By LARRY SIEFKEN and JEFFREY GLYNN
It’s no secret that recruiting and retaining members is a tough job for today’s volunteer fire departments. Thanks to ongoing community and township support, the Abington Township (PA) Fire Department (ATFD), an all-volunteer force made up of five fire companies operating within Abington Township, has a tool in its arsenal to combat today’s time-challenged volunteers: a fire training center located within township boundaries.
What started out as a drill tower built in 1957 has evolved into a state-of-the-art facility that includes one-, two-, and three-story burn rooms, as well as a larger area for search practices, new maze configurations, a cold smoke distribution system, roof ventilation training areas, and many other useful features. In addition to the drill tower and burn building, a classroom facility is also available for lecture-oriented training activities.
|(1) Volunteer firefighters gain aerial apparatus experience at a training session held at the Abington Township Fire Department’s (ATFD’s) training facility. [Photos courtesy of the Abington Township (PA) Fire Department.]|
Although one obvious training center benefit is providing members with hands-on experience, the ATFD has found many other positives associated with the facility—all keys to the department’s ability to attract and hold onto new members.
USE TIME EFFICIENTLY
In 2007, the United States Fire Administration (USFA) issued a report, Retention and Recruitment for Volunteer Emergency Services, which included survey data from several sources and which listed “lack of time” as the top reason for volunteer turnover. Knowing this, the ATFD makes sure volunteers spend their time efficiently. One way the ATFD does this is by holding monthly training sessions at its training facility. Instead of sending volunteers to other facilities some distance away, ATFD members attend trainings in the township where they live. This means volunteers don’t have to worry about a lengthy commute and can get home at a decent hour once training is over.
|(2, 3) Volunteer firefighters train with ladders at the facility.|
The training facility’s convenient location results in high year-round attendance for the ATFD’s “Basics and Beyond” sessions. Topics include everything from ladders and fire streams to salvage and overhaul and fire suppression. Members expand on and use the training they have learned at their individual companies as well as study with state-certified instructors brought in from other regions—all without leaving their own backyards.
ENHANCE A SENSE OF TEAMWORK
The ATFD training center also facilitates member retention by enabling members of different fire companies to interact and develop a sense of self-confidence, as well as determine their strengths and weaknesses as firefighters.
Although each of the ATFD’s five companies conducts its own in-house training, all five are encouraged to participate together in the training held at the township facility. This enables members of the different companies to get to know one another and to establish a sense of departmentwide camaraderie, rather than identify solely with the company to which they belong. This team-oriented feeling is extremely important when responding to emergency situations, where several companies may arrive on-scene and find themselves working together.
Training together as a department also allows the department to better assess each firefighter’s strengths and weaknesses. This is important for retention because firefighters who feel successful at what they do are more likely to continue volunteering; that sense of satisfaction is crucial to ensuring that volunteers stay on.
INVITE POTENTIAL VOLUNTEERS
Along with helping retain current members, the ATFD’s training center draws in new volunteers. Throughout the course of the year, a number of activities involving prospective volunteers are organized at the facility and allow participants a look at the opportunities that await them.
|(4) Volunteer firefighters receive instruction at the facility.|
Each spring, the ATFD partners with Abington Senior High School as part of Service Learning Day, where students can learn more about their community’s volunteer organizations and spend a day with these groups. Students interested in the ATFD can sign up to spend a day at the training center, where they have the opportunity to wear firefighting gear and crawl through cold smoke, operate hoses, put out fires with fire extinguishers, and much more. The day is topped off with lunch in the classroom facility and usually results in the addition of one or two new members each year.
(5) Abington Senior High School students participate in Service Learning Day at the facility.
In the fall, the ATFD invites the community to view a live vehicle rescue demonstration as part of the township’s Fall Family Fun Festival. Once residents see the firefighters’ abilities and how they train, they may take the next step to becoming a volunteer firefighter.
INCREASE COMMUNITY VISIBILIT
According to the 2007 USFA recruitment and retention report, one of the principal reasons volunteers stay with a department is their desire to “become members of an organization with a good reputation and a positive image.”
The training center has played a key role in enhancing our image over the years. In addition to hosting regular events, we also allow community organizations with no ATFD affiliation to use the classroom facility for events and meetings and invite neighboring fire companies to hold training sessions on our grounds. We also invite outside instructors to deliver training at our facility for our own volunteers.
Doing so means that outside organizations and instructors have a chance to see or use what we have and then spread the word to others. This type of exposure promotes our overall image as a well-trained, well-organized department that uses resources wisely to protect the community.
APPLY LESSONS ANYWHERE
Of course, not every fire department has the financing, community support, or land available to construct a training facility. But you don’t necessarily need a training facility to apply some of the recruitment and retention lessons learned by the ATFD. Consider the following:
- To improve community visibility, hold training sessions in public places, such as schools, so that community members and prospective volunteers can observe.
- To efficiently use volunteer time, organize training well in advance so that it is easier for members to plan around and isn’t a tremendous drain on time.
- Keep training interest by hiring outside instructors who will bring different styles of instruction and expertise into your department.
- Recruit new members by organizing and participating in community events that bring your members into direct contact with the public.
Whatever you choose to do and regardless of your department’s existing resources, it’s important not to lose sight of the valuable role training can play in recruiting and retaining volunteers. A recent USFA study suggests that people continue to volunteer if they feel the experience is rewarding and worth their time and that demands placed on their time are flexible and manageable. As the number of volunteers continues to drop around the country, doing whatever you can to make sure you continue to retain members and attract new ones is of utmost importance.
LARRY SIEFKEN is a fire training coordinator and a former chief officer with the Abington Township (PA) Fire Department, where he has been a member since 1977. Siefken has a bachelor’s degree in fire science, has various national certifications, and has a chief fire officer designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence.
JEFFREY GLYNN is a driver, a safety officer, an assistant fire marshal, and a community service specialist/fire inspector with the Abington Township (PA) Fire Department and has served with the department since 1972. He also conducts Fire Fighter Fire I certification classes for the department and has many IFSAC/Pro Board and ICC certifications.