VOLUNTEERS CORNER | By DANIEL L. ROGERS
We have all seen the statistics— modern day volunteer fire departments are hurting as recruitment numbers are at an all-time low. The downward trend of our volunteer staffing levels is alarming, to say the least. Minimum staffing requirements for volunteer departments as set forth in NFPA 1720, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments, is a pipe dream for most rural agencies during daytime working hours. Mutual- and automatic-aid agreements have been strengthened and expanded as a result.
We have all heard the talk of how today’s generation would rather spend more time on a cell phone than sweeping a bay floor. Why is recruiting members of this tech-savvy generation so hard? What have we changed in our recruitment techniques over the past 20 years? The fire service is an ever-evolving creature. Each year we see scientific studies from universities educating us on flow paths, survivable spaces, and cancer prevention, but how many studies have you seen on recruitment of today’s youth?
In 2015, the National Volunteer Fire Council released the study Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment and Retention Formative Research Results.1 This study surveyed 1,224 U.S. adults ages 18 and over. The results were that 71.5 percent were not interested in volunteering, and 22.8 percent stated they “might” be interested. Those of us who have been to the deepest depths of the recruitment fight understand that if you have to force a volunteer firefighter through the door more than once, he doesn’t want to be there.
So, what’s the plan moving forward? How can we reverse this trend and return our staffing levels to the norm of decades past? In short, we cannot without big change.
No two volunteer fire departments in this nation do things exactly alike, but every single department has one specific thing in common: pride. Each agency I have walked into has had that one member standing at the door ready to tell you every detail about his department. This member is convinced that the way they do things at “John Q Volunteer Department” is the best way and they aren’t really open to hearing suggestions of change—at all.
I can’t blame him; it is how humans are built. The issue is that, when these departments fail to initiate change within the operational ranks of their agency to accommodate today’s generations, we will continue to see staffing numbers decline. Change is hard, especially for those “salty” veterans who wish that things would go back to the way they were when they joined.
Now, you may be thinking, “Wait, you’re saying I need to accommodate these new young punks?” Yes—we must play with the hand that we are dealt. What do I mean by accommodate? Making sure you have free Wi-Fi available to them at the station? No. I am saying is that you need to give them a voice. With Facebook and Instagram, this generation is used to being heard over the waves of social media. When they post a comment or story on their phone, it’s generally met with an abundance of emoji faces, likes, and comments. So, their voice is heard. During a monthly meeting or training, these new members all too often to get dismissed by veteran members. Take time, listen to their input, and give an appropriate response. In most people’s eyes, this is much less an accommodation than it is being respectful.
Every volunteer department has that “go-to” member—the one who has his nose in absolutely every aspect of the department, top to bottom. He is the one who spends the most time at the station, always pushing for new equipment and more training hours. He keeps track of the equipment lists, takes care of pager and radio issues, and keeps the fridge stocked with cold soda. He does it all. The issue with this is that there are 24 other members of this department who get to skate by. They get to show up, voice their opinion, and leave without having to follow through on the very opinions they gave; this is where the “rubber meets the road.”
Do not be afraid to delegate responsibility throughout the department. Every department in this country could benefit from the introduction of committees within the operation of that department. Small engines, hand tools, personal protective equipment (PPE), documentation, grant writing, and International Organization for Standardization/National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) research and compliance are just a few areas in which you can form committees and delegate responsibility.
Are you fully up to date on NFPA standards? Imagine having a two-person team work their way through the standards and return recommendations to the department for improvement. Imagine your small engines get started every month before each meeting and report back for any needed repairs. Imagine 100 percent documented PPE that was issued to current firefighters and a tally of what is left in storage for new members. Think about the benefit of two members constantly searching and applying for outside funding opportunities. Getting the members to join is only half the battle. By giving them a sense of self-worth as members of the department, retaining them becomes much less of a chore.
This practice was implemented within my home department more than two years ago. While still in its infancy, we are seeing increased stimulation from the vast majority of our members, who normally wouldn’t offer much input. These committees are voted on annually after officer elections. Not only are more members more engaged, but tasks that were usually completed quickly by one or two members are now being worked on in-depth by each committee. This has been worth its weight in gold. The small engine that sat on the to-do list for months became a top priority for the small equipment committee.
The success of the implementation of committees within our agency can’t just be measured by the shrinking to-do list; there are also member retention metrics. My department has seen personnel turnover shrink and calls/meetings/training attendance rise. Members’ input on more than just their specific committee has also risen. The next step in the program will be to rotate members between the different committees. By doing this, each member will continue to learn the ins and outs of the department and become a more well-rounded contributor. Pride in the equipment and process will happen consequently as each member now understands the work involved in maintaining equipment and documentation requirements. As this program continues to evolve, we will continue to reap its benefits.
The Big Picture
Where is your department going to be in five, 10, and 25 years in terms of staffing? Are you putting in the work now to make sure your hard work pays off and your department continues to operate well after you have retired? I have spoken to many chiefs from volunteer and combination departments and have asked them about their Explorer Program. Their answer is, usually, that there isn’t time enough or that there were only a few kids interested, so justification for the program wasn’t there. How many volunteer departments would love for two or three fully trained firefighters to join their department each year? Enter the Explorer Program.
A funny thing about the youth—they talk a lot. When they talk, usually through an electronic device, other kids their age listen. That’s important here. By starting an Explorer Program, you accomplish three things. First, you are providing an outlet for kids within your community to be involved with something positive. Second, you are ensuring your agency will have known candidates ready to join when they become of age and who have been trained to the specific way your department does things. Third, although the salty veterans may grumble at the youngsters, they can often be caught beaming with pride when they see an Explorer have a positive interaction within the department, further boosting morale.
Explorer Programs can be a lot for departments to implement and manage. Start by seeking volunteers within your membership to head up the program. Also, look for members who have coached their kids through sports or have an active Explorer-age child who would consider joining the program. These members are invested and will likely take the program to a higher level than anticipated.
Along with the youth come their attitudes, drama, and that adolescent awkwardness we all cringe at, but you also get to watch these kids grow as members of the department as they work their way into adulthood. As they learn how to give back to the community, you can see and feel the burn of passion start to form in their soul for our mission. Rolling attack lines and bandaging a laceration are skills they will likely use outside of the station walls; just make sure you use these kids as more than just station cleaners and water getters! They can be extremely beneficial with exterior firefighting tasks. Train them to work for you. Train them to perform at the level you want your active members to perform. Spend the time teaching the little things by delegating members to help train them. Again, by asking a nonofficer member to help train an Explorer, that self-worth thing we mentioned above comes into play yet again. Once the passion takes hold, the desire to show up consistently will follow closely. And, by default, with the use of those aforementioned little electronic devices, word will travel, and your program will grow.
Our Explorer Program now sits at eight members. These members hold monthly meetings and training as well as an annual fundraiser to help purchase T-shirts, flashlights, and tuition for outside training opportunities. To date, we have accepted five fully trained Explorers into our department. These members know and understand their role on acceptance and are familiar with how the department operates. They have sat through the standard operating guideline training and understand the command staff’s expectations of them. Not only is this an excellent recruitment tool, but it helps eliminate turnover.
By going through the Explorer Program, those “this is not for me” folks have already been eliminated. The members who join through the Explorer Program and become active members are here for the long haul. What more could we ask for? The five members recruited through this program are some of the best firefighters we now have. Some of them joined at age 15 and had three years of fire department experience on acceptance as full, active members. The benefits of this program to our agency have far outweighed the time and very limited financial obligations it took to put it together.
Before we can initiate change within our departments, we must be open to it. We must be able to “roll with the punches” and evolve with the very folks we are asking to join. Listen to all members’ input—new and veteran—and instill in them a sense of worth to our agency. Think outside the box, and do not be afraid of the work ahead of you. The future of your agency and the volunteer fire service depends on it.
1. Volunteer Firefighters Recruitment and Retention Formative Research Results. National Volunteer Fire Council/Salter Mitchell Inc. 2015.
DANIEL L. ROGERS is a 16-year fire service veteran and an assistant chief/EMT-B with the Witt (IL) Volunteer Fire Department, where he has expertise in industrial high-angle rescue and confined space entry. He is also a member of the emergency response team in Wood River, Illinois.