Battling the Brain Drain

By BENJAMIN PEETZ

A serious and dangerous problem is affecting communities from Indiana to Mississippi to Oregon: a shortage of volunteer firefighters. In many of this country’s small rural and suburban communities, a loss of volunteers means a dangerous reduction in emergency services and response efficiency. According to information published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in 2012 statistics, nearly 69 percent of this nation’s 1.1 million firefighters and emergency medical technicians are volunteers.

The biggest challenges seem to be recruiting new members and retaining existing, trained personnel. Some discussions even allude to a complete collapse of the volunteer system in as few as 20 years. Why is this happening? What can we do to resolve this?

This problem didn’t occur overnight, nor was there a single cause. First, the increased training and time requirements needed to be a volunteer firefighter strain community residents, who likely already have limited schedules. Not only is it a time commitment, but it can also become an extra expense in fuel, clothing, and other consumables for which the department may not be able to compensate.

Second, today’s citizens expect the same level of emergency service no matter where they reside. When they dial 911, they assume that a sufficient group of well-trained, adequately equipped emergency responders are immediately on their way. Unfortunately, as call volumes increase in rural and suburban settings, the number of responders is decreasing.

Third, in recent years, fire personnel have been asked to provide more diversified services to the communities they protect. This means increased training demands in new areas of expertise and an additional run volume on already overtaxed personnel. In many cases, a community’s volunteer fire department was initially organized to respond to a handful of fires each month, not potentially dozens of fires, emergency medical services, or rescue calls each day.

LEARNING FROM THE PAST

Not long ago, times were different in many of these communities. People in small towns knew each other, so when the fire siren sounded, they were off to help their neighbor or family member. Then, as the older personnel retired or passed away, younger ranks didn’t fill in as quickly. As I did, many young firefighters grew up at the firehouse, which instilled in them this value of volunteerism. But as fathers and mothers encouraged their children to go out into the world and make something of themselves, many members of this new generation moved from the areas served by volunteer departments to find greener pastures with better opportunities in bigger cities.

In the academic world, the phenomenon of educated students leaving their rural homes in search of broader opportunities, called “brain drain,” is not new, and it continues to grow. Often, it leaves small communities with a lack of human capital to draw on for various roles in local employment and community leadership. Volunteer fire departments are no exception. As young people move away to areas where more educational and employment opportunities exist, the pool of eligible volunteers dwindles quickly in smaller communities. This is the situation today.

In today’s economy, this is not limited to just the scholarly stars or the select few aspiring youth of an area. There was a time when local residents could be volunteer firefighters because they worked at a business in town during the day and could easily respond to calls at all times. Today, we are seeing an uptick in the need for new employment opportunities for all ages. There has also been a steady increase in “nontraditional” students, where older individuals are going back to school and working toward a midlife career change that may pull them from their volunteer involvement. This means that even when able to achieve a full roster of trained volunteers, many departments may still face staffing challenges. Members who are successfully recruited and trained may have to uproot to follow job opportunities for them or their spouses in other communities and end up leaving within a few years rather than a few decades as did the volunteers of old.

The economic downturn has been blamed for shrinking the number of volunteer firefighters largely because people now find themselves working two or three jobs on a variety of shifts; they simply do not have time to do unpaid work. Employers in small towns and rural areas also may have had to reduce workforces to their bare minimums because they can no longer function when an employee leaves to answer an emergency call. In some cases, the businesses that once existed in small towns and provided employment for volunteer firefighters are no longer there, meaning that same person now may need to travel to find daily employment. Not only are these volunteer fire communities fighting the traditional idea of brain drain, which involves the movement of individuals on a more permanent or long-term basis, but they battle brain drain daily.

Employment opportunities are drawing people away from their home communities during the day to work in a neighboring area, leaving home communities unprotected. As society has become more mobile, the daily commute has, in many cases, grown to be more than just a quick drive. In fact, the distances are enough to make it infeasible to return home for an emergency call during the day. So, even though a department may be adequately staffed at night, it may still face the dilemma of providing a sufficient daytime response. Telecommuting and other technological changes are allowing some individuals to work at home during certain times, which may increase their availability, but they may then be required to engage in long-distance travel for work or educational commitments at other times, perhaps even overnight. Years ago, a trip to the city may have been an occasional event; today, it’s not uncommon for people to drive hundreds of miles during a regular work day.

Daytime coverage is just one concern; the game has also changed when it comes to family and other activities that require evening or weekend time that might have otherwise been spent at the firehouse. Previously, firefighting families were often multigenerational, working in the same town and even the same department; they understood the need to drop everything else and go when the tones sounded and the pagers beeped. Now, busier families spread over a wider geographic area require even more time and cause people to be removed from their communities more often. School activities are more demanding, and today’s more mobile society means that family events and other functions may take people significant distances away from their communities on any given day of the week and perhaps for an entire weekend. Can we reasonably expect volunteers to sacrifice precious family time when they are willing to give us what little other free time they do have?

Let’s face it: Volunteerism isn’t what it used to be. For a period of time, populations shifted from crowded urban areas back into more relaxed rural and suburban communities. Many volunteer fire service leaders saw a whole new pool of potential firefighters into which they could tap, but this new group ended up showing little interest in spending their precious and limited time helping others, especially when it went so far as risking their lives for people they didn’t know. In fact, to some people, the term “community service” evolved to gain a negative connotation of something you received as punishment for having done some sort of wrong. So instead of the rosters filling, the demands on small departments grew with the increased population, but resources dwindled even further. How can a department combat this? The picture seems bleak. This is where creative solutions and openmindedness can prove to be critical for keeping life in your department.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

As a loss prevention specialist, I travel extensively with a commercial property insurance company, taking me away from my home community for half my time or more. However, in that experience, I talk to and interact with departments across a large portion of the country. In talking with fire service members in other states, I have seen several good approaches to staffing that have been used to work toward a positive result. However, not all of the possible solutions will leave you feeling “warm and fuzzy.” In fact, a few of these solutions will be viewed as downright unacceptable and nasty. However, just as you must “know your enemy better than you know your friends,” you must consider and understand all of the options to best determine what is right for you and to defend your decisions while doing the best you can with the resources at hand.

Value and appreciate what you have. The first and most important thing you can do is to value every firefighter you have trained and put in place to respond. These people have already demonstrated their commitment to become trained professionals. You absolutely must realize the investment you have in each individual in terms of time and money. Make sure the environment is welcoming and open for all members. Leaders must never lose sight of the fact that volunteers are just that-doing this service to the community for essentially no calculable reward. Also, don’t forget that volunteers are a little like puppy dogs; once in a while, you need to pat them on the head and let them know they did well. Make sure each individual knows his precious time is appreciated and valued. A simple “thank you” will go a long way in keeping someone interested in serving. Also, pay close attention to and bear in mind how the decisions you make will demonstrate how you value the involvement of these individuals. For example, does your organization make a point to not spend precious limited funding on items or services that could be donated or provided by the community?

Encourage teamwork and participation. Today’s volunteer firefighters have limited time and limited availability. They may not make a run every day or every week, so they may not always be in the same role or working with the same crew. This is the reason it is vitally important that every person be comfortable with every other person and that they all be adequately trained in all roles. Each member must understand the need to help each other and be helped by others when they are in a role that isn’t necessarily their forte. Being overly critical of others in a condescending way will drive a bigger wedge between your firefighters, so avoid and correct this at all costs. Again, remember that these are volunteers who are giving of themselves everything that they feel they can give. That will be different for every individual, but every individual should be valued in the same way.

Be problem solvers, not problem finders. Talk to anyone in a nonprofit or service organization and you will find criticisms of what “the other guy” does or does not do. However, when everyone on the roster counts, individuals must get along and work as a team for the betterment of the community. Leaders must take a stand against negativism and squash unnecessary criticisms before emotions get out of hand. If a true problem does exist, leadership must step in to resolve the issue. Also, be wary of cliques that can create divisive attitudes among your members. Every member must encourage and expect constructive criticism, but do not tolerate ever-present bickering and insults about other members. Don’t let petty differences push someone out of a department unless there’s just no other way. Although it may stand true that sometimes you must “cut off the limb to save the body,” this should be a last-ditch effort when nothing else will work to save your organization.

Lower your standards. I’m not talking about finding warm bodies just to fill a roster. You must identify those deficiencies with which you can live to keep a good firefighter on your roster. For example, when a firefighter is not viewed as active, is it because of a true lack of interest, or is it a scheduling problem or a conflict with other activities?

I know of one volunteer department that had rigid attendance standards and eventually asked a particular individual to leave the department-not because of missed run volume but because he was not making it to enough of the department’s fund-raisers. What was the reason this person missed so many breakfasts or dinners? He was also working shifts at a career department in an adjacent county and did not go out of his way to take the time off. Yet, not long after this individual’s dismissal from the volunteer department, he was a bystander on the scene at a structure fire down the street from his house while mutual-aid departments were called in to work the backup call. So, are fund-raisers important? Yes! But is it ultimately more important to have trained personnel who can get the trucks out the door in an emergency? I think so.

Diversification of members. Embrace those who choose to stay in the community long term even if they find opportunities that may make them temporarily unavailable. Whether it’s the attorney who drives to the city each day to sit in an air-conditioned office, the over-the-road truck driver who is gone three to four days a week, or the insurance fire protection guy who travels the country, each individual offers important skills and assistance that can prove valuable to a department during emergency and nonemergency activities. Just because he may not be immediately available 24/7, this does not mean he cannot be a very important part of a department when he is available.

Also, consider using personnel who are willing to contribute in ways that might not be an option for a career department. Some departments maintain older firefighters on the roster to serve in roles ranging from water supply to traffic control to rehab functions while encouraging the younger members to pack up and get dirty.

Increased roster sizes. Understand that some individuals are going to be available only some of the time. In these cases, perhaps the best way to address a staffing problem is to have more people who might potentially be available and then hope that the same percentage of a larger pool of volunteers is able to respond. Simple math says that a 20- to 30-percent response rate from a roster of 15 is going to give you half the staffing you will get from the same percentage pulled from a roster of 30. Sure, there will be more expense in properly training and equipping each individual, but will this be cheaper than the community having to foot the bill for a paid engine crew kept on station? Or worse, having no one to respond at all from within your home community? It’s happening. The service areas of some small departments are being swallowed up by other departments located 10 to 15 minutes farther away.

Recruitment. By increasing the roster count, you have to have willing individuals who want to fill those positions. Is filling these spots a problem because of no interest from potential candidates or because some willing individuals were unable to continue service because they had other demands? Are potential candidates aware of the need for new volunteers? Do they understand what is expected of them if they decide they are interested in joining your department? For that matter, are you really ready to tell them what’s expected of them? Remember, in so many cases, the days of volunteers lining up at the door to wait for an open slot on the roster are long gone. You have to be enticing and aggressive when it comes to attracting the right candidates who will serve your community well. To do that, be sure you are very visible in the public eye as an organization that does great things and elicits the best in people. Also, show what the individual might be able to gain by being involved. This also proves why the last thing you want in the community is a negative public image.

Creating candidates. This doesn’t mean cloning the members you already count on. It means building interest in people you might not be able to fully use right now. Junior firefighter and Explorer Scout programs are good ways to build interest in volunteerism before those individuals have an opportunity to be drawn into other interests and hobbies. If you don’t have these programs or the resources to initiate one, involve those in other youth organizations to partner with your fund-raising or upkeep activities. Rural communities often have youth who are involved in organizations like 4-H or Future Farmers of America who are looking for community service opportunities. This not only helps you in the present, but it can create a positive situation and interest for a long-term future as well.

Tactical strategies. Although you work to increase numbers and build rosters, you still have a job to do with the resources you have at hand. Where limited staffing seriously affects responses, you have to account for this right now. Consider modified tactics based on the time of day and the availability of resources.

New research supports using an exterior line or perhaps a deck gun even when your water supply is limited to the booster tank with which you arrive. You may need to train for and plan to execute a transitional attack during the day, using an initial defensive attack until you have adequate staffing to move to the interior.

In my early days, I was trained to set up and establish a water supply prior to making an attack. Now, you may want to train your firefighters on making that initial knockdown to buy time until additional staffing and water supply arrive. I have even seen at least one major nozzle manufacturer using this as a marketing push, where it suggests deploying a master stream device with limited staffing to knock down the fire and then transitioning to an interior attack once more staffing arrives.

Mutual-aid relations. Unfortunately, many volunteer departments have had to rely more and more on mutual-aid agreements with other departments. In some cases, departments may know they are limited enough on staffing to need automatic mutual-aid for certain types of runs.

The problem with automatic mutual-aid arrangements for large fires or for backup service often revolves around politics and money. When a volunteer department leaves its own community to help another, the home community is often left unprotected and relying on the next volunteer department. And now, in some rural communities, some structure fires are requiring the dispatch of multiple mutual-aid departments simply to reach a minimum staffing level for adequate, safe response. This is dangerous if a simultaneous response is needed in one of the affected areas.

Although mutual-aid relationships are great and very important in many instances, be careful of how dependent you become on those arrangements. The key in efficiently using mutual aid is to plan and discuss expectations and capabilities prior to the fire. Ensure that personnel train together as much as possible so the crews can work together seamlessly when that time comes.

Lower a community’s expectations for response. As unacceptable as this may seem to those in the fire service, this is becoming a sad and unfortunate reality more and more. In more than one instance, I’ve been told (off the record) that certain fire departments hope their citizens do everything they can to prevent fires in the first place. If a fire occurs and the department can’t get there right away, firefighters hope those citizens have smoke detectors and good insurance. Some areas feel they will simply not be able to address this issue in any other way. Departments that find themselves in these situations can perhaps look at some of the other alternatives noted here as being a bit better than simply “hoping for the best.” However, when push comes to shove, the first lowered expectation, in most cases, would be an increase in response time. And, if a mutual-aid department is needed before an initial attack, this will be a given. Is this really a viable option? It is not an option anyone would purposely consider, but it is certainly the one that may result.

Expanded coverage areas. If longer response times are the only result of lowered expectations, you can still rely on personnel who are on the fringes of what would be considered an impractical response distance to a scene. However, they may also be on the fringe of traditional communications and, thus, you may need alternative notification methods to call in crews to respond. Today’s technology allows you to notify personnel by cellular phone calls and wireless text messaging. So, in areas where a traditional radio pager may not reach crews, seek out these alternative technologies.

Use other resources. Some communities incorporate nonfire service personnel into large-scale responses through programs like citizen corps or fire auxiliaries, which can alleviate some stress on active firefighters. Unfortunately, in most cases, these groups will be very limited in the service they can provide. Always look at your options and determine the best way to use every resource at hand. Additionally, individuals in your community may be unable to volunteer as a trained firefighter or medical responder, but they may have a talent or an ability your organization can use such as accounting, grant writing, public relations, and fund-raising.

Encourage changes outside your department’s control. You must address some issues on a broader scale before you can fully use them to tackle problems. Will you develop and certify incremental training programs to allow for more staffing options? Recently, I read about and discussed developing training programs to certify personnel in exterior operations only. Is this feasible? Some volunteers simply do not want or have what it takes to be an interior firefighter, but they could be a great asset for a large number of small-scale responses in rural and suburban communities. Do you ignore any possibility of using these individuals to help others in an emergency? Even for large-scale fires, having someone available to establish water supplies and helping other firefighters initiate a quick exterior blitz attack is better than taking no action at all prior to the interior crew’s arrival. If you think your ideas could ensure long-term success for the volunteer fire service, share them with decision makers and encourage healthy discussion about these options.

Unfortunately, even those in higher authority won’t likely have the power to increase volunteerism numbers. Some states have pushed for incentive programs such as tax credits, clothing, and fuel allowances. But the sad reality is that unless people do it simply because they understand the need and want to do it for their community, they are not likely to provide a lot of real help to resolve the problem.

Will every area eventually move to fully paid departments funded by increased taxes in established fire protection districts? I doubt it. Will the volunteer fire service survive? I think so. But it may look much different in years to come compared to what many of us have come to know.

BENJAMIN PEETZ, CFPS, has served more than 15 years as a firefighter with the Napoleon (IN) Volunteer Fire Department. He has earned the National Fire Protection Association’s Certified Fire Protection Specialist designation and works as a loss prevention specialist for Lumbermen’s Underwriting Alliance. He provides inspection and technical analysis of commercial and industrial properties for underwriting and fire protection, and he develops engineering solutions and training programs for the prevention of fire and other property losses. He is a graduate of Purdue University and has degrees in agriculture communications and agrisystems management; he worked several years for Purdue’s world-renowned agricultural safety and health program.

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