By ALAN L. RUFER
Magazine articles on the decline of the volunteer fire service seem to be written on a regular basis, and there is no shortage of online articles referencing a decline in the numbers of volunteer firefighters. What surprises me is the lack of supporting evidence found within many of these articles and the misleading manner in which their statistics are presented. For example, one recent article’s statement that volunteer ranks have declined about 10 percent since 1983 is correct, but I do not feel that it accurately depicts the volunteer fire service’s current state.
That article used data from 1983 to 2007. A concern is that 1985 accounted for a six-percent decline in volunteers, which represents the largest one-year decline during the 25-year period. Also, 1985 and 1986 accounted for a combined 10-percent decrease in volunteers—the largest consecutive two-year decline of volunteers during the 25-year period.1 Including data more than 20 years old in a contemporary article skews the accuracy when analyzing the contemporary volunteer fire service.
A closer analysis of the article’s statistics shows a three-percent increase in the number of volunteer firefighters during the 10-year period of 1998 to 2007. Even more encouraging is the six-percent increase during the period of 2000 to 2007. Reviewing the data from the past five to 10 years provides a clearer picture of the direction in which the volunteer fire service is heading.
Still, with all of that said, I am not naïve; a decline in volunteers is a very real problem for many fire departments across the nation. The constant battle of making ends meet with an ever-shrinking budget combined with the stress of not knowing who, if anyone at all, will respond when the alarm sounds can take its toll on any chief. For these reasons and others, the ability to recruit and retain members has never been more important.
There are many beliefs as to why volunteers quit or departments cannot attract new recruits. A great deal of the blame is placed on mandated training requirements and a lack of individuals’ discretionary time. However, a 2008 survey showed that 84 percent of respondents would not consider leaving the fire service if the number of required training hours increased.2 Also, more than 70 percent of the survey participants reported that a decrease in time demands would have little or no effect on their decision to volunteer.
Through my own research I have found three key elements in successfully recruiting and retaining volunteers.
The first and perhaps most important element is the presence of focused and skilled leadership—not just the chief but the entire management team. The chief may provide the vision, but without an aligned and skilled group of officers, realizing that vision is unlikely.
The second element is the department’s internal training program: its organization, delivery, and management. For example, a department can have the most concisely written syllabus containing all of the latest and greatest information, but if that content is presented to the wrong audience with inconsistent delivery or the class runs past the allotted time, the training as a whole will most likely fail.
The third element is a formal recruitment and retention program. Hanging a sign outside of your station announcing recruitment does not constitute a formal recruitment program; it is a component of a formal recruitment program. Formal recruitment programs are written and targeted and include a planning process in which a needs assessment is performed and measurable benchmarks are documented for evaluating effectiveness.
During the 2008 study, statistical significance was found between whether a volunteer was considering leaving his organization and how he viewed both the organization’s leadership and training programs. There was a positive correlation between those who contemplated leaving the organization and management teams considered too strict or lenient and departments having poor communications with their volunteers. In addition, there was a positive correlation between those who considered leaving the organization and training programs that were rarely finished on time and that they perceived as boring. Further, 64 percent of survey participants reported that their organization did not have a formal recruitment and retention program. Much time and resources have been committed at various levels to assist volunteer departments in their search for members. Therefore, it was disappointing to learn that 56 percent of those departments that reported having a formal recruitment program did not use outside resources such as those offered by the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Today, there are more organizations competing for a volunteer’s time than in the past. The time when volunteers joined the local fire department for the social aspect as well as to help one’s neighbor is coming to a close. The camaraderie is still strong and remains an important element of our culture, but it is derived more often through firefighters’ professional development than through barbecues. A formal recruitment and retention program, skilled leaders, and an effective training program are keys to the volunteer fire service’s continued success.
1. National Fire Protection Association. The U.S. Fire Service. Retrieved July 7, 2009. http://www.nfpa.org/itemDetail.asp?categoryID=955&itemID=23688&URL=Research/Fire%20statistics/The%20U.S.%20fire%20service#facts.
2. Rufer, A. L. Help Wanted—Volunteer Recruitment & Retention. (2009) United States: Booklocker.com.
●ALAN L. RUFER is a 22-year fire service veteran and a training officer for the Monroe (WI) Fire Department. Rufer has an MBA in organizational development; is an adjunct instructor for Blackhawk Technical College; is the president of Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, Division 105; and is the author of Help Wanted—Volunteer Recruitment and Retention.