By Quentin Cash
Writing for National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)
As we embark further into 2021, it would be an understatement to say that the past year presented some unique obstacles requiring us to devise inventive ways to operate in both our volunteer fire and rescue organizations and our personal lives. COVID-19 issues limited interaction with members, caused changes in our training methods, and transformed our operations—all considerations that were not on anyone’s horizon for last year.
The changes have caused many departments to lose members. The number of volunteer firefighters has already been declining across America in recent years, as shown in the National Fire Protection Association’s annual “U.S. Fire Department Profile” reports. The lowest recorded levels of volunteer firefighters since 1983 were in 2016 and 2017. I will be very interested to see what the report will show for the number of volunteers post-pandemic when we are back to a new normal, and would hedge that the numbers will look worse for departments.
The question is: how do we keep our current volunteers both on our rosters and actively engaged in our departments? First, we must view it as a challenge and not a problem. We are on a new frontier that affords us the opportunity to make changes with the future in mind. There are several different possibilities to keep members engaged during the pandemic, but one of the best ways is all about connection. As chief officers in our departments, we need to be proactively reaching out and connecting on a personal level with our members.
It’s worth noting from the National Volunteer Fire Council’s (NVFC) “Volunteer Retention Research Report,” published in August 2020, cited as one of the two most frequently mentioned reasons for leaving among former volunteers is leadership that doesn’t focus enough on member needs. This statement should really resonate with all chiefs. Really let it sink in; we are providing a disservice to our people, and we are dropping the ball when it comes to connecting. In Today Matters: 12 Practices to Guarantee Tomorrow’s Success, John Maxwell says: “Think back to the most important experiences of your life, the highest highs, the greatest victories, the most daunting obstacles overcome. How many happened to you alone? I bet there are very few. When you understand that being connected to others is one of life’s greatest joys, you realize that life best comes when you initiate and invest in solid relationships.”
The pandemic has limited our training events, business meetings, social gatherings, fundraisers, and even the number of people we allow in our buildings. With these obstacles, what are some ways that we can reach out to better connect with our members? I feel we need to look at our departments from a generational perspective. The fire department that I started in is what many millennials would refer to as “old school” fire service. My father has been the fire chief of our small combination department since 1984. As a Generation Xer, I have been fortunate to learn from both the Baby Boomers and Millennials/Generation Z who are now starting to volunteer. Being in the middle helped me learn some tricks on connecting with the past while still looking to progress into the future.
Looking at some of our Baby Boomers, I have learned to reach out the old-fashioned way to show you care. First, start by picking up the telephone. I know that sounds unheard of today, but your people will appreciate you checking in on them with a call. A new firefighter having the chief call to check in will make them feel valued. It doesn’t have to be anything more than a “Hey, how are you doing?” Believe me, it means more to them than you.
Another option…do you remember being a kid and getting something in the mail? How awesome did it make you feel? Make your members feel that way again. Try sending a hand-written letter or card letting them know you’re thinking about them and thank them for their service to the community. Better yet, send a card when something good happens in a member’s life like an engagement, wedding, or the birth of a new child or grandchild. It is a small step that will pay dividends.
A third option is sending them a gift card on their birthday, if the department has the funding. It doesn’t have to be anything large, but a gift card that would allow your members to have a lunch on the chief is big.
A lot of the firefighters in your department probably love the camaraderie side of the fire service as well, so try planning a meal at the station one night. You’ll have to follow your state protocols with regard to social distancing and size of the gathering, but most have large enough apparatus bays that will allow everyone to spread out to have a meal and time to talk. You could extend this over the course of a month and do five or 10 members at a time, but it’s vital that the opportunity to see each other, talk, and break bread is an option. You can even use this for training opportunities. Use these small groups to accomplish some hands-on training before the meal. It may mean a few extra nights at the firehouse for you, but it is worth it to engage with them.
Looking from the opposite side of the generation gap, I have learned from the millennials as well. Instead of a call, send them a text message every now and then to check in. Also think virtually. Fortune 500 companies are meeting everyday via computer software platforms like Zoom or WebEx; we should be doing the same thing as chief officers. Invite your members to have a night meeting just to talk and catch up. It is also a good time to go over training and department updates. A bonus, they hear updates directly from the chief instead of second hand.
Yet another way to connect is social media. I guarantee every firefighter under 30 has some form of social media like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or TikTok. Most likely have all four, and new platforms are emerging daily. Use these social media platforms to keep your members informed. Record a video to send out about department news and happenings. Better yet, ask some of the Millennials on your departments to create some videos for you. That will get them involved and motivated. Over the longer term, these firefighters are going to oversee your departments, so give them some opportunities to shine now with a little responsibility.
From the training standpoint, Millennials are very familiar with and fans of online training. Allow your members to get some training hours online in absence of being at the station. It doesn’t necessarily take the place of hands-on training, but at least it gives your people some options. The NVFC is a great resource for free online training classes for its members.
One other reason to reach out as a chief officer is for your members’ mental health. COVID-19 studies have shown that people are having major mental health issues relating to depression, anxiety, and fear. Some of your people have had COVID-19, some have been cooped up in the house for months on end, some are worried about their jobs and paying bills, some have experienced loss of a family member, and perhaps your department may have even lost a member. These are all concerns that could be weighing down your people. Reaching out to connect with your personnel will give you the opportunity to explain the resources available to them in dealing with these pressures like employee assistance programs or the NVFC’s Share the Load program, which provides access to critical resources and information to help first responders and their families manage and overcome personal and work-related problems.
The above ideas are not the only ways to reach out to your members, just some ways that have worked at our department, blending some traditional with contemporary methods of connecting. They may or may not work for you, but you need to try something. As chief officers, we always tout that our most important assets are our people. We need to ensure that this isn’t lip service and that we mean it by putting those words into action. Author Greg Mortenson said: “Slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects.” If we can succeed in living by this quote with our personnel, our departments and members are going to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic stronger than before.
Quentin Cash is a volunteer assistant chief with the Cherryville (NC) Fire Department and a career battalion chief at the Shelby (NC) Fire and Rescue Department. He also currently serves on the executive board of the North Carolina State Firefighters’ Association.