Make It a Fire-HOUSE

By Thomas A. Merril

Volunteer fire departments across the land are finding it difficult to recruit new members. Enormous amounts of resources and – in some cases – money have been directed at this problem in an attempt to right the ship. However, what good is it to attract new members and then spend lots of time, effort, and money properly training them if they leave the service within a short time? Indeed, recruitment is one issue, but retaining members is another challenging problem altogether.

It’s inevitable that we will lose members because of job relocations, personal demands, and other issues out of our control. Therefore, we must focus on the things that are in our control; we don’t want to lose members because of poor organizational behavior.

Creating a Home Feeling

Make your station into a true fire-HOUSE where you and others – i.e., members, friends, and family – enjoy being and where they feel as comfortable as they do in their own house. Creating that “home” feeling will retain members and keep them coming back.

Many organizations and activities compete for our members’ time. Our younger members can choose from many school and organizational activities. If they do not enjoy life at the firehouse or they do not feel welcome there, they will move on quickly. When members “hang out” at the firehouse, it is great for the community because those members will be readily available to respond to calls.

If your department’s morale or prevailing attitude is negative and members do not enjoy being there, take a look in the mirror. If you are not contributing to the problem, then what are you doing to improve it? Everyone must work together. Every rank and tenure must work seamlessly to cement a unified relationship and create a warm firehouse environment. The responsibility for doing this rests with the senior firefighter, the “probie,” the chief, the lieutenant, the director – everyone!

Organizational Behavior

All members must understand the boundaries for organizational behavior. Today’s firehouses must have zero tolerance for hazing, bullying, and sexual harassment. If it is seen, it must be stopped. There are too many reports of abusive practices occurring in firehouses across the country.

Create that warm, welcoming environment the minute someone sets foot in the firehouse. Don’t create barriers – perceived or real. Embrace diversity and recognize that today’s fire service is open to all: We accept people with different backgrounds, learning curves, education levels, and paid career choices.

The volunteer fire service in 2016 is not the same as it was in 2015, 2000, 1990, or any other year that you came aboard. And, it won’t be the same in 2020. There is nothing wrong with that; it’s the natural course of events, and we need to recognize and accept it. Our challenge is to work with all members to create a cohesive organization.

Probie Responsibilities

Probie chores and probie expectations are certainly important. However, there is a big difference between expecting a probie to work kitchen duty or wash a rig and belittling him or, worse yet, physically and emotionally abusing him.

It is permissible and, in fact, highly recommended to clearly outline the expectations you have for new members and to highlight the values you want them to embrace as firefighters. Establish a formal orientation program that introduces them to our great fire service, explain their probie chores, and set the tone for acceptable behavior – organizationally and personally. We can talk about good organizational behavior all we want, but if the new member walks out of the orientation and doesn’t experience it firsthand, it is just all talk, and it will not have the desired impact.

Our members must lead by example by welcoming new members with open arms. Have veteran members ask probies about their family and their career or the reason they are going to school. At the same time, reinforce your values in probies so they can witness firsthand the behavior expected from them in how members interact with others and discuss issues and problems with them. Do not tolerate members talking behind each other’s backs or engaging in rumors and gossip.

Officers – administrative and firematic – play a huge role in creating and maintaining a positive atmosphere in the firehouse. Listen to your members; listening is an important, albeit misunderstood, skill that you must master to help promote this upbeat environment. It helps show the members that you are connected to and engaged with them.

People will naturally feel better about their organization if the leaders demonstrate that they listen and care. Someone once told me to remember that everybody is dealing with something in life. Be nice. Try to understand where they are coming from.

A Culture of Inclusion

Our organizational culture should embrace honest and open discussions and allow our members to have input on issues.

Disagreements and opposite points of view are inevitable in any organization. But, if there is a clearly defined process for handling them, you can resolve issues in a nonconfrontational manner. Sure, we must make decisions or take a course of action on issues; in most cases, democracy will prevail, and not everybody will get what they wanted. But, if the process allows all concerned members to have some input and discuss differing views, there can be less controversy and less so-called “dirty politics.”

Members will be less likely to feel victimized if they are allowed input. They may be disappointed and even upset, but if they have been given a fair opportunity to participate in the discussion, they should at least be able to walk away knowing they were provided with the chance to express their point of view.

Time Management and Appreciation

Make the most out of members’ valuable time. Volunteers begin to disengage when requirements interfere with home and life responsibilities. Training drills, meetings, and details are necessary and important, but they need to be organized and efficient. Our members understand and accept the fact that they will spend lots of time at the firehouse, but we do not want them leaving and thinking to themselves that the time they spent there was wasted.

Show appreciation for your members from time to time. A simple pat on the back with the words “thank you” goes a long way toward making somebody feel appreciated and their service valued. A nice, handwritten thank-you note is a great way to convey your appreciation. I know we don’t do this for everything, but when someone has gone above and beyond the call of duty or completed a huge assignment or project on behalf of the department, make a note to show gratitude.

It’s not uncommon in our volunteer departments to have family members jump in and help out as well. We have all had our kids or spouse help cook those hot dogs on field days or call numbers at our Bingo fundraiser, so sending them a nice “thank you” shows that they are valued not only by you but also by the organization.

Communication Is Key

Administrative and firematic leaders must embrace that nasty “C word” – communicate – and do so with the membership openly and honestly. If we do not, members will make up their own version of what is happening. Be up front and open, and don’t lie. Your members will see through liars and learn not to trust them immediately.

Many of us have had jobs where bosses and coworkers would lie, engage in uninformed gossip, and speak disparagingly of their organization. It sends a nasty vibe and impacts morale. In most cases, honest and open communication from the top would help eliminate this type of behavior. It’s also important to squelch rumors right away. Get out ahead of the rumor and head off perceived trouble.

Communication is a “must-have” skill. Because we are dealing with volunteers, we may have to communicate our messages more than once. We all have different working hours and time constraints, so they might miss the meeting or drill when an announcement or a directive is made. It’s also important to communicate special announcements several times using several methods. I discuss important departmental news at our regular department business meetings and at a weekly drill as well as include it in our department newsletter. By doing so, I am reasonably assured that most members received the necessary information. Some may have received the message all three times, but no one could say they were not informed or that the leaders were not communicating to them what was going on within the department.

Newsletters are a great way to disseminate information and to recognize members’ achievements. Share your members’ success stories inside and outside the organization. Recognize service milestones; thank a member who painted an office, fixed a plumbing problem, or performed well at an emergency call. If a member was recently promoted at his paid job, if a student member was on the high honor roll at school, or if someone got married or had a baby, celebrate with them by putting it in the newsletter.

At the same time, support members in times of sorrow or grief. It’s amazing how petty politics and differences can be cast aside, even forgotten about, when a member is having a difficult time and the department bands together in support of him. This speaks volumes for fire service unity when members show up at the wakes and funerals of not just current members but also past members. Like most departments, we try to attend the wakes of former members. Often, the member was last active decades earlier and many may not know him, but by paying our respects, we are teaching the new generation of firefighters the meaning of fire service unity and the importance of honoring those who served before. In most cases, the family of the deceased is grateful. In all cases, everyone is left with a greater sense of fire service and department pride. Nothing exemplifies “the brotherhood” more than supporting each other in a time of need.

Always be fair and consistent, and do not play favorites or ignore certain people in the organization. Share the recognition, well wishes, and support equally among all members. The old saying, “What you do for one you must do for all,” applies here. Just as you welcome new members to “the family,” you should welcome former, retired, and exempt members into your department. Make them feel comfortable as they set foot back in their “house.” Introduce them to the newest members; if you don’t know them, introduce yourself. In most cases, these are the members who helped build and shape the department. By doing so, you are honoring the saying, “Once a firefighter, always a firefighter.”

My department once had a chief come back for a visit. He had moved away for work back in the 1980s and happened to be back in the area on our meeting night. We introduced him at the meeting (still calling him “chief,” of course) and thanked him for coming back home for a visit. He was grateful and felt welcome. By showing genuine interest and appreciation for former members’ past service, you are creating a warm, friendly firehouse environment.

Family Tradition of Firefighting

One of the proudest and longest standing traditions we have in the fire service is the family legacy. In some cases, generation upon generation of a family has continued on with the proud tradition of community service. Sometimes it involves marriages, and our members’ children grow up, marry, and serve together. This is fantastic for organizations, but it should never bring with it a feeling of entitlement. It’s not a rite of passage; just because a firefighter’s grandfather and father were chiefs should not guarantee that their grandson becomes chief. Family members need to stand on their own merit from the time they join. In fact, even if little Joey and little Melissa have been in the firehouse since the day they were born and know the layout of the rigs better than some of our senior members, they still should be required to go through the initial orientation program outlined earlier. They are members now – not visitors – and must act and be trained accordingly. Their family members should expect nothing less.

A true volunteer firehouse is all about family. Create and embrace a family atmosphere, and welcome family members who are not department members into the house as well. After all, without our families’ support, none of us could do what we love doing: being volunteer firefighters. So, include families as often as possible to help strengthen the organizational bonds. In addition to allowing families into the firehouse, host events throughout the year that encourage their interaction. Picnics, parties, and excursions to nearby parks and attractions are great for strengthening family bonds and friendships and for building department camaraderie.

Retaining volunteer firefighters is extremely challenging. Our firefighters will feel so much better about their department and be inclined to stay involved longer if they enjoy coming into the building and are treated with respect and their service is valued and appreciated. All members working together can create a positive environment and make our fire hall or fire station a true firehouse.

THOMAS A. MERRILL is a 30-year fire service veteran with the Snyder Fire Department in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks. He recently completed five years as chief of department. He is also a professional fire dispatcher for the town of Amherst fire alarm office.

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