21st Century Firefighting: Preserving the Volunteer Fire Service

BY ROSS CHAPMAN

In today’s society, a fire- fighter is not just a firefighter; he may be a volunteer, a part-time, a contract, or a traditional firefighter. But regardless of all these designations, the bedrock of America’s fire service is still (as it has been for more than 200 years) volunteers. In the United States, the National Fire Protection Association reports that 71 percent of firefighters are volunteers.1

The volunteer fire department today is a changing animal, but some of the same problems that have plagued the fire service are becoming even more apparent. Today, more than ever, volunteer departments are finding it difficult to recruit and retain new firefighters.

VOLUNTEERISM

A volunteer is someone who freely enlists for service. Many people define volunteerism differently. Bruce Chapman, in his essay on volunteerism, defines a volunteer as a person who is making a “free will offering to God.”2 For me, a volunteer is a person who performs selfless actions from which there will be no tangible benefit for himself. Volunteer firefighters put their lives on the line every day and on every call—there is no better example of a volunteer.

Recruitment and retention are among the challenges facing the volunteer fire service in the United States. I offer several solutions designed to preserve the greatest volunteer organization in the United States, the volunteer fire service.

RECRUITMENT

Over the past 20 years, the number of volunteer firefighters has decreased by as much as 10 percent, according to Phillip Stittleburg, chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council.3 The problem is clearly snowballing, and some new approaches need to be brought to the table to recruit new members.

Several ideas have proven successful in introducing new people to the fire service, such as a cadet program. A cadet or Fire Explorer program introduces young people ages 16 to 18 to the fire service, allowing them to participate in some training, perform station duties, and interact with firefighters. Many believe this is the best way to recruit young firefighters for several reasons: It offers a good outlet for teenagers, keeps them off the streets, and provides a great introduction to the fire service at an age when many teens are looking for a direction for their lives and are most impressionable.

Public education and open houses also provide effective recruitment tools. Nothing is more exciting than seeing firefighters who are good at their jobs displaying their abilities, and it encourages citizens young and old to get involved with their local department. These events are relatively inexpensive to organize and will build excitement not only within the community but also within the fire department, because it allows members to showcase the talents that they have spent countless hours perfecting.

RETENTION

Although finding new members to get involved in a fire department is a major issue, it is even more important to keep existing members onboard. Several statistics are very telling regarding the problems facing the volunteer fire service and keeping these new members; these problems must be rectified.

The average department may spend an average of $1,000 to retain one volunteer each year, and the average volunteer may stay for only a few years. Many volunteer fire departments are unable to communicate with other public safety agencies, and many volunteers operate lacking basic equipment, such as self-contained breathing apparatus. Despite these shortcomings, volunteer firefighters nationwide may save municipalities billions per year. There is no question that volunteers save cities across the nation an incredible amount of money in salaries, but volunteer firefighters should see some of those savings invested in tools and training that will allow them to perform their jobs safely and effectively.

Volunteer fire departments face several problems in trying to recruit and retain members.

Risk for no reward. Firefighting is a dangerous job whether you’re a volunteer or career firefighter, and it’s hard to get people to risk their lives for no monetary compensation.

Time commitment. Volunteer firefighting involves a large time commitment; volunteers typically must train for at least one night a week for three to four hours. On top of that, many will have to dedicate additional time each month to maintain their emergency medical technician certificate. In addition, if those firefighters are involved in specialty response teams (e.g., technical rescue, dive rescue, or wildland firefighting), this requires additional time and training. Additionally, calls can come at any time, requiring volunteers to drop whatever they are doing and respond, and often be gone for hours at a time. There’s no volunteer who can’t recount having to leave a Thanksgiving dinner, a Christmas morning, or a loved one’s birthday for a call. Many volunteers have families and full-time jobs. A volunteer’s dedication to the department requires not only that member’s commitment but also the commitment of his family.

Leadership. Whether it’s good or bad, volunteer fire chiefs often can run the department as a dictatorship. The line firefighters often have no way to protect their rights other than to scale back their involvement. In a paid fire department, however, the firefighters and the administration are bound by an explicit union contract that guarantees certain rights and responsibilities for both parties.

Volunteer fire chiefs are often much more independent. The chief in many cases will report directly to a village board or a city manager who may have little concern for or knowledge of what goes on within the firehouse walls. The chief can appoint his officers based only on requirements that he establishes. If the chief is not careful, this can lead to a “good ol’ boys” atmosphere around the firehouse, in which officers are selected based purely on whom the fire chief likes, not who is most qualified.

All of these factors can lead to discontent among the firefighters, especially when favoritism, not merit, determines which officers are promoted. This system, in which there are no checks and balances, is destined to sink morale.4

SOLUTIONS

I propose the following solutions to these problems. First, volunteer fire departments should work with the municipality to provide volunteer incentives, such as free gym memberships at recreation centers or discounted golf and beach passes.

Housing is another possibility. Because many firefighters are young and are working on getting their feet under them, the department could provide apartment housing above firehouses where these aspiring firefighters can live free of charge but are required to respond to calls and perform station duties.

Another solution is to overhaul the officer corps. All current officers would start with a blank slate and be judged based on experience, certificates, formal training, and firefighter preference. Each category would be worth 25 points. In the last category, firefighters would rank officers, and those officers would be assigned points based on this ranking. Officers should be subject to open testing based on requirements that all department members have agreed on.

Finally, encourage members to pursue formal training by paying tuition out of the fire department training budget. Get members excited about going on calls and coming to training by allowing them to pursue their interests, whether it’s in emergency medical services, urban search and rescue, or dive rescue specialties. After spending several years learning their jobs, many firefighters may find that their jobs have become stagnant. To prevent this, allow firefighters to find new energy and passion within the fire service by exposing them to new and exciting aspects of the fire service.

Now, many of you reading this who are members of volunteer fire departments may say, “These solutions are all well and good, but where is the money coming from to pay for tuition or training?” The answer is multifaceted. The first option is the fundraiser, which has long been a source of volunteer fire department income.

Applying for grants is a more recent solution to the problem. The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant is a phenomenal tool for volunteer fire departments and will pay for the costs of recruiting new firefighters through marketing. It will also reimburse firefighters for higher education costs, which will have a positive impact on the fire service. Finally, it will pay for Fire Explorer, cadet, and mentoring programs.5

•••

The issues discussed above have been around for as long as the fire service itself. It is clear, however, that in our capitalist society, fire departments that can’t depend on monetary compensation for their members must come up with new and innovative solutions to these problems. Recruitment, retention, training, and morale are key components of a successful volunteer fire department.

Volunteer firefighting is destined to become a thing of the past if volunteer chiefs don’t recognize these issues and adopt proactive approaches for dealing with them. As Charlie Dickinson, former deputy administrator of the United States Fire Administration, noted, “Maintaining these front-line responders through retention and recruitment is paramount to America’s safety and security. Communities across the nation must continue to find creative ways to support and maintain these critical community first responders.”6

References

1. National Fire Protection Association, “The U.S. Fire Department Profile Through 2009” (fact sheet). http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files//PDF/FDprofilefactsheet.pdf.

2. Chapman, Bruce. “Politics and National Service: A Virus Attacks the Volunteer Sector.” In Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, (10th Edition), Laurence Behrens, Leonard Rosen (authors). New York, NY: Pearson Longman, 2008; 157-159.

3. National Volunteer Fire Council. “Retention & Recruitment Guide.” (2008).www.nvfc.org/index.php?id=1056.

4. Barr, Robert and John Eversole. The Fire Chief’s Handbook, (Sixth Edition). Fire Engineering, 2003.

5. United States Fire Administration, Retention and Recruitment for the Volunteer Emergency Services: Challenges and Solutions (FA -310), May 2007. http://www.nvfc.org/files/documents/2007_retention_and_recruitment_guide.pdf.

6. Virginia Department of Fire Programs, “NVFC and USFA release comprehensive guide to retention and recruitment,” The Logbook (Jul/Aug 2007), 5(4) 3. http://www.vafire.com/administration/logbook%20archives/July%20Logbook.pdf.

ROSS CHAPMAN is a firefighter/paramedic with the Arlington Heights (IL) Fire Department and a volunteer with the Lake Bluff (IL) Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire service management from Southern Illinois University.

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