Leader, Refined

Leader, Refined

Byline: Lisa Allegretti

As the fire chief of not one, but two departments, Rick Haase knows what it takes to be a leader. It takes dedication, its takes training, but mostly it takes support. “You can make all the programs in the world, but without those guys who run the program, that take part and participate in the program, they’re worthless,” he says. “Any fire chief who is successful, you have to look back at the people who surround them.”

Haase, Fire Chief magazine’s 2004 Volunteer Chief of the Year, has plenty of support staff. In addition to supervising 265 emergency responders and volunteers at the Conoco-Phillips oil refinery, he has led the Staunton (Ill.) Fire Department’s 43 volunteers and five junior firefighters through a variety of public-education, safety and training programs.

“Rick’s attitude revolved around commitment, helping, sharing and doing what needs to be accomplished with an inclusiveness that infects others,” says Chief Fred Windisch, of the Ponderosa Volunteer Fire Department, in his nomination of Haase.

Training first

Haase’s emergency services career began while he was in college. A friend who was involved in the local ambulance service asked Haase if he would like to volunteer. “Back then, you had to be 21 to be on the fire department,” Haase recalls. “I was 18, too young to be on the fire department, so I thought I’ll do it.”

When he turned 21, Haase joined the Staunton Fire Department along with some friends from the ambulance service. He served for five years as a firefighter/EMT before being named the department’s first training officer in 1987.

“We had a new chief, a rather young chief, he was looking for new ideas,” Haase says. “Initially, when I took over, it was more getting back to basics, getting state certification programs. I was the first guy in our department to go through most state certification programs, and being able to bring that back and get people interested in those state certification programs so they would go to them and they would take them – that was sort of the start-up.”

Haase held the training officer position for seven years, two years after he was promoted to assistant chief. Haase was promoted to chief in 1997, but training remains one of his top priorities.

Aware of the time constraints that make training difficult for volunteers, Haase’s focus has been to look at different ways to make training available. In 1999 the department initiated a special volunteer training program, which includes nearly 15 home-study programs for basic knowledge on ladder operations, hydraulics, health and safety, and incident command, and Haase is looking to add four or five more programs each year. After each study program, the participants take a test for state credit.

“The home-study programs have been an effective way to add a whole other level of training and yet they’re not at the station all the time,” he says. “Time is a premium.”

The department has taken the home-study program a step further by offering a similar set-up for its leadership program. As officers conduct the department’s training programs, the department offers them specialized classes on how to conduct a better training class and how to handle customer relations.

The department has monthly training bulletins on both health and safety and personal development that are delivered to every member’s mailbox. Within the last year the department started a professional development program on a variety of topics to give people some ideas on how to better themselves as well as the department. The department is gearing up now to start some online training programs.

“We try to roll training into everything we do,” Haase says. “Every business meeting we have, we have little training programs built in.”

The department conducts training every Monday night and twice a month on Saturday mornings for those who are shift workers. Haase also is a part-time instructor for the Illinois Fire Service Academy and frequently instructs at state conferences.

“Training is key to any department, but especially to a volunteer department, and especially to a volunteer department such as ours,” Haase says. “We’re not real busy. We run 125 or 130 calls a year. “We don’t see a structure fire a week. We don’t see a technical rescue a month. It’s something that to get hands on, that background that they need, it has got to be through the training process.”

Haase doesn’t just hold his department to high training standards, he holds himself to them. He holds nine certifications from the Illinois State Fire Marshal Certification Program. He is a state-certified EMT, emergency manager, health and safety technician, and safety officer. He’s also completed certification for FARMEDIC, and is an NFPA-certified Fire Protection Specialist and Chief Fire Officer Designee, a level attained by only 427 fire officers to date. Haase encourages other volunteer officers to follow suit.

“When you look at stuff like CFOD, so many people think of it as just being for professional-paid fire chiefs, and that’s not true,” Haase says. “There’s a huge number of volunteer fire chiefs across the country who have excellent backgrounds and credentials. Those people can do everything that a paid chief can do; they have the background, they have the education, they have the knowledge. I think that by going after this type of certification, it shows that they are on that same level and that they are willing to go that extra step for personal development.”

In the works

The Staunton Fire Department also has a highly developed safety program, with a special health-and-safety committee that was formed in 1998. As of Aug. 4, the department has gone two years without a reportable injury, which Haase says is pretty significant for the number of hours that they put in.

“Every training class that we have, every meeting that we have, safety is one of the first things brought up,” Haase says. “There’s some kind of safety briefing. We post how many hours it’s been since our last injury.”

And that safety becomes a reciprocal process. By proving to the fire district board that there is a cost-savings for working safe, the district reinvests in the program. That reinvestment, for example, includes free dinners for the two-year injury-free mark. “It’s a perk. We give gifts out,” Haase says. “If a guy goes so long injury-free and he helps the department, it might not be the $100 watch, but it might be the $15 T-shirt. We’re looking to promote that because safety is a very important aspect of overall operations…. Let’s reward people for working safe.”

The department currently is working with a community hospital in its jurisdiction to develop a new health and wellness program, still in its early stages. “They’re very small and are looking for outreach opportunities,” Haase says. “Being a volunteer department, we don’t have a lot of money to spend on health and wellness programs. We’re working with the nursing staff to see if we can’t do some win-win stuff to promote the hospital staff in one aspect yet provide a health and wellness program for our volunteers.”

Haase also is working to bring the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System into the more rural of the two counties the department serves. MABAS is a mutual aid organization with more than 550 member fire departments organized within 46 divisions throughout Illinois. The other county, where the refinery is located, already is part of the MABAS system. “I naturally jumped on the bandwagon with them because we wanted to be part of that program as soon as we could,” Haase says.

Where Haase and his department have had the most visible success, though, is in grant processes. In the last three years, Staunton has received two FEMA grants, two state grants and three corporate grants. That money has helped to build a $1.3 million fire station without having to raise taxes, to put a new apparatus into service within the last two years and solidify plans to purchase another truck next year, and make improvements to raise the department’s ISO rating from 7 to 5.

“There are a lot of people who think, ‘I’m a little department. I don’t have a chance.’ But everybody has a chance,” Haase says.

He attributes that success to clearly demonstrating need rather than the “give me money” approach. During the state grant application process, Haase would send a letter a month to the local state senators and representatives, telling them his department’s needs.

“It’s a matter of going out and finding them, identifying them, and then working to understand what you want,” Haase says. “So many people are scared that they’re just asking a lot. They want to go after something that’s pie in the sky … but you need to find what it is that you truly need and then develop your package to sell that to the people who are awarding the grant.”

Parallel beginnings

Around the time Haase started his service with Staunton, he went to work as an instrument technician for the Shell Oil Refinery in Wood River, Ill. The refinery had its own volunteer fire department, and Haase was quick to join up. “Because I was on the volunteer fire department in Staunton, I got to go play some more and get paid for it a little bit,” he says.

After a short time with the refinery department, Haase had the opportunity to attend a corporate fire school. Because of his outside volunteer experience, he was asked back the following year to be an instructor. On the flight home, he was sitting next to a fellow Shell employee who began asking questions about his background. The man actually was the health and safety manager for the refinery. Within six months from that trip, they asked Haase to come into the health and safety department on a temporary basis. “And that was about 16 years ago, and I haven’t left since,” he says.

After about a 18 months, Haase was taking over the rescue and EMS side of the refinery fire department. Not too long after that, there was a major reorganization of the emergency services side of the refinery and he ended up being hired as the first fire chief of the refinery. That was 13 years ago.

“People don’t realize it, but there are a lot of chiefs who wear double hats like that and it’s given me the opportunity to meet people across the country who carry the same load.”

As the refinery’s first fire chief, Haase was responsible for developing all standard operating procedures. Having gone through a similar process for Staunton, he found the wants and needs are more similar than one might think. While Haase admits that he doesn’t see a lot of structural firefighting at the refinery or many tanker fires in his municipality, there have been crossover incidents.

“The two jobs mirror each other real nicely, so I’m able to bring stuff from the municipal side to the industrial side and vice versa. It’s great as far as giving me a lot of capabilities”

The refinery, now owned by Conoco Phillips, is among the 20 largest in the world that has, in addition to its large emergency staff, a fleet of 18 emergency vehicles, eight tractors and two boats. Haase is responsible for fire prevention planning and compliance with regulatory standards for the entire installation.

“Within industry, everything’s big. When we have a fire in industry, it’s nothing for us to flow 8,000 to 10,000 gallons a minute,” he says. “If you talk about that at a municipal fire, people look at you like ‘Oh my god, where do you get all the water at?’ But a lot of those same concepts, the ideas behind it are overcoming the thermal updraft and providing high-volume water supply, it also fits in the municipal world if you know how to use it.”

Haase says there is difficulty in getting people to understand that there’s a use for industrial equipment and techniques on the municipal side, but in this age of homeland security, the uses will become more relevant.

“Just like interoperability between EMS, police, fire, we need to work with these other resources as an industry, as players in the big game,” Haase says. “When we look at what I have to worry about with homeland defense criteria within my refinery, we probably have as much of a stake in it if not more because in some cases we’re seen as a target for terrorists.”

Haase currently serves at the vice chair of the IAFC’s Industrial Fire & Safety Section, and his goal is to have the national fire service organizations include industry in the overall planning process. “The industrial fire service has a lot to provide to assist the municipal fire service,” Haase says. “We have some specialty resources that probably aren’t available anywhere else in the world because of the things that we deal with. Industry is a key to providing overall protection to our customers.”


“The Staunton VFD depicts the model of what a ‘small’ department should be in our nation’s fire service…. [Haase’s] accomplishments, nurturing and commitments to the Staunton VFD continually amaze me.” – Chief Fred Windisch 2000 Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year

“I have found [Haase’s] management abilities to be invaluable in enhancing fire departments and other emergency response agencies…. He continually accepts additional responsibilities and assignments to provide and share with others his knowledge and expertise.” – Michael Mitchell, Chairman Madison County (Ill.) Fire Chiefs Association

“Our training and safety levels are admired by all surrounding departments, and their requests for mutual aid brings them the best equipment and trained firefighters that will match any paid department. The credit for this goes directly to the dedication of Mr. Richard Haase.” – William Knop, President, Board of Trustees Staunton (Ill.) Fire Protection District

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