Dr. Randall W. Hanifen

Start an emergency and disaster management degree at American Military University.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on EDM Digest.

By Dr. Randall HanifenFaculty Member, Emergency & Disaster Management at American Military University

As the supply of volunteer firefighters continues to decline in the United States, many organizations will begin the transition process to paid in-station personnel. This transition will be tough for many organizations due to the numerous leadership, administrative, and logistical changes needed to make the transition.

[Related: Understanding the Volunteer Deficit Will Lead to Better Recruitment and Retention]

As I once heard a chief who made the transition say, “I was correct for 70% of the items. But it was the 30% that I didn’t have completely correct that had everyone upset by the end of the transition.”

Determining When to Switch from Volunteers to Paid Personnel

Some of the signs to look for when you’re trying to determine if the time has come for paid personnel are increased missed calls for low acuity (non-emergency) calls, a decreased number of volunteers during certain periods of the day and a large percentage of the volunteers aging beyond the point where they can realistically perform the duties of a firefighter. All of these factors should be important signals to leadership of the need for paid personnel.

[Related: Understanding What Motivates Volunteer Firefighters]

Decreased volunteers for low acuity calls — in conjunction with the same individuals showing up for these calls — indicates that a large percentage of volunteers have begun to rely upon a small group to make all of the non-exciting calls. While most volunteers join the service for the idea of going to a structure fire, other fire alarm and emergency medical services (EMS) assist calls still need to be answered. When the small group who is making all of the low-acuity calls stops making the calls due to burnout or age, the department will begin missing calls.

Decreased volunteers in certain periods of the day is also becoming common. Many areas in the industrial age had members of the fire department who worked the first, second and third shifts in a factory.

Due to the shift of today’s work opportunities in most areas of the country, the majority of people work Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or some slight variation of this schedule. That prevents the majority of volunteers from being available for calls during the weekdays unless they are retired.

The Aging of Volunteers and Organizational Transition

The ability to put on turnout gear and a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and go into a burning building has an end point that varies from person. Typically, once a person enters their 60s, the likelihood of them performing firefighting functions and not becoming a safety hazard decreases significantly.

Often, departmental leadership will move older volunteers to a driver or command position, but there are only so many incident commanders and drivers who are needed at any event. Most of the responding personnel need to be able to perform firefighting functions to successfully extinguish a fire and save victims.

Leadership Perspectives on Organizational Transitions Vary

Leaders of organizations can be at various points in their thought processes in regard to the need for organizational transition. In some cases, I have noted that the fire chief and firefighters were ready for the transition, but the elected officials were not ready in terms of their belief in the need to transition to paid volunteers or being able to see the significant increase in cost to local citizens.

I have also seen organizations where the community desires better service, but volunteers are not ready to agree to the need for paid personnel. Unfortunately, in both cases, a tragedy must occur in the community for it to acknowledge the need for paid volunteers.

Planning an Organizational Transition

Once a consensus is reached about the need for paid personnel, a plan must be drafted to create this organizational transition. Often, the fire chief is well versed in employment regulations and the steps needed to enact the transition, but there are times that this information may not be one of the chief’s strengths.

For this situation, it’s a time to get some outside help to plan the transition. At a minimum, you will need a transition plan and the budget costs associated with the transition.

Some of the other issues to examine beyond cost are:

  • How will the new, paid personnel fit into the organizational hierarchy?
  • Will volunteer officers manage paid personnel?
  • Will you have a separate but equal hierarchy in the paid ranks?

Over the years, I have found that officer promotions among the paid personnel should coincide with the retirement of volunteer officers. Ideally, the transition should start from the highest ranks to the lowest ranks. Promotions will be one of the biggest turmoil-causing issues in the transition; the transformation to a paid department will take on many phases and both paid and volunteer personnel will need to make adjustments.

Budgeting and Organizational Transition

One of the biggest issues related to transition is cost. At a minimum, you must be able to budget for the salary and benefit costs related to paid personnel.

[Related: Budget Limitations: Challenges Facing Fire Chiefs of Combination Departments]

Other costs—depending on the transition plan and the level of preparedness for the transition—include personal protective equipment (PPE) for the paid personnel, uniforms, living space, and retention programs. However, designing retention programs will be trickier, as you will need volunteer and paid personnel retention plans.

From the volunteers’ point of view, they will lose identity and begin to think that they are being shoved out by paid personnel. From the paid workers’ perspective, you will need to budget increasing wages and benefits, because many organizations making the transition begin at a lower pay and benefit level to be able to afford the first paid personnel.

But paid workers will want more pay and benefits over time. Without proper budgeting, these workers will leave if a budget is not in place to ensure that their salaries are above par for the area.

Managing a Transition Involves Great Care and Effort

Great care and effort must be put into the transition from volunteers to paid employees. This effort will ensure that a community will continue to see the same or better level of first responder service in the future.

organizational transitionAbout the Author: Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of Disaster Planning and Control. Randall serves as the Executive Chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a Taskforce Leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the Vice-Chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees He is credentialed as a Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a Fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. To contact the author, send an email to For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.