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So what does it mean to be an officer in an all volunteer fire department?

By Andrew Pollack on 09/21/2005 at 10:47 AM EDT

My brother sent me an email asking what exactly this means. We're not paid much, its not the military, so what the difference? I thought I'd write up a partial explanation here for those who probably have the same question. Keep in mind that according to the NFPA, 73% of firefighters are volunteer or part time -- which amounts to the same thing, as most volunteers actually receive some limited compensation.

So, what does being a Lieutenant mean?

A fire department is a very flat organization. In our case -- as is most common in this part of the country -- we have a Chief and one or more Deputy Chiefs who are department wide, then a Captain and Lieutenant for each piece of apparatus. In a full time department, there is usually a Lieutenant for each shift on each piece of apparatus. In very large departments, you may also see a Battalion Chief responsible for a geographic area or a functional division (e.g. EMS or Hazmat). There are also speciality positions like aids, safety officers, and in larger departments the sort of administrative roles you need anywhere -- I.T., HR, and Accounting.

As in most volunteer departments, you never really know who will show up for any given call. Any scene will have an IC (Incident Command). The IC will usually be the ranking officer from the first crew to arrive on scene. If no officer is present, a firefighter (usually the most senior) becomes the IC until one arrives. I've done this four or five times, since I'm around during the day and response can be thin at first. An arriving officer must take command from a firefighter on scene. A senior officer who arrives once command is established has the option of taking command. The Chief for example, will usually take command; but in some cases when its a minor incident will leave the original officer in command to gain experience. The IC structure is defined pretty carefully, and is patterned after the forest service who invented a way to manage the growth of incidents from a small team to massive undertakings. Unlike the organization as a whole, the Incident Command structure is not flat at all. Under the system, no officer should have more than five people reporting directly to him. This means the IC will be at the top of a growing chain. At a structure fire, you will like have the IC managing Interior Attack, Backup, Water Supply, Search, and Ventilation. Each of these groups will have a leader, who will be the only person from that crew to use the radio unless there is an emergency. In larger incidents, you often see the IC break out Water Supply or Manpower and assign another officer to command that as a division on another frequency. This is important if you're dealing with a non-hydrant part of town and have tanker trucks from a dozen other towns and portable tanks being deployed and shuttling water from fill sites. That part by itself can be an amazing undertaking. We can, for example, flow 1000 gallons per minute within five minutes of arriving at a scene where the nearest water source is miles away. We can flow that much water continuously all day if need be.

That sounds overly structured, until you realize that a fire department has to bring people together from different places -- usually from many towns, for example -- without notice and have them instantly and seamlessly integrate to perform highly complex jobs -- like creating a stable, reliable water supply on the fly that cannot be interrupted and serves high pressure and high volume water to several teams at once. The show "Monster House" once did an episode at a fire station. They brought in firefighters from different stations who were off duty to do the work. Unlike every other show Monster House has ever done, these guys did the work without argument, according to a plan, and without much extra discussion. They finished on time and enjoyed themselves. That's because they're all used to just fitting into a larger machine and working with people they may not know personally, but known instantly that they can trust.

As a freshly minted Lieutenant, most of what I do isn't going to be much different from what I've been doing for months. We haven't had one in a while, so I've been pretty much just doing that kind of thing. If I arrive on scene first, I'll be responsible for assessing the situation and beginning to take action. The most important part of that is the initial decision on placement of apparatus and type of response to make. At a significant incident, I likely wouldn't have command long, but would find myself taking a crew into the building or some other such task. In that situation, I'd be responsible for the crew who's with me, and expected to know how to keep them safe while getting the job done. Of course, a critical part of that is not shutting out the more experienced crew who for whatever reason didn't apply or didn't get the job. There are other parts as well, dealing with minor personnel issues, training, and manpower. Also, if we have scheduled details where we cover another station out of town while they train, or stand by at a public event; an officer needs to be present as part of the crew.

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