By David Mellen
With the diminishing numbers of volunteers in this country, some departments have found themselves in one of the most dangerous situations they can face: responding to calls on a consistent basis with minimal manpower, lack of equipment, and the realization that they are going to have to make do with what they have.
Recruitment and retention has been a hot topic for volunteer fire departments in years past and promises to be an ongoing issue for some time. While some departments have a waiting list to join, others have monthly open houses and place banners in front of the station reading: “Volunteers needed”.
Many have blamed the diminishing numbers of people willing to volunteer their time on everything from the economy to generational differences. I have to agree that some of these factors affect membership, but there is one factor that is rarely spoken of--motivation.
I heard a comment a few months back stating that if a firefighter loses interest in a fire department or the fire service, he must not be dedicated enough. I was taken back by this because to me, someone who shows a lack of dedication is almost always unmotivated. The motivation we have as firefighters is the reason that we get up in the middle of the night to help put an elderly patient back into bed; check out an automatic fire alarm that we have run eight times in the last 24 hours; and most of all, take time away from our family and friends to do it…because we love it!
Everyone reading this has at one point or another probably heard a call for service go out and thought, maybe only once, “Do I really want to go on this?” I have done it several times, and I know of others who have also, but why? Why would you not want to do what you love to do? For some it’s family, for others it’s just a break from “the job,” and for some it’s because of a lack of motivation.
There are always going to be exceptions. There are volunteer departments that operate indistinguishably from career ones. What I speak of is the department that has ample members on its roster but only sees a handful of them on a regular basis. What happened to the days where people raised their children in the firehouse, card games were held every Thursday night, and the monthly baseball tournament with the neighboring department was the talk of the station?
The first volunteer department I joined was an animal house of sorts, with lots of jocularity, training, and the occasional new guy “stirring the tank” to prevent mildew growth that was strictly against NFPA G-14 (that one never got old!). But all jokes aside, when the tones dropped there were a dozen people fighting for six seats in the engine! Whatever the call--medical, car wreck, or a cat in a tree--we always had to decide who was going to go on it. It was a great time and it was always the norm to roll out with more than enough personnel to get our mission accomplished.
If you examine the culture of volunteer departments that flourish and have people climbing over each other to get a seat on a truck, they all have a one thing in common: motivation. Motivation can range from monetary reimbursement to great leadership. Sometimes it’s just the call volume that is motivation enough to bring people back. Take the department that does daily training, weekly social events, and monthly outings. Such departments see membership soar whereas the department that has monthly trainings and yearly social events watches its firefighters lose interest. The bottom line is that if firefighters stay motivated, they will remain dedicated. If there is nothing to keep them coming back, well, then chances are they won’t.
A good friend of mine said it best: he believed that motivation came in waves for people in the fire service. The first motivation for a new firefighter coming into the fire service is the excitement. We were all there once, in a time when the lights and sirens blared and we sat quietly in the back of the truck grinning from ear to ear and giggling like a toddler watching cartoons (if you are shaking your head “yes” right now then you know what I’m talking about, and if your not…you’re in denial).
After some time, when the excitement wore off and running lights and sirens became mundane, it was the training that kept us intrigued. Live fire training, auto extrication class, even a viral video of what could be conceived as the biggest structure fire you have ever seen is what kept us on the edge of our seats and made us wish we could have the opportunity to see more fire than the burning trash can outside of a business.
For firefighters who have been in the business for a while, the aforementioned things are all well and fine, but for them, a primary motivation is promotion. After mastering the basics and continuing to excel at the ability to command a scene, these firefighters are motivated by the opportunity to teach and lead.
One common trait for any of the above groups is that they all wanted to do the best job possible and bring everyone home. Whether it was the pep talk after a bad call, or the celebration (behind closed doors, of course) after showing up first in on a third-due assignment and having the fire out when the hosting department arrives, these are the things that keep firefighters motivated and make them want to keep doing what they do.
Finding the thing that firefighters are looking for and providing it may be the key to keeping trucks full. Now I’m not saying that every person can be accommodated; you are always going to have those few. What I am saying is that firefighters feed off of excitement, jocularity, competitiveness, and the occasional job well done from our superiors. I think everyone can agree that a simple “good job” on the fireground can make your day and a certificate given for exceptional performance will always find its way onto a wall.
I truly believe that we as firefighter are chosen to do this job. I also believe that people who do this job well have a certain personality that feeds on adrenaline, fear, excitement, and brotherhood. We thrive to learn, teach, and enable each other to do the best we can.
So if you take away the things that motivate firefighters to spend time away from their families for free, what are you left with? Most of the time, just empty seats.
David Mellen is an 13-year veteran of the fire service and currently a firefighter/paramedic with both the City of Tonganoxie (KS) Fire Department and Reno Township (KS) Volunteer Fire Department. Mellen began his fire service career as a fire service explorer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org