Exclusive: A new beginning for the National Volunteer Fire Council


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Sarah Lee, CEO of the National Volunteer Fire Council discusses her recent appointment  

Tell us about your career to date in the fire industry 

I grew up in a fire service family so I’ve always witnessed that feeling of family that comes with the fire service. After discovering the sense of fulfillment that comes with working in the nonprofit sector right out of college, I began working at the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (now CPSE) managing the Chief Fire Officer Program, knowing that any job in the fire industry would surely come with this same sense of family while still fulfilling my desire to work in the nonprofit world. 

I was able to combine my passion for the nonprofit sector with my love for the fire service family and was afforded an opportunity to really grow and thrive. I moved to the Executive Director position at CFAI for several years before joining the NVFC in 2005.  

How did your appointment as NVFC CEO come about? 

It certainly wasn’t expected. I had worked with Heather Schafer as her Deputy CEO for over 15 years before her untimely passing in March of 2021. We worked very closely together in that time, and she was a great mentor and friend to me. Upon her passing, NVFC First Vice Chair, Kevin Quinn stepped in as Acting CEO while our organisation worked through the shock and grief we were experiencing and determined the next steps for the Council. In May, the board appointed me the Interim CEO and then my position was confirmed by the board in October.  

What are the main priorities now that your appointment has been announced? 

Ensuring that we have a solid foundation to serve our members is always a priority, and this means having a strong team, strong partnerships, and active, engaged members. The volunteer fire and emergency services continue to face several challenges affecting their health and safety, their ability to recruit and retain volunteers, and their ability to stay abreast of current technology and trends that can help them in their work. 

Our priorities as an organisation are to provide the volunteer fire and emergency services with the tools and information they need to overcome challenges while also sharing and celebrating their successes. We want to highlight the important role volunteers play in their communities and the many, many reasons others may wish to get involved as volunteers themselves.  

The NVFC looks to provide a voice for volunteer firefighters. How are you aiming to amplify that voice during your tenure? 

Everything we do at the NVFC is for emergency service volunteers, and our job as an organisation is to elevate their voices to the national arena and ensure that they are fairly and adequately represented in legislation, standards, regulations, and codes. 

Advocacy is a big part of what we do, and we will continue to advocate by monitoring and acting upon federal legislation that affects volunteers and by ensuring that we are representing volunteers in all places where decisions are made that impact their health, safety, and the critical resources they need to succeed. We also want to amplify all of the good that volunteers do in their communities, not just in saving lives but also in the small, daily actions and interactions with their neighbors, friends, and colleagues that can leave long-lasting, positive impressions.  

The relationship between the NVFC and your members has always been critical. How will you look to strengthen this in the future? 

Our members are the NVFC. When I started with the NVFC almost 16 years ago, we had around 1,000 members. Today we have over 27,500 members and this number continues to grow. This growth has been achieved by listening to what members need and want from us as an organization and by meeting these needs through our programs, tools, resources, and advocacy efforts. 

A large part of our success is also attributed to our great working relationship with the 47 state fire associations that serve on our board and that provide a critical link to thousands of smaller, rural departments that need our help and support. As we move forward, it is critically important to foster this connection with the local level and provide opportunities for our members to engage with the NVFC and become part of the solutions they are seeking.  

What are the main challenges you are looking to tackle in the initial months? 

There are a number of important issues that disproportionally affect first responders such as behavioral health concerns, suicide, firefighter cancer, heart attacks, and other preventable health risks. Recruitment and retention have also become increasingly difficult in the face of COVID-19 and families are simply struggling to balance more with increasingly limited time. These are issues we are actively addressing through our national programs, ongoing training opportunities, and by providing resources to increase the support network our members need, whether that support is through their peers, medical professionals, or even their own friends and families.  

Have you had a chance to speak to members since your appointment?  

We really have the best members and I feel like I’ve found that fire service family I witnessed as a child. Our members have been so supportive and have reached out with positive messages and encouragement. The really great thing is that our membership is so diverse – our members are doctors, teachers, elected officials, farmers, and small business owners and they come from all areas of the country and all walks of life. In spite of these differences, they all share a common love for volunteering and giving back to their community, and it really is this commonality that unites our members and the volunteer fire and emergency service as a whole.   

You are carrying on the excellent work carried out by Heather Schafer over a long period of time. How important will the foundations she has helped to build be to the NVFC in the future? 

Heather led the NVFC for 27 years so she was truly instrumental in laying the strong foundation the NVFC has today. I’m so grateful that I had 15 years to work so closely with her, learn from her, and watch her build the great team and organisation that the NVFC is today. She left behind a legacy of great leadership and visionary thinking that has benefited the NVFC and our members in many ways. 

The best way to honor her is to carry on her legacy and continue to build upon this foundation she created so that we can continue to meet and exceed the expectations of our members and help the volunteer fire and emergency services grow and thrive.  

Can we expect to see much change or are you looking to solidify what is already in place? 

The NVFC is in a period of growth, and member feedback indicates the positive impact our organisation has already made on so many of our members, their departments, and even their families. The NVFC thrived under Heather’s visionary leadership, and I am looking forward to both continuing and expanding upon what she and I worked on together as a team in concert with our fantastic board and staff. 

As we move forward, I expect our members will find increased training opportunities, additional resources addressing health and safety as well as recruitment and retention, and even more opportunities to engage with the NVFC – a vision I know Heather would have shared for the organisation.  

Looking to the future, what goals are you setting for both yourself and the NVFC? 

Meeting the needs of the volunteer sector is a team effort and will require a strong community of diverse individuals to succeed. Solving the challenges faced by our members is a long-game strategy – it’s not going to happen overnight; it will take hard work, commitment, and persistence and I’m excited to be a part of the team that will make this happen. 

As we move forward, our goals are to continue to grow our membership, develop enduring relationships with our partners and allies, and ensure that first responders have the tools, resources, and information they need to conduct their job safely and go home to their families at the end of every call and every shift. 

We want to make volunteer recruitment as easy as possible for departments who are struggling, help departments retain the great volunteers they have now, and really showcase all of the tangible and intrinsic benefits to be gained by volunteering and serving your community. Volunteer first responders are some of the most caring, selfless, and community-oriented people you’ll ever meet, and I feel so fortunate to work with and for such a remarkable group of individuals.  

1-ISJ- Exclusive: A new beginning for the National Volunteer Fire Council
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