Fireman Phil, Not To The Rescue

A few years ago, I became enveloped with an overpowering sense of altruism and decided to get involved in a volunteer program in my neighborhood. Since I am a desk jockey by profession, I figured that it would make sense if my volunteer work involved a bit of physical activity and intensity. Thus, I decided to poke around at the volunteer fire departments and EMS operations in my area.

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Long story short: I never got a chance to become involved with the local volunteer fire departments or EMS operations. My efforts to become a good citizen were short circuited by slopping technology and indifferent human actions. There might be a good business lesson in here – after all, ineptitude knows no boundaries, and many industries share the same mistakes when it comes to their online and in-person activities.

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Here are some of the practical business lessons that I learned from this weird experience:

  1. Make sure your website is in working order. One site for an EMS group had its officers’ e-mail addresses listed – but when I tried to contact them, all of my messages bounced back. Another site had a PDF application to download, but it turned out that their software was a bit off-kilter and I was never able to open the application.
  2. Make sure your website has all of the necessary functions in place. One site allowed me to download a PDF application to fill out, but it did not provide an address (either e-mail or snail mail) where I should submit the application. Two sites requested that I fill out my application online, which is fine, except that they wanted my Social Security number; one of those sites also wanted my driver’s license number. Neither site was secured, so I would be making my important data openly available to any joker who wanted to hack into them. Can you say “identity theft”? (I must say that I am amused by the idea of a public safety site that is unsafe.)
  3. Acknowledge all inquiries. The site with the bounced-back e-mails did list a phone number. I called and left two messages, but neither was returned. I submitted my application to that group by fax and mail, but no one contacted me. Separately, I e-mailed one of the sites with the unsecured application to alert them of this problem, but my message was ignored.
  4. Avoid last minute call-outs. The one group that actually acknowledged my inquiries – a volunteer fire department in the neighboring town – twice asked me to visit special events they were hosting. That was very nice, except that the invitations came less than 24 hours before each respective event. Since I already made plans for those days that could not be altered, I had to decline. If I knew about the events in advance (which could’ve been done very easily), I would’ve been able to participate. Strangely, the person who made those last-minute invitations seemed a little annoyed that I couldn’t drop everything to join in.
  5. Keep your appointments. That group in the fourth example invited me to visit their HQ. I agreed to show up at a specific time to meet with a specific person. I was on time, but my contact person wasn’t there – he decided to go out on a meal run with two of his colleagues. Needless to say, one of his comrades at the fire station (who did know I was coming) had to fill in and keep me occupied until my contact person returned – 20 minutes after I arrived.
  6. Listen to people and don’t force your agenda where it is not wanted. When the contact person from the fifth example finally showed up, he was very happy to meet me, but for the wrong reason. He knew that I had years of experience as a public relations specialist and he wanted a PR person to help improve the public perception of his volunteer fire department. The only problem was that I was interested in learning how to become a volunteer firefighter – I had no desire to coordinate PR programs as a volunteer. (I get paid for that type of work, thank you.) When I kept mentioning I was more interested in firefighter training, this guy didn’t seem to be paying much attention at first. When it finally sank in that he was not getting a free PR rep, he then told me there were other duties I could possibly consider, such as volunteer janitorial work within their HQ (and, no, I am NOT making that up!).
  7. Have someone with a brain answering the phones. Out of frustration at being ignored by so many different volunteer public safety entities, I called an EMS group outside of my immediate area and got some loopy old timer on the phone. All I wanted was for him to leave a message for the person in charge of volunteer membership reviews, but you’d think I was explaining the space-time continuum to him – I had to repeat myself four times just to get him to leave the message with the person in charge. My message was never returned.

If any of these examples mirror what is happening in your office, then you need to get your office in better shape. As for those volunteer public safety groups – all I can say is if that’s how they treat people reaching out to them to become a volunteer, I shudder to think how they respond to people who call up with life-threatening emergencies.

About The Author


Phil Hall has been (among other things) a United Nations-based radio journalist, the president of a public relations and marketing agency, a financial magazine editor, the author of six books and a horror movie actor. Also, as you will discover, he is not shy about stating his views.