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Challenges Facing Fire Chiefs of Combination Departments: Carrying Out the Research

By Brad Davison, alumnus, American Military University

It is no secret that the American fire service is facing numerous challenges. It is difficult to generalize these challenges however, as fire services are provided in various manners. Due to the distinct role and makeup of combination fire departments, they often face unique challenges from the rest of the fire service. With both full-time and volunteer/paid on call (POC) members, fire chiefs must balance the diverse (and sometimes conflicting) needs and challenges of both career and volunteer fire services.

Making informed decisions about these unique departments can be difficult, largely because there isn’t substantial research for chiefs to reference. In an effort to shed light on the challenges facing combination fire departments, I decided to focus on this topic for my Master’s degree thesis in Public Administration from American Military University.

The goal of this study is to assist fire chiefs by creating a ranked list of the most common and detrimental challenges within the Midwest Fire Service. Identifying a comprehensive list of challenges affecting many departments can help chiefs better understand the issues they’re facing and help them make more informed decisions.

Additionally, this research aims to identify and fill several of the research gaps within the fire service,  such as combination fire departments and chief’s demographics, chief’s perceptions of challenges, and statistics on the most common and influential challenges in the fire service. Currently, little to no research had been conducted about the challenges facing combination departments, making this research truly pioneering. As the fire service continues to grow in size and professionalism, continued research like this study will be needed to fill these numerous research gaps.

Research Design

The research study collected the responses of Midwest fire chiefs of combination departments. Surveys were sent to 291 executive fire chiefs across 12 states (IL, IN, IA, KS, MI, MN, MO, NE, ND, OH, SD, WI). Half of these 291 participants had more than 50 members and half had less than 50 members. Additionally, in order to qualify for the study, the department had to have at least one full-time line firefighter. Preference was given to those departments with an even balance of volunteer/POC and full-time firefighters.

Participants of the survey were asked about their age, gender, and years of experience as a chief. They were also asked which state their department was located, how many members they employed, and how many calls for service their department averaged per year. These demographic questions were used to look for trends or correlations with their perceptions of challenges.

Finally, chiefs were asked to identify the challenges that their department currently faced. From those answers, they were asked to rank those challenges in order of their influence to the department.

Overview of Results

From the 291 surveys, 108 fire chiefs voluntarily responded, giving the survey a 37% response rate. Around 75% of the participants came from departments with less than 50 members and responded to fewer than 3,000 calls for service per year. Some demographics include:

  • Gender: 99% of the participants were male
  • Age: 46% were 25 to 50 years old; 53% were 51 to 65 years old
  • Experience: Roughly 19% of participants had between 0 to 4 years of chief experience; 33% had between 5 and 10 years of experience; and 49% had more than 11 years. Combined, the survey participants had between 721 and 921+ years of chief experience.

The chiefs indicated that the challenges they face most often are:

  1. Budget limitations (77%)
  2. Volunteer firefighter recruitment and retention (59%)
  3. Training requirements and increasing call volumes (44%) tied for third

Chiefs then indicated that the challenges that made the most impact on their departments are:

  1. Budget limitations (72%)
  2. Volunteer firefighter recruitment and retention (47%)
  3. Employee recruitment and retention; and political barriers (28%) tied for third

Several demographic categories appeared to influence the chiefs’ perceptions, but no statistically significant correlation was found.

Future Discussion

Subsequent articles in this blog series will delve into a discussion of the research findings. Budget limitations and their nearly unanimous perception of hindrance will be explored in the next article, followed by an article on the growing hardship within the volunteer firefighter system. The series will conclude with a discussion about what these findings may mean for the fire service, and what may be needed in the future.

fire chiefs

About the Author: Brad Davison is an engineer/paramedic in Indianola, Iowa. In the fall of 2017, Brad completed his Master’s degree in Public Administration, with a concentration in Emergency Management from American Military University. Beginning his career as a POC firefighter, Brad has a passion for combination fire departments. To contact the author, please email

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