A day in the life of a volunteer assistant chief
It’s one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs in the fire service
As a volunteer assistant fire chief, my job description is simple: Take care of the things that the chief shouldn’t be bothered with and ensure that he has the information he needs to properly manage the department.
Though my job description is simple, the job itself is not. From tracking OSHA requirements to managing constant personnel issues, the position of the assistant chief covers a lot of ground – and it can be a lonely place. There are, however, several perks that come with the job, like not having to deal with the municipal administration, not having to answer directly to regulatory agencies, and, of course, getting to wear that shiny white helmet. (Given my refusal to stay away from the hot zone, it’s more accurate to refer to the color of the helmet as a grayish white.)
Volunteer chief officers have perhaps some of the toughest jobs within the fire service. Why? Because our departments are still required to be NFPA-compliant, meet OSHA regulatory training standards, maintain compliant PPE and SCBA, and respond with up-to-date, well-maintained apparatus, to name a few of our many responsibilities. The key distinction between paid and volunteer is that we volunteers are forced to handle all of these responsibilities in our spare time and on a drastically undersized budget. We do not have the luxury of spending 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the desk each day. There are no daily briefings, lunch meetings or administrative assistants. We do the work before and after our full-time or career jobs, often in lieu of sleep, and for no extra pay. I am not tooting my own horn; I signed up for this life, and I am thrilled to be a part of this mission.
Standard assistant chief duties
Day-to-day operations for volunteers vary tremendously, and often our job requirements are in direct response to the needs of the department on that very day. As an assistant chief, I get to work below a chief who isn’t afraid to make tough decisions, stand up for what is right, and conduct his business in a manner that best benefits the community. The daily, weekly, monthly tasks I complete may be a direct instruction from him, self-driven or derived by the needs of my subordinates.
No two days are the same for a volunteer assignment chief, so let’s focus on the tasks that need to be accomplished throughout the week, month or even year.
Develop topics and hold a monthly meeting for officers: As assistant chief, I develop topics for our chief officers’ meetings that include updates from the last meeting, new business, upcoming events, upcoming trainings and personnel issues. This list is then cross-checked with the chief’s list to ensure that we didn’t miss anything prior to the meeting.
[Read next: How to run a productive fire department meeting]
Serve as lead training officer: I drew the role of lead training officer within my department. I am tasked with developing a training schedule, planning training sessions using outside collegiate institutional fire service programs, and instructing in-house training sessions, including 240-hour annual recruit classes, annual required OSHA trainings, and online training sessions. Tracking training hours for each member also falls under this umbrella.
Hold post-call critiques: My department responds to an average of 15-20 structure fires each year, several of which are mutual aid. To ensure we are learning from our mistakes and sharing our successes, each critical response handled by our department gets a post-call critique (aka after-action review). I am tasked with developing the critique outline, grading our response A-F as seen through my eyes. The final critique is approved by the chief and presented at each regular monthly meeting for learning. This process is accompanied by an action item document that drives future training sessions, equipment purchases or repair, or personnel adjustments based on needs identified within the critique. I am also tasked with the action item follow-up.
Handle grant writing/reporting: Volunteer departments with small budgets depend on federal, state and local funding to operate with NFPA standards. Grant writing and reporting is one of the bigger tasks assigned to my role as assistant chief. Federal grants usually take about 8-10 hours to research and complete the narrative section and an additional 2 hours to complete the application itself. I figure another few hours with the chief to plan the overall request based on the needs of the department. State and local grants tend to take less time to assemble, but the planning period remains the same. With each award comes developing specification and bidding packages and post-award reporting requirements. All-in-all, I would say I dedicate on average about 10 hour per months on grant work, more during the AFG and SAFER application period.
Co-lead fundraising efforts: Operating with a small budget carries its share of financial shortcomings that must be offset via local fundraising. Our department hosts several fundraisers each year, with most of the members playing a large role in each. The job of planning and execution of these fundraisers falls to our chief and myself. Our department holds one large scale dinner/raffle fundraiser in late winter and partners with the local winery for a summer concert series. Our large-scale fundraiser requires substantial preplanning and setup, while the summer series requires just a few hours per month.
Collaborate with partnering organizations for the greater good: Our department has partnered with an outside organization that provides resources for those struggling with mental health issues and addiction. I am tasked with ensuring that these organizations get what they need from our department to provide their direct services locally to our community. This type of partnership requires constant communication to ensure our agency is meeting the needs of the organizations. On average, with communication and follow-up, I would estimate a few hours per month of emails and phone calls.
Drive recruitment and retention efforts: One of the most important tasks assigned to a volunteer officer is that of volunteer recruitment and retention. As assistant chief, I am tasked with the development and implementation of a recruitment plan. Likewise, developing and overseeing programs designed to retain these members falls within my duties as well. Recruitment is always an ongoing effort at our department. Either the chief or myself dedicates 2-3 hours per month on recruitment efforts to keep the applications coming.
Develop SOPs and SOGs: I am responsible for the standard operating procedures and standard operating guidelines for the department. Once developed, these documents are submitted to the chief for an in-depth review and approval process. He carries the responsibility of implementation.
Respond to calls: My fireground role varies depending on the type of call, time of day and even time of year. Our department has many farmers on the roster, including my chief. When large-scale calls come in during spring planting or fall harvest, my fireground role of switches from a support role to incident commander as the chief has an extended ETA to the scene. Most other calls, I happily shift where the chief/scene needs my services. For larger calls during other times of year, I usually find myself as an operations officer or safety officer.
Tips for the assistant chief
The assistant chief’s position is easily one of the most rewarding spots within the fire service. I get to learn the ropes of managing a department from a quality leader, be a key decision-maker within the department, take part in trainings and fires, and witness the effects we have within the community firsthand.
One thing I have learned over the years is that there is certainly no written manual for being a quality assistant chief, so here are the key points I try to follow:
- The safety of my members is paramount. I have a critical responsibility to each of them and their families to return them home safely.
- We operate on tax money earned by the very folks whom we are working to protect. We must be good stewards of that money and use it to constantly seek improvement of their behalf.
- There is never a wrong time to do the right thing, especially when it comes to safety.
- It is important to foster a strong relationship between the chief and assistant chief. When the top-seated personnel are singularly driven to better the department on behalf of the community they serve, good things are bound to happen.
- Finally, never, ever make your chief look bad.