Everyone wants to be appreciated–fire chiefs, deputies, assistants, and firefighters, as well as children and parents, coaches, and players. We never outgrow this need. No matter how independent and self-sufficient we may be, the fact is that we need others to help us feel valued.

Recognition is so easy to give and so inexpensive to distribute that there is no excuse for not giving it.

Few management concepts are as solidly founded as the idea that positive reinforcement, or rewarding the behavior you want repeated, works. In the volunteer fire service, the only means of instilling satisfaction in volunteers and effectively encouraging higher levels of performance are external rewards and recognition.

Studies of businesses show that employees find personal recognition more motivational than money. The person working at his job expects to be financially compensated. Most people don`t work just for money. In fact, money is seldom the top motivator. I`m not saying money is not important; clearly it is. But in the volunteer fire service, you should try to not start paying volunteers for activities if they are not currently being paid.

It is rare to find a manager in the business community who systematically thanks employees for a job well done, let alone who does something more innovative to recognize their accomplishments. Likewise, adequate rewards for and recognition of good performance are scarce in the volunteer fire service.

Members of our volunteer organizations accomplish an awful lot of things; we probably can`t find the opportunity to formally reward and recognize those accomplishments.


People want recognition and praise more than sex and money. Few issues are as challenging and as critical in the volunteer fire department today as knowing the answer to the question “How can we best recognize teams?” The massive move to quality, cross-functional, self-directed, and process teams throughout the business community has brought that question to the forefront. Several suggestions are given below.

Informal and formal rewards and recognition

Match the reward to the person. Start with the individual`s personal preferences. Reward the individual in ways he finds truly rewarding. The rewards may be personal or official, informal or formal, and public or private, and they may be gifts or activities.

Simple gestures count the most. Recognition does not have to be anything fancy. In fact, the simpler and more direct, the better. The more I work with recognition and rewards, the more I continue to be intrigued by the simple, sincere ways in which volunteers show that they appreciate each other. And the cost, paperwork, and administration are minimal.

Match the reward to the achievement. Customize the reinforcement to the significance of the achievement. A volunteer who completes the purchase of a new piece of apparatus should be rewarded in a more substantial way than one who does a favor for the chief, for example. The reward should be within the parameters of the amount of time you have to plan and execute it and the money available.

Be timely and specific. To be effective, rewards need to be given as soon as possible after the desired behavior or achievement. Rewards that come weeks or months later do little to motivate employees to repeat their actions.

Officers/fire chiefs often can implement spontaneous rewards and forms of recognition with minimal planning and effort. A recent study concluded that the most powerful motivational tool is personalized, instant recognition from an immediate supervisor. Simply asking volunteers to become involved in a project is motivational in itself.

Many volunteers feel that officer-initiated rewards for performance are not prevalent and that the most common reward for volunteers is the company-initiated award for attendance.


Following are some suggestions for motivating volunteers:

The fire chief personally congratulates volunteers who do a good job.

The fire chief writes personal notes recognizing good performance.

The organization uses performance as the basis for promotion.

The fire chief publicly recognizes volunteers for good performance.

Officers make time for volunteers. They meet with and listen to them as often as needed or wanted.

Create an open environment. Strive to make it open, trusting, and fun. Encourage new ideas and initiatives.

The fire chief rewards high performers. Members are promoted according to their performance. Work with low and marginal performers so that they improve their efforts or leave the department.

Celebrate the successes of the department and of the individuals in it. Take time for team- and morale-building activities.

Involve volunteers in decisions, especially those that affect the volunteers. n

JOHN M. BUCKMAN, a 27-year veteran of the fire service, has been chief of the German Township (IN) Volunteer Fire Department since 1977. He is international representative to the Board of Directors for the Volunteer Chief Officers Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and is an adjunct instructor in residency programs at the National Fire Academy. He frequently contributes articles to fire service publications and is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

No posts to display