18, 2016 issue of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' On Scene and is republished here with permission.

By Dan Eggleston

Managing conflict between career and volunteer members in a combination department can be challenging at times. Left unchecked, the conflict can destroy a department and create an environment of hate and discontent.

I’ve spent my career working in combination departments and many hours listening to and addressing issues that emerge between volunteer and career staff. As I travel with the VCOS and engage with other combination departments, I find that some of the challenges are the same; the only variable are the names and faces.

One of the more frequent complaints is the real or perceived idea that one group doesn’t respect the other. Sometimes this feeling of a lack of respect can manifest into strong feelings and, quite frankly, stupid actions — all based on an assumption or emotion that in some cases is totally blown out of proportion.

Are there some career staff out there who don’t like volunteers and volunteers who don’t like career staff? Sure; there are lots of people who don’t like people!

There are cases in which individuals and groups just click; a bond occurs naturally without much effort. However, for the most part, long-lasting, meaningful relationships take work — work that must occur on both parts and starts with the individuals.

So what do you do as a company officer or chief when you’re approached about a volunteer/career issue in your department? Firefighters by their nature are problem solvers — we like to check things off out list and move on to the next problem.

However, personnel issues, especially those between career and volunteer staff, can’t be solve with a quick fix. Rather, you need to have discuss ownership, responsibility and commitment.

I’ve heard comments like, “Well, Billy doesn’t like volunteers. He just marched in on an EMS call the other day and didn’t even acknowledge our presence.” Or, “I heard Dirk said he’ll never take an order from a career firefighter.”

These examples may sound trivial, but if the attitudes are allowed to grow unchallenged, teamwork and moral will suffer.

Before I jump to strategies to address conflict, I want to share a couple of stories that have helped frame my thought processes. Those who work with me know I like to recount stories from my past. I don’t call them stories; I call them MOMs: moments of maturity. One of my earliest MOMs is from when I was in grade school.

As a kid, the boys in the neighborhood played backyard football. It was lots of fun; we made up the rules as we played, all in the spirt of having a good time. As I got older, I was approached one day by one of the little league coaches about playing football. I immediately committed to practice after school and on weekends.

I ran home to spring the news to my dad. With much fanfare, I announced I was going to play Little League football and will later be drafted by the NFL. He responded, “Great news, Son. How are going to get to practice?”

Well, I assumed one of my parents would take me. Bad assumption on my part.

The point is that it was one of my first opportunities to realize I’m responsible for my decisions and can’t expect others to pick up my responsibilities. This MOM wasn’t as clear then as it is now, but it had an impact.

Fast-forward to when I was a young volunteer firefighter. In Virginia, a firefighter 16 years or older can participate in interior firefighting activities when they completed Firefighter I and are granted parental permission. It was a great recruiting tool and many of the younger volunteers stayed on and became great officers and chiefs. The department had a county-wide training academy that was top-notch and it was during the academy that many volunteers had the opportunity to interact with the career staff who led most of the training courses.

The instructors had a vested interest in making sure students succeeded, which fostered a good relationship between the career instructors and volunteer students. This positive relationship carried into the field, as former students and instructors interacted on the fireground.

Like many young firefighters, we often hung around the firehouse any time we had free time. One of my best friends, who was a volunteer with the same department in a neighboring station, invited me to his station to run calls. They were much busier and had two engine companies, a truck company and a shift of career staff with a good reputation. Some of my former fire academy instructors were career officers assigned to this station.

One morning, I packed my gear and drove down to meet my buddy with a big grin on my face. I remember the day like it was yesterday. I walked into the apparatus bay, put my gear on the tailboard (yes, I’m old) of the career engine and walked into the dayroom. The officer was someone I didn’t know well; he didn’t teach at the academy and I had been on only a handful of calls with him. As I approached the captain, he turned to me with a professional demeanor and said, “Can I help you, Son?”

I said, “Yes sir; my name is Dan Eggleston; I’m here to run calls with you today!”

Well, he had the look like he just stepped in something unpleasant and was trying to scrape it off his shoe. He told me to go wait in the watch office and that he’d be there in a minute.

What I didn’t realize was that he was about to give me a moment of maturity. He came into the office, shut the door, sat down and said, “Son, I’ve got a station to run. In about 30 minutes, we’ll leave the station to go exercise down at the school, then we’ll come back, clean up and then go in the district for business inspections. We will then eat lunch and spend the afternoon training. I just don’t have time to babysit you — you’ll need to leave.”

I had a choice at that moment. I could leave as requested and run around complaining how I was unfairly treated as a volunteer. I could probably get some support from others who believe they too have been unfairly treated. It would have been a great big pity party with lots of complaining.

My other choice was that I could make a case to the captain that I would complement the crew — make myself an asset, not an ass.

After a short, respectful conversation with the captain, I persuaded him I didn’t need to be watched over and I could help his crew with the daily activities. He clearly explained his expectations, even embellishing a bit about their rigorous physical training routine (run/jog several laps at the college track).

No problem, Captain; got it!

With much reservation, he agreed to let me participate.

After a day of activities, lunch and a few calls sprinkled in, everyone reached an unspoken level of acceptance and respect for my contribution. Of course, this was back in the day when as a young firefighter, you didn’t share your opinion unless asked and it was your duty to prove your worth to the shift.

The officer provided the opportunity; I had the responsibility to do the work. My relationship with that shift and others strengthened over time. We gained mutual respect and it was an important learning experience I often use today. I still ran into undesirables, but never believed it was a career-versus-volunteer issue. Some people are quick to judge others without ever giving them a chance.

So how does these MOMs apply to issues between career and volunteers? What guidance can you offer to address the issues and strengthen the team?

Get in the game

Remember my Little League football story? You’re responsible for your decisions. If you want to improve a relationship, you need to decide to get in the game and focus on adding value to the relationship.

I’m not talking about collecting evidence to prove you’re right and the other person is wrong. I’m talking about taking the first step: Get to know the person or crew. Have a meal together; talk about their family and friends and where they grew up. You may be surprised to discover you have a lot in common.

You alone are responsible for your attitude

It’s easy to blame others and it even feels good for a short time. After all, blaming others absolves you of responsibility because it’s someone else’s fault.

However, it’s much more productive to own your attitude. Choose a glass-half-fullattitude and drop the assumptions. Rely on a trusted friend to call you out if they notice you’re working yourself up based on hearsay.

Don’t take on someone else’s responsibility

Over the years, I’ve had a number of firefighters demand that I take action to address someone’s attitude because they felt disrespected. As a young officer, I would dive into these problems, but rarely found tangible evidence of egregious attitudes. Most often, the issues were based on assumptions inflated by emotions.

You’ll have more impact as a leader if you guide others in how to solve their own problems. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to define the culture through values and expectations and hold people accountable. You can even help to mediate between groups if necessary, but for lasting success, individuals must take the responsibility to work through their issues.

Throw away the ledger

Some of us keep a virtual ledger that records the deposits and withdrawals involved in a relationship—a gauge of fairness. Some ledgers are tightly managed and constantly reconciled; the goal is to balance the ledger or, better yet, have more revenue than expenditures. What a waste of energy. Relationships are give-and-take endeavors with trust as the goal.

Career-volunteer relationships take work, but a strong relationship can pay dividends in the long run. Don’t wait; make the first move. Who knows? You may experience a moment of maturity.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 18, 2016 issue of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' On Scene and is republished here with permission.

About the author
Dan Eggleston, EFO, CFO, CMO, CEMSO, is chief of the Albemarle County (Va.) Department of Fire Rescue. He currently serves on the IAFC’s board of directors as the director-at-large and representing the Volunteer and Combination Officers Section. He's been a member of the IAFC since 1997.

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