In January, I asked for your input on what makes your department special and what problems you face. The response has been great, and in particular, I thought I would share a letter I received from David Grass Sr. EMS chief of the Pine Bush (N.Y.) Volunteer Ambulance Corp. Chief Grass put quite a bit of thought into his letter and provides us with a great view into his organization. (Chief Grass' comments begin with "DG," and my comments are marked with "JZ.")
DG:The Pine Bush Volunteer Ambulance Corp. has been around for more than 40 years; I've been with it for almost 30 of those. For many years, I watched our corporation and others struggle with the problems you presented in your article. I will attempt to address each of the questions you brought up.
I have held many positions in our corporation and in our volunteer fire department. In 2007, we were struggling to answer our calls and meet all of the new requirements. And so I gave much thought to,What do we do? I first looked at what we had, and what we needed to do. Having formulated a plan in my own head, I called a meeting of the top 15 people in our corporation. I had prepared a list of responsibilities and designated them to each member. I asked each one to first comment on what was set before them and gave them a chance to voice their opinion on how to proceed. After a lot of discussion, we agreed on a complete reorganization of the corp.
JZ:Change is difficult, but sometimes these radical reorganizations are needed, and if you have buy-in from the members, it's a great way to start with a "clean slate." It sounds like Chief Grass did it the right way and involved the top people in the process, rather than just making sweeping decisions.
Change in the chain
DG:The first really big change was to do away with the title of captain, and follow the chain of command of the fire department. We now have a chief and a first and second chief. What we're looking to do is stop being the wayward stepchild of the fire department and have our officers regarded as equals. The next benefit of this change is having officers actually start at the bottom and work their way up the chain of command, learning each phase of the organization as they move up. Some will obviously never make the cut, and we find that out before too much damage is done. We set the standard high, and we hold our people accountable to perform their duties or they'll be replaced. We've already removed the first assistant chief for failing to follow the SOGs, clearly spelled out in their original agreement.
JZ: I can appreciate what the chief was doing here, and sometimes a title change, even for the same position, can do wonders. The NIMS standards made a point of giving appropriate titles to positions in the system no matter what title that person may hold in their organization, and this is because there's a certain amount of weight in titles like "Chief." Although you may be OK calling the head of your department "Captain" or "President," such titles as "Chief" and "Assistant Chief" have clout in the public.
Changing your requirements for the position can benefit the department if you have quality candidates, but there needs to be some flexibility in the system so that you aren't "stuck" with the wrong individual or with no one to fill the position. Steps in the ladder may limit the number of candidates that can reach the higher position. This may, in turn, cause a lack of opinions or ideas from ˙new blood.Ó For example, if someone who has 20 years' experience and was a previous chief in another town moves into your area, wouldn't you like to give them a chance to join your department and share their leadership experience?
DG: We're only six months into a pay-for-call program, giving each responder $4.00 to offset the price of gasoline. This gets more people out and is having a positive effect in crewing calls.
JZ:I would be interested to see any numbers to support this impression of a positive effect, and whether those numbers change over time. Many of these pay-per-call arrangements seem to work for the first year, but end up hurting in the long run.
Complaints in writing
DG: We have lost more than our share of people over the years, mostly because of personality conflicts. Our new policy is thatall complaints are to be put in writing, signed by the party making the complaint, and we follow it up within 24 hours. My officers aren't allowed to discuss complaints that aren't written. This gives the individual time to cool off before filing a complaint. We haven't lost any members since this policy began. The closest we came to this was when a member didn't get into an EMT class; the officer involved and I went to the first day of class and, with a lot of sincere apology, were able to get the student in the class. The moral is to show them you care.
JZ:Good policy. Unfortunately, personality conflicts aren't always the same as criticism, but I can see how these conflicts would lead to someone making biased complaints.
DG:We keep our people coming back for training by providing every avenue of training availableƒCME online, quality instruction in our bayƒand fund any outside training requested. We also pay for meals and reimburse for transportation.
We ensure staffing by having crew chiefs for each shift. They log their crews online for one to two months in advance, and we require individual members to find coverage if they can't ride their shift. This isn't perfect, but it does work. Our members are required to ride two shifts a month and rotate weekends.
JZ:Many departments are transitioning from "scramble" systems to assigned shifts. I like the idea of requiring members to find their own replacements, but what happens if they can't? Unfortunately, when departments make the change to a shift-based system, volunteers often complain that they'revolunteers and don't want to be required to do anything. Every member must understand that to be a professional volunteer department, a minimum amount of staffing is needed and this is the way of meeting those needs. I always ask those who complain to come up with a better answer, and I've yet to hear one.
DG:The Pine Bush Volunteer Ambulance Corp. has a working relationship with the towns we serve. We receive part of our funding from the towns we cover; however, the lion's share comes from billing. We received a grant from FEMA in 2006, which covered turnout gear and pagers for all of our members. The towns don't help manage our corp.
We've always strived to be ahead of the curve in technology. We're in the process of implementing electronic PCRs in our system. I'll let you know if it increases our revenues. It will almost surely improve our PCRs.
JZ:This seems to be the norm, but many departments don't realize that they can apply for federal funding. You should keep an eye on good sites, such asgrants.gov,firegrantsupport.comandEMSgrantshelp.com, because there areEMS components in many grants.
DG: I believe our department is special in the fact that we don't resist change. We're always looking for ways to improve the service and attract new people. We provide the creature comforts with a fully stocked kitchen and refrigerator, TV, VCR, multiple computers, clean bathrooms and a crew quarters with showers. We have three ambulances and two fly cars; we're rarely unable to put all of our units on the street if the need arises, but we occasionally miss a call during the weekday shiftƒthe lean times. The call is immediately rolled over to our ALS provider, and they respond. They, in turn, often use our service to back up multiple alarms.
I'll retire from actively riding when my body tells me to. I have made it clear to my family members, two of whom are paramedics working for a paid service, that they should make it clear tome when it's time to quit. I'm 67 years old and do between 400 and 500 hundred calls a year. My goal is to leave this ambulance corp. running so smoothly that I'll be gone and no one will even realize that I'm not there.
JZ: It continues to amaze me how much commitment many members, like Chief Grass, put into their department. Commitments by management translate into commitments by the membership. We lead by example.
DG:Our biggest strength is in the people we have and their dedication to the communities in which they live. Our biggest challenge is to let those people know how important their contributions are and how much they're appreciated. Recently, a volunteer corp. in our area closed its doors. They'll be missed. It's our desire to never let that happen in this community. We have adopted a motto: "Never I. NeverMe. Always We."
JZ:Thank you, Chief Grass, for all your insight. As I travel and talk to departments in all corners of the country, I'm reminded how close we are. We have similar issues, similar people and a similar goal to help others. But we may execute our plans differently, so the point is to share our problems and solutions to find ways we can improve the profession of volunteerEMS.