Recruitment + Training = Retention

By JOE NEDDER

Recruitment and retention of volunteer and on-call firefighters are becoming more and more difficult. There are many reasons for this. This article identifies the urgency and need for volunteer training.

WHO ARE VOLUNTEERS?

If you ask why people volunteer to be firefighters in their communities, you get a variety of answers. For the most part, the key reasons are the following:

  • To help those in the community.
  • A deep desire to belong to the fire service.
  • The thrill and excitement of the job.
  • A sense of fulfillment.
  • A desire to belong within a recognized group that has social interaction.

Twenty to 30 years ago, volunteer fire departments were more social in nature. Training was not a hardcore requirement, and your social interaction with the group was usually how you were perceived and judged. My company went to many fires; if things did not go well, we lost the building. However, the locals’ general attitude was, “The lads did the best they could.” We were not seen as professionals—thus, the stigma of volunteer firefighters.

Today, all that has changed. Small communities have shifted in the socioeconomics around them. People are moving in, building very large homes, grabbing up land, and driving up prices. Many of these people are seasonal residents, while others are looking to raise their families in a more rural atmosphere. This has changed the fire service because these people expect the same quality and level of service they had in the urban areas from which they came.

I have seen towns purchase great fire apparatus, state-of-the-art turnout gear, and high-quality self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs) for its career fire departments. Many volunteer organizations constantly raise money for this equipment. Whether you are tax based or self-funded, the locals and taxpayers want a return on their investment: a competent fire department.

These issues result in the following two volunteer fire service changes that you must identify.

Population shift. The population shift to more rural areas has put more demand on the volunteer fire service. We face a much larger population, used to urban service levels. Most importantly, citizens expect us to do our job with skill when called. They pay taxes and voted money for all the “fancy” equipment they expect us to use. When their house is on fire, they don’t want us to say, “Sorry, we are only volunteers.” They want us to enter, regardless of how dangerous the situation, and put the fire out and save their property.

White collar vs. blue collar. Traditionally, the volunteer fire service is staffed with a majority of blue-collar workers. They come as heavy equipment operators, mill workers, and truck drivers. But what they all once had in common was that they worked in town and could respond. This has changed. Some volunteer firefighters still work in their communities; however, the majority do not. Response times have increased and placed a further burden on the few members who live in the town where they actively serve.

Firefighting is a hard, get-your-hands-dirty job. It is physically demanding, and your response period is not limited to a set schedule. The families transitioning into a small community today are less likely to join a volunteer fire department. They are white-collar workers who travel some distance to their place of employment. When they are home, they focus on their families and the organizations they interact with, such as the parent-teacher association, little league team, dance troupe, and so on. Most white-collar workers have little or no desire to join an organization that has sporadic schedules, requires them to endanger themselves, and involves physically backbreaking work.

This cultural and socioeconomic clash has put the volunteer fire service in a position where getting and retaining members are becoming more and more difficult.

A NEW RECRUITMENT STRATEGY

In the past, recruiting volunteers was unheard of; they came to you. Today, we must seek them out. Some departments have tried TV and billboard advertising. But it still seems that most volunteers come in when they are asked by a friend or neighbor or if their family is already involved. We must increase our base of potential members. This means trying to explain who we are, what we do, and why someone should join.

Many young people want to know what’s in it for them. You must teach them a sense of community, to help others, to protect their neighbors, and to render assistance when neighbors fall ill. Go into the high school systems and help breed this type of thought; it will bring you new members. Work with the school administration and offer various classes in the school, such as first responder first aid, EMT, and basic fire science. If the school sponsors interns, you can offer an internship to a high school senior.

There are cautions when recruiting young people. First, many of these people will belong to the fire department for 10 years or less. They start families and look to buy a home. Most cannot afford housing within their communities. They move on. Ironically, many join their new community’s volunteer fire department.

Second, you must keep the school system recruiting program as an ongoing project. It proves relevance and provides the community with a pipeline to new young members. You may also attract additional members from the students’ families. Their sons and daughters’ involvement might, in fact, create an awareness of the situation and need.

RETAINING OLD AND NEW MEMBERS

We have discussed who our volunteers are, why their ranks are dwindling, and different recruiting strategies. But how do we retain them? Retention does not only apply to those new members that walk through your door but also to current members.

The formula Recruitment + Training = Retention is very powerful and accurate. To confirm this formula, review and consider the following items.

Organization dynamics. Anyone joining an organization wants to be accepted and to fit in; this is undisputable. The dynamics within a volunteer fire department include a lot of social and professional interaction. The social level is based on attending meetings; fund-raisers; community functions; and fire department family functions, such as dances and dinners. All of this is a part of belonging to any organization.

The professional interaction is seen at emergency calls. This is where a member’s peers judge people (“Can he do the job?”). You might be the best fund-raiser, but if you can’t perform your job at a fire or an EMS call, you are looked at as a less-than-equal firefighter. Most volunteers join to be firefighters, not a champion fund-raiser. This is a fact of life in the volunteer fire service.

Training. After joining an organization, a person is full of energy and has a desire to jump right in, be socially accepted, and realize self-esteem. In a fire EMS setting, the only way to assist him and have him fit in is by training. How can you function at an emergency scene if you have not been trained? Once people realize they are not accepted or are not seen as capable peers, they leave the organization. Social acceptance and the feeling of self-esteem will bring the self-fulfillment that will keep the volunteer in the organization. Without adequate, timely training, this cannot happen.

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. These are nationally recognized fire service standards. Though not law, they are considered, in case law, the accepted guidelines of the U.S. fire service. NFPA 1001, Standard for Firefighter Professional Qualifications, for example, identifies and specifies the minimum job performance requirements for career and volunteer firefighters whose duties are primarily structural in nature. These standards clearly do not distinguish between training career and volunteer firefighters. All who respond to structure fires must be trained properly.

Community safety.As more and more communities grow in size, the need for quality public safety has increased. The public wants, expects, and needs the services it pays for. This includes quality fire and, in many departments, EMS. However, you must ask the question of how to provide this service if we do not require adequate training for recruits and continued training for existing members? In most states, by law, all towns providing EMS services (basic care providers and EMTs) must train to a standard and pass a required written and practical exam. Further, members must continue to train frequently and pass a recertification exam every few years. This helps us to serve the public as emergency care providers. Why, then, are we not providing the same level of training and recertifying to our firefighters with their firefighting skills, many of whom are EMTs? The public thinks they are being properly protected when in fact they might not be.

This raises a significant public safety issue. The fire department needs recruits, and recruits need training. You must satisfy this need. Your community’s safety depends on your ability to do your job. Untrained people cannot fulfill this obligation.

Community and moral liability. When we recruit a new member, we as a community have a moral obligation to quickly and properly train that new member in the required skills; to ignore this can and has led to legal liability. Volunteers usually are underinsured and have few benefits if injured or, worse yet, killed in the line of duty. Yet, men and women have been doing the job for many years. With the shift in communities’ socioeconomics and the larger demands on families, the call for volunteer firefighters is dwindling. Any active recruitment campaign must have a training aspect in place. Further, to retain new recruits and existing members, we must continue to offer up-to-date training. Learning on the job is how firefighters get killed. The community, usually for fiscal reasons, has chosen to have a volunteer fire department. With that comes the moral obligation to properly train all personnel.

Human nature shows that whenever anyone starts a new job or learns a new skill for his job, the first question always asked is, “When do I start my training?” To answer “We do not offer training” will only have negative connotations and eventually, if not immediately, cause the recruit to resign. People do not want to fail. Lack of training is setting people up to fail.

Medical response to the community.Many fire departments offer EMS to varying degrees. The fire service in general is finding more new members for EMS than for firefighting. I’m a firefighter/EMT, but I know many EMT/firefighters. This is becoming a fact of life, and it is here to stay. EMS is where most of the action is. In the volunteer service, this presents another opportunity for recruiting and improving the community’s EMS abilities.

The opportunity now exists within this community to provide more personnel for EMS. With a new recruitment/retention program comes the ability to show and appeal to prospects not only about the fire service but also about the urgent need for first responders. An increase in trained and available members would significantly increase the quality of the community’s EMS.

Another often overlooked opportunity is the citizens’ continuing education. By offering first aid classes, CPR classes, and so on, to the general public we can create a community where trained people take action to a witnessed medical emergency. Imagine having a citizen witness a cardiac arrest at a restaurant and knowing how to properly perform CPR or, better yet, having the skills to use the electronic defibrillator hanging on the wall. You can offer this type of community outreach program at the schools, senior center, town library, or fire station. Many participants may not want to join the fire department. However, they are looking for a basic and initial outreach during an emergency. Having more citizens aware of basic EMS skills might save a life. A program like this will generate more good publicity for your department.

Regional response and training.Smaller fire departments rely on mutual-aid response during an emergency. As such, you will see a mixed bag of capabilities among responders. This type of situation opens the door to injury, death, and poor fire suppression services to the property owner. Consider expanding the training needed for new recruits and retaining current members into a more regional offering. Have your fire department take a leadership role by offering the towns with which it shares mutual aid an opportunity to participate in a regional basic training program. This type of training would provide for and accomplish the following:

  • Properly and uniformly train personnel from various communities.
  • A safer operation for all involved.
  • Better fire protection for the community.
  • A sense of accomplishment and fulfillment for department members, increasing member retention.
  • A commitment to the members to provide standard and adequate fire and EMS training.

Today, with fiscal restraints put on all communities, the use of sharing resources regionally makes sense. It also proves that regional resource training can and does work; it lessens the financial burden on one community while accomplishing something that needs to be done.

Many fire departments receive federal funds to assist in the recruiting and retention of new members; some have received training grants. Regardless, we must recognize and accept the fact that we are morally obligated to provide the best training possible for our members. The actions and efforts we take today to properly train and retain members will have an effect on the community for perhaps 10 to 20 years.

You must provide recruits who are willing to step up and join our noble service with adequate basic and ongoing training. If you are unwilling to do this because you “never needed it before,” or whatever the excuse might be, then the entire amount of money you have spent on the best equipment, apparatus, gear, and SCBAs has been and will be a “bridge to nowhere.”

JOE NEDDER is a 32-year on-call fire service veteran. He has held various ranks, including lieutenant and captain, and has been involved with training firefighters for more than 20 years as a certified fire instructor for the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy. He has his own training company, Cross St Associates, and is a member of the Uxbridge (MA) Fire Department.

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