The Future of Volunteers in Utah

By: Steve Lutz

Elsewhere in this issue you may have read about UFRAs past and the great efforts that have been going on for 50 years to raise the professionalism and safety of Utahs’ fire and emergency services. This article is devoted to the future. There are many fire service needs that UFRA has not been able to meet, despite previous efforts. A major issue faced by most volunteer organizations is the difficulty of recruiting and retaining excellent people to do the work that needs to be done. This is the difficult sort of issue that UFRA is working to address as the fire service and we continue to evolve.

A recent survey distributed at regional chiefs meetings were answered by 72 mostly volunteer chief officers. This survey indicated that the Officer training was not perceived as currently attainable for most departments.

Working in partnership with the Utah Fire Chiefs Association, UFRA is using a SAFER Grant to support a unique initiative, the Utah Volunteer Fire Officer Program (UVFOP). This program is designed around some facts discovered in a 2004 survey of VFDs by St. Josephs University about what motivates and what demotivates volunteers. The following chart shows the primary reasons people are leaving VFDs nationally.

  • No time to volunteer 92.3%
  • Conflicts in organization 47.8%
  • Organizational leadership created adverse atmosphere 46.7%
  • Too much training 45.6%
  • Attitude of existing personnel to newcomers 39.1%
  • Criticism by officers/older members 38.0%
  • Lack of camaraderie, social emphasis 19.5%

–* Many respondents indicated more than one reason for leaving the organization- 2004 survey by St. Josephs University

As is made obvious by this study, many factors contribute to the decline of volunteers and also explain to some extent, what we need to address to help VFDs get and keep good people. It’s my observation that in many, if not most, volunteer organizations there are one or two people who primarily hold it all together. They may not be formal leaders but they make a big difference in the way things work. On the flip side, in departments with trouble, it’s often one or two people who become the barriers to success. This program is designed to encourage and assist development of these “spark plug“ members.

While we do a pretty great job in Utah of training on the basics; finding a way to help department leaders and cultivate the next generation has been more elusive. That’s why we have created the UVFOP. The intent is to give todays and tomorrows volunteer leaders the tools to help their departments and themselves succeed.

During the first year of the program we have been able to support 50 volunteers to attend Instructor I and Command Training Center (CTC) and Fire Officer I classes. During this coming year our goal is to form cohorts of people to go through the rest of the class series together. We’ll do this in conventional live course deliveries and with online classes.

This group of classes is designed to give current and future officers a wide variety of critical information, skills and practical techniques for helping to manage and lead a volunteer organization.

Fire Service Instructor I (16hrs)

Fire Instructor 1 is designed for instructors, training officers and other fire or rescue service personnel with the responsibility for conducting fire department training. This course introduces the participant to basic instructional concepts and techniques with emphasis on those teaching principles and techniques applicable to fire and rescue service training and will provide the skills needed to teach from prepared lesson outlines. Key content includes: effective communication, teaching from lesson plans, methods of instruction with emphasis on skills training and adult learning.

Fire Officer I (estimated 40-45 hours- Internet delivery)

Prerequisite: Firefighter II For experienced firefighters. Addresses the NFPA requirements for Fire Officer I. Discusses human resource management, community and government relations, application of fire department policies, fire investigation procedures, emergency service delivery and safety considerations. Completers should be prepared to certify as Fire Officer I.

Command Training Center (CTC) Phase I (16 hours)

Teaches the Command fundamentals of risk management initial arriving company operations, and basic tactical considerations and creates the foundation for successful incident management. Students will manage first alarm assignments at simulated residential structure fires.

Recruiting and Retaining (R&R) Volunteers

Provides knowledge and skills on the care and feeding of volunteers. Participants will combine knowledge of the value of volunteers to the community, reasons people volunteer, incentives, public relations, planning and available resources to build a practical plan to improve departmental R&R strategies.

Volunteer Leadership

Defines the roles, responsibilities and opportunities faced by volunteer leaders in a changing environment. Teaches basic written and verbal communication skills, conflict resolution, strategic planning, grant writing fundamentals, networking, time management, succession planning and other skills that are needed to build and function within an excellent team.

All expenses related to enrolling and attending this program will be paid by a grant administered by the Utah State Fire Chief’s Association over the next three years. Volunteers at all levels of their organization are encouraged to attend but space in each class will be limited and only a limited number of classes will be held. It is therefore important that interested firefighters register online at UVFOP. Utah State Certified Firefighter II applicants will receive priority.