Rethinking Recruitment and Retention for the Volunteer Fire Department

By Ed Geis

Hardly a month goes by where we don’t hear a conversation, see a news item, or read an editorial about the growing crisis of the dwindling staff of the country’s volunteer fire departments. According to the most recent National Fire Protection Association data, volunteers (and paid-on-call) comprise 69 percent of the nation’s firefighters. Volunteers are a key component of the fire service, so recruitment and retention challenges have serious consequences for public safety.

Despite all the hand-wringing and dire warnings about the demise of volunteer fire departments, various countermeasures have been offered, often revolving around financial incentives to help recruit and retain volunteers such as pay per call, access to municipal health care plans, various other benefits, and so on. Although these ideas are all legitimate, they don’t address the most potentially powerful solution: making the experience of joining and participating in one’s local fire department as rich and as rewarding as possible.

To do this requires an understanding of what motivates people to join a public service organization like the fire department and what fulfills them so they stick with it for the long haul. This motivation has less to do with money or other extrinsic motivators and more to do with intrinsic motivators like pride in serving others, satisfaction derived from being a highly skilled expert in a time-honored craft, the reward of overcoming limitations and meeting challenges, and the enjoyment of being a respected and valued member of a well-functioning team. You give people these basic elements, and they’ll do the job gladly and to the best of their ability; the same goes for full-timers. We all want to feel like an integral part of a professional and highly effective team.

Fire department leaders need to understand this and operate their organization accordingly. The department will not only attract more new members and keep more of them on board, but they’ll also work well together and do the job more effectively. Creating this sort of workplace environment isn’t complicated, but it does take vision, commitment, and discipline. So, what exactly can leaders do to accomplish this?

First and foremost, everyone in the organization needs to be treated with respect, whether he joined last week or he is a 40-year veteran. Nothing drains motivation and morale faster than disrespectful behavior and attitudes, whether it’s a sarcastic comment, a barbed joke, or a subtle physical gesture like eye-rolling. A wise leader will diligently avoid these behaviors and attitudes, setting a good example for the group while also making it clear that disrespect won’t be tolerated. I’m not talking about firehouse banter and good-natured humor with a little ribbing now and then–the problems arise when humor takes a back seat to negativity and judgment.

One of the most satisfying aspects of being a firefighter is learning the craft of firefighting; it’s a fascinating mix of science and art. A thorough, professional training regimen for new members is vital, and equally important is an ongoing training program that reinforces and enhances basic skills as well as provides opportunities to learn new and more advanced skills. The more firefighters feel that they are “experts” in their field and are confident that they can perform their tasks well on the fireground, the more motivated they’ll be to stay with the department, show up for calls, and participate in drills. And those hungry enough to keep expanding their knowledge and skills should be given every opportunity to do so.

Another key element that draws people to join and keeps them dedicated, active members is the challenge of overcoming limitations such as various fears and phobias or poor physical fitness. When people put themselves in situations where they confront and overcome their limitations, they feel a deep sense of accomplishment and reward. Department leaders can capitalize on this by helping firefighters overcome these limitations and recognizing and celebrating their victories. For example, if an overweight young man joins a department and finds in training that he can’t make it up a flight of stairs in full bunker gear and breathing apparatus without collapsing into a gasping, heart-pounding heap at the top of the stairs, he’s clearly bumped up against a major limitation.

Imagine if the chief, rather than expressing concern, disappointment, or resignation, encourages this young man to develop a fitness plan and provides some structure and support (perhaps the department pays for a consultation with a nutritionist or a trainer), and regularly checks in with the young firefighter to review and celebrate his progress. Then, six months later, the young man finds he’s able to make it up that flight of stairs without feeling like he’s just run the Boston Marathon, or he can now drag large-diameter hose around with no problem. The experience of participating in a fire department has then made a very positive impact on his life, and he’s going to feel awfully good about himself. Chances are good he’ll stick with it long term.

A final key aspect to creating a satisfying work environment is for the firefighters to feel that they’re trusted and valued members of a highly functioning team. Firefighters want to know that others in their department–especially leaders–trust them to do their job without micromanagement or excessive supervision. To illustrate this, take a situation where a driver-operator has just arrived with a ladder truck at the scene of a working structure fire. The incident commander indicates he wants the roof vented as soon as possible. The truck officer readies a company of firefighters to perform the ventilation while the operator selects a safe and appropriate spot to position the truck and deploy the ladder to the roof of the building.

Now, imagine the same situation, but this time the driver-operator is told exactly where to place the apparatus and immediately afterward is instructed to move the truck six feet forward. As he exits the cab and begins to set up the truck, an officer barks at him, “Don’t forget to set the pins in the stabilizers,” and then looks over his shoulder as he operates the controls.

If you are the driver-operator, which of those two scenarios makes you feel trusted, and which is going to make you feel like a child? The answer is pretty obvious. Department leaders need to give people the training and practice they need to obtain proficiency in their job such as operating the aerial and then give them the autonomy to use their skill and judgment to execute a task.

Although there’s no denying that department leaders bear most of the responsibility for creating a positive, rewarding workplace environment, the firefighters must also do their part. They need to make a commitment to work hard, to stay focused, to admit and learn from mistakes, and to constantly work to improve. And, they also need to understand that their behavior and attitudes have an effect on the organization; it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep the group strong and supportive of each other.

Solving the recruitment and retention dilemma in volunteer fire departments is a big challenge, but we should focus less on trying to entice people with extrinsic rewards like money and benefits and focus more on maximizing the intrinsic rewards that being a member of a harmonious, effective team can bring. When I joined my town’s fire department 11 years ago, I was surprised to hear that I’d be paid a modest wage. I certainly didn’t object, but that wasn’t why I joined, and that’s not what keeps me aboard. Countering the decline in volunteerism is best done by offering people rewarding intangibles that enhance their lives.

ED GEIS is a firefighter and an instructor for the Camden (ME) Fire Department, where he has served since 2004. He has a particular interest in fire prevention and public education and has initiated a countywide program that included home safety surveys and smoke alarm installations. Outside of the fire service, Geis runs Headwaters, a Web development, graphic design, and communications business.

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