The Business of the Fire Service: Employee Satisfaction

A group of firefighters on the training ground.

(Photo by Tony Greco)

By Michael DeStefano

We have all heard the classic quote from every politician and uninformed citizen: “Why don’t you run the fire department like a business?” The truth is, if the fire service were run like a business, it would have been shut down decades ago.

The fire service was created to have a supply of able-bodied individuals to call upon in an emergency to fight fire. It has since grown into a professional service that is frequently staffed by full-time paid firefighters. The qualifications have increased to meet the demand of the nature of emergency calls. What was once a service that was only called upon for fires is now called upon for every emergency one can think of. From hazardous materials to medical emergencies to bomb threats, the fire department responds.

Not all of these calls will provide revenue for the fire service, therefore taxes are relied upon to provide the essential service. From a business standpoint, any station that ran less than 10 calls a shift would be seen as a loss. The reality is that we provide service to all citizens and cannot justify three stations in the two-square-mile urban area of a city and only one station in the 20-square-mile area of the suburban city simply based on call volume. This would create an unacceptable response time to those living in less urban areas of the city and reduce protection to them. I agree with the thought process of not running a fire department like a business. However, I do believe we should learn lessons from the private sector and incorporate certain aspects into the fire service, specifically the satisfaction of our human resources.

OUR MOST VALUABLE RESOURCE: FIREFIGHTERS

Our human resources are the most important aspect of the fire service. The firefighters who are in field are the ones that provide care to citizens. These individuals many times are the only connection that a citizen has with the fire service. The customer has an emergency, calls 911, and the fire department shows up to mitigate said emergency. Like the private sector when one shops at a local supermarket, they see the equivalent of the field personnel: the deli worker, the cashier, the bag boy, etc. The customer does not have contact with supervisors, managers, CEOs, or financial employees. The field personnel and the way they are treated is what the customer bases their impression of a store or fire department on. This similarity between public and private sector is why investment in our human resources is so important.

Now that we have determined the similarity and the importance of our human resources, let us look into how the private sector can help the fire service to create better employees through the increase of employee satisfaction. Employee satisfaction can be covered in three simple aspects of growth: the growth of the employee in position, the growth of the employee through promotion, and the growth of the employee through compensation.  Creating the ability for the employee to grow in all three aspects leads to complete employee satisfaction.

The growth of the employee in position is very important from the time of hire all the way to retirement. A person wants to enter into a position (say, as firefighter) with the thought that they can progress and become not only proficient but also a master of the position. A firefighter or any employee for that matter does not enter into a job with the idea that what they bring to the table on day one should remain the same on year 10. To allow a person to grow in position, we have to create avenues for growth. How does a body physical grow? We feed it. Position growth is the same–we must provide food for the employee to eat. Technical classes, mentoring, and education must be available to the employee. Additionally, for a firefighter to grow in position it is extremely beneficial to specialize in specific disciplines, such as tech rescue teams, dive team, truck certifications, etc. Having a goal for a firefighter to work for allows the satisfaction of growth in their position.

Growth in promotion is the next step. Now that the firefighter has accomplished growth within their position, they need to have the opportunity to promote and lead others. I have personally seen departments have very few promotional opportunities and positions, which leads to high turnover due to employees feeling like there is no where to go within their career. Having a firefighter who promotes straight to lieutenant and then straight to chief creates minimal chances for employees to lead others in small steps. Instead, there are few promotional opportunities and the employee is pushed into higher levels of management without having the stepping stones that one needs to understand the complexity of the next position.

This may also create a problem for employees that want to lead others but not at the level that is available. For instance, a firefighter may want to lead others from the driver/engineer position without being the company officer. Without the growth through promotion, the only option they may see is to jump to lieutenant or stay a firefighter. Another aspect to look at is stagnation. Similar to the growth in position, if an employee feels that they have been in a single rank for too long while awaiting opportunity to advance in rank, they may become stagnant and lose motivation to excel within the department. The growth of the department is directly linked to growth in promotion.

The final growth is the growth in compensation. The step plan is a very common pay plan within the fire service. It is designed to reward the employee with increases in pay based on increases in tenure. This can alleviate the potential for favoritism among supervisors or movement of an employee to different supervisors within the same year.  A step plan is a fantastic tool to attract employees to your department. A potential firefighter can look at the step plan and see how much they will make for each year they are employed, however it rarely leads to an increase in motivation for an employee to grow. If a firefighter takes classes and gains certifications, there is no reward for them over the firefighter who simply just shows up.

A way to provide growth in compensation is the creation of incentives. Incentives can create financial motivation for employees to gain additional skills within the fire department. These incentives can directly tie in with the growth in positional aspect. For example, a tech rescue incentive that requires class A, B, and C provides an increase of $1,000 a year. Another example is education-based incentives such as rewarding $500 for an associate’s degree and $1,000 for a bachelor’s degree. An additional way of increasing growth in compensation is the creation of a merit-based increase policy along with the step plan. If a step plan provides a 2 percent increase per year, having a merit policy that provide an additional 1-3 percent a year based on evaluations can also create financial motivation for the employee.

Without growth in position, growth in promotion, and growth in compensation, the employee themselves may not have satisfaction in their department. This lack of satisfaction will lead to high turnover rates or, worse, disgruntled employees. There are some very important lessons that can be learned from the private sector and used by the public sector, and the growth of our human resources—namely, our firefighters–is one such example.

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Michael DeStefanoMichael DeStefano is a lieutenant and currently assigned to the training division with Brevard County (FL) Fire Rescue. He began his career in 2004 at a small three-station paid department in Winter Springs, Florida, as a firefighter/EMT-B. In 2005, he moved to Brevard County, taking on the role of firefighter/paramedic in 2006. He has an associate’s degree from Eastern Florida State College in fire science and a bachelor’s degree from Barry University in public administration.

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