Saving the Volunteer Fire Service for the Next Generation

VOLUNTEERS CORNER ❘ By BLAIZE LEVITAN

My grandfather was a volunteer firefighter. My mother was a volunteer firefighter. I’ve now had the honor of serving my community as a volunteer firefighter. Yet, I can’t help but think, “Is this the end of the line?” It’s no secret that we’ve got a big, complicated, and growing problem in the fire service. Although nearly 70 percent of firefighters in this country are volunteers, our recruitment and retention rates are in decline and our ranks are aging, according to a report by the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC).1 This report states, “Departments are finding it difficult to attract younger members due to a range of reasons, including increased demands on people’s time, longer commuting distances to and from work, the prevalence of two-income households, and increased training requirements.” Simultaneously, volunteer fire departments are responding to an increasing number of more complicated, time-intensive calls for service that require ever-rising expertise.

There is frequent discussion in the fire service about attracting the next generation of firefighters, but we often dismiss the declining prevalence of “millennial” membership as something wrong with “those kids today.” Millennials also “don’t volunteer or care about their communities” and “don’t understand” what the fire service is about, or so we think.

The world is changing rapidly, and today’s successful businesses and nonprofit organizations have taken notice. It’s our turn to look outside the bay doors and adapt to the economic realities facing our members and young recruits today.

What Has Changed?

According to a 2010 Pew study, millennials place a higher value on helping people than on making money.2 In a 2015 study commissioned by the NVFC, they were also the generation most interested in volunteering for the fire service.3 Why, then, after we spent hundreds of millions of dollars on studies, recruitment drives, materials, and hotlines does fire service volunteerism continue to decline?

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The fire service resists change, leaving many organizations structured for a time when people worked in or near the communities they lived, stayed at jobs for 30 years to collect a pension, and purchased homes. Today’s fire department is an organization siloed in a community, often with strict residency requirements and minimum participation standards that reflect a local nine-to-five workday and an economic reality of 30 years ago.

To understand the problem with millennial recruitment, we need to acknowledge the challenges that millennial firefighters face. People rarely work in the community in which they live, and they commute farther than they ever have before.4 If you’re lucky to work close to home, economic conditions after the Great Recession left small businesses less likely to let you run that daytime call. Without pensions, young employees frequently switch jobs, which prevents millennials from building a long-term relationship with employers that would give them the flexibility for remaining active at the fire department.

When compared to other generations at the same age, millennials are delaying or forgoing buying single-family homes, which often are the primary residence type in communities with volunteer fire departments.5 Remember, many millennials witnessed their parents lose significant value in their homes in the 2008 financial crisis. When adjusted for inflation, wages have not risen in more than two decades, placing more pressure on families than at any time in modern history. And, although our nation’s stock markets have recovered and produced record gains, most of that growth has gone disproportionality to the top income earners. Middle- and working-class people, who form the backbone of our volunteer firefighting force, are left working longer hours or multiple jobs. (3) Understanding how today’s reality differs from years past is critical to respond with effective organizational changes.

Expand Your Base

Does your department still have a residency requirement in place? How strict is this policy? Many volunteer fire departments have residency requirements restricted to their response district or municipal boundary. If so, your department may be drastically limiting the pool of potential recruits. It may be time to reevaluate your residency policy. When doing so, be sure to consider the demographic composition of your town and what limits it may place on potential recruits. If your district is proximate to urban areas with no volunteer fire service opportunities or it is close to a major university, a pool of potential volunteers could be nearby. Imagine how long a small business in need of skilled labor would last in your town if it hired only within the local boundary.

The volunteer fire service is one of the only organizations left that limits itself strictly to the resources available within the boundary it operates. When the residency requirement discussion is broached at the firehouse, many members express concern that nonresidents will not be as committed to the community or that outsiders won’t be able to participate at an impactful level. This is a valid concern, but we can define and address expectations through the department’s membership requirements.

Creative Requirements

Volunteer fire departments must implement creative minimum participation requirements that meet the needs of the department and allow members the flexibility to contribute to the best of their abilities. Many departments today still use antiquated, inflexible participation requirements that require members to meet a certain combination of call, training, and meeting volume. When we notice a gap in membership, we tend to respond by raising the same minimum requirements and demanding members meet them, without determining if we’ve got the right requirements in the first place.

Don’t eliminate minimum requirements altogether; given the nature of our work, every department needs standards to define membership. Take time to be critical of your requirements and be open to adapting them to meet modern needs. Explore requirements that allow members to fulfill department needs in more than one way.

For example, if you currently require all members to make 20 percent of toned responses during a specific time period, allow members to either make 20 percent of toned responses or provide coverage for two 12-hour shifts per month. This provides the member the flexibility to support the organization in a way that works for his busy schedule yet still provides the department with critical coverage.

As another example, your department may currently require a member to participate in a specific number of drills per month. Consider adding the option to attend a reduced number of scheduled drills per month as well as complete an agreed-on, related training activity (e.g., an independent study, online training program, or course attendance). Flexibility in scheduling, training, and responsibilities were all identified as elements that aid in department retention and recruitment. (3)

When implementing any new concept, assess your department’s needs, and structure options so that they will not create unforeseen gaps. If you’re concerned that too many members will sign up for duty shifts to meet requirements, then structure your program in advance so that it is not possible (i.e., limit the number of individuals who sign up for shift or only provide that option on days with low response coverage). These are ideas to get you thinking creatively about how you can establish requirements flexible enough for young members that meet the needs of your department.

Redefine Membership Status

You’re a firefighter or an emergency medical services member—that’s often the limit for real membership opportunities in the volunteer firehouse. This made sense when our houses were full and our jobs were much different. However, today’s modern firehouse is a complex operation that requires a diverse team skillset.

Who is your department’s treasurer? Secretary? Photographer? Web master or social media manager? It is time to redefine membership and rethink volunteer opportunities in the fire service that not only fulfill our emergency response obligations but help manage and support our entire organization. There may be a financial expert in your community who has had an interest in the fire service but who is not a firefighter. Out of all your firefighters, there may not be one who is a financial expert. Take advantage of this arrangement to increase your department’s membership roster and expand its firefighting and administrative capabilities. Consider volunteer opportunities that fulfill administrative or oddball functions, many of which are essential to the department yet can be time-intensive and detract from emergency responses.

While redefining membership categories, formalize uniformed and civilian/administrative positions by creating job descriptions for volunteer opportunities. During recruitment drives, you can post open volunteer positions for hire. Job descriptions also help establish standards and minimum qualifications.

We often reserve flexible membership opportunities for our long-term service members or keep administrative roles within uniformed ranks. Today’s demands exceed our capacity, and redefining membership opportunities now may allow you to refocus your firefighting force on its core mission and responsibilities as well as attract the next generation of talent.

Take a Stand

This is by no means an extensive list of solutions; there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution. This is about carefully assessing what your department needs and getting creative about how to fix it. Considering our wide array of responsibilities, think of the modern firehouse as a mission-oriented business that operates 24/7. How long can you sustain your business if you hire only skilled labor within your town or if you have only one schedule for all your employees? What if you hire employees based on just one or two job descriptions to cover all of your business’s functions?

Like all successful businesses, we must adapt our organizations to reflect today’s world to attract and keep young talent so we can continue to serve our customers for the next century. So, the next time you’re met with resistance to change, stand up, push back, and give the department the right lens it needs to view the situation. Are you ready to help save the volunteer fire service for the next generation?

References

1. Volunteer Fire Service Fact Sheet. National Volunteer Fire Council, Greenbelt, MD, 2017.

2. Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next. Pew Research Center, February 2010.

3. Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment and Retention Formative Research Results. Salter Mitchell, Inc. Prepared for National Volunteer Fire Council, Greenbelt, MD, March 2015.

4. The American Commute Is Worse Today Than It’s Ever Been. Christopher Ingraham. Washington Post, February 22, 2017.

5 Facts About Millennial Households. Pew Research Center, September 6, 2017.


BLAIZE LEVITAN is a state of Connecticut-certified Firefighter II and was a volunteer firefighter with the Ellington (CT) Volunteer Fire Department for 10 years. He was previously an emergency manager for the University of Connecticut and now serves as the senior media analyst in the town administration of Greenwich, Connecticut. He has a master’s of public administration from the University of Connecticut.

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