Unmet Expectations: What a Volunteer Firefighter or EMT Does

Being honest about what volunteering entails can help with recruiting new members for your volunteer fire department

By Joe Maruca

Writing for National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)

Why are some volunteer fire departments able to hang onto newly recruited fire and EMS volunteers, and others see these individuals drop off the roster pretty quickly?

It boils down to two reasons, and both are about unmet expectations. One is about the job itself: new recruits have a certain set of expectations in their heads about being a volunteer firefighter or EMS provider, and once they start the job, they find that the reality is very different. The other is about how the new person is treated on the job: the new recruit expects to be welcomed into a close-knit group of supportive people, and instead, all too often, find themselves facing an outdated (and, truly, unacceptable) version of hazing. This experience makes new firefighter recruits feel like outsiders and sets them up to fail as committed, valuable members of the fire department.

Both of these situations will result in the loss of members over the short term. The latter can result in morale (and management) problems in the department even if new members stay on.

And both will make recruitment in general more difficult for the department because those who leave won’t be silent about their experience. So begins a downward spiral in recruiting that those in the department might not even be aware of.

In this article, I want to focus on the first of these issues – volunteers expecting something different than the reality of the job. I’ll address the second issue in my next article.

What the Job Entails

It is unrealistic to recruit volunteer firefighters with visions of battling flames and being heroes, and expect them to become highly motivated team members after encountering the reality of the job.

Think about the public image of the firefighter and EMS volunteer. Is it someone cleaning puke from an ambulance floor, writing up a report, checking inventory, fixing a smoke detector for a community member, or directing traffic around a minor motor vehicle crash? No, it’s not. The public image tends to be what we see on TV shows – someone in a haze of smoke, directing water onto a fire and bringing it under control, or someone emerging from a burning building with a child in their arms.

Yet what do we do on a regular basis? We decontaminate the ambulance, we check the pressure of the tires on the trucks, we write up reports, we check inventory, we train, and we help people in the community with a whole host of minor tasks. Then we do it all again. And again.

In fact, a typical volunteer fire department that provides ambulance service experiences about 3-5 percent of its emergency call volume as fires and about 70 percent of its call volume as emergency medical services (EMS) and motor vehicle crashes – of which there are a wide range, and many will be relatively minor. The rest of the calls, about 25 percent, are solving lots of small problems such as carbon monoxide incidents, beeping alarms, smells, lockouts/lock ins, trees in the road, accidental fire alarms, burnt popcorn, and babysitting downed power lines.

If your newly recruited volunteer doesn’t know that she or he just signed up for all of this, you are setting up your department for poor morale.

If a department is having trouble getting new volunteers to stay with the department, or getting its volunteers to come to training or respond to calls, that department is probably suffering from unmet expectations. It is probably experiencing poor morale as a direct result (at least in part) of volunteers being disappointed and disillusioned in what they do.

People brought into a volunteer fire department who think it’s all about fighting fires are going to be unhappy. Then they lose enthusiasm and fade away, or worse, undermine the department.

Similarly, EMS volunteers who see themselves saving lives by stopping bleeding from trauma patients or performing CPR must come into the organization knowing how infrequently these events typically occur. They need to know how much training is involved, how many hours of report writing is part of the job, that they will spend time every week checking equipment they feel like they never use, and that many of their patients will seem like re-runs.

What Can You Do?

It boils down to this: When recruiting and onboarding new members, the department must set clear expectations so that everyone knows what they have signed-up for.

Here’s how:

Start by holding an orientation session or meeting for new applicants before you even do interviews or start making hiring decisions. This is the time to tell prospective volunteers what the job is really about. Tell them the number and mix of calls typical for your department. Tell them how often they should expect to be called upon. Explain all of the non-fire and EMS duties such as truck checks, report writing, station cleaning, and community service projects. Make sure they know the duty schedule (if you have one) and how much time they need to commit to it. Give them the training schedule. Departments that do this find that many applicants drop out at this stage.

This is a good thing. Why? Having people drop out before you go through the process of onboarding and training them saves your department from spending resources and effort on someone who really wasn’t interested in what you do or who can’t commit to the time. It prevents morale issues and makes for a smoother running organization. Those that stay on through the process will be happier and better members of the department because you are meeting their expectations about what they do and how they do it.

Beyond that initial step, you can manage expectations continually in a variety of ways:

Post written training schedules at either quarterly, semi-annual, or annual intervals. This allows members to better plan their time and participation. In addition, maintain duty calendars and written policies on how people trade duty shifts or are allowed absences for things such as work conflicts, sick children, and being out of town. These policies and schedules need to be flexible and realistic, taking into account the chaos of people’s lives.

Influence your department’s public image by posting what’s real on social media. Think about how your department creates its public image on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and in media releases. Don’t just show hero images or repost stock images from other sources. Show your department’s day-to-day activities. Show firefighters testing hose, cleaning the station, and checking out an odor of gas in knee-deep snow. Use images of EMS staff in the rain at motor vehicle crashes, sitting in a class on stroke protocols, and cleaning the ambulance after a call. This approach sets realistic expectations and it will attract new members.

Setting New Recruits Up for Success

Many volunteer departments are facing declining enrollment. This is coming at the same time that demand for emergency services (though generally not firefighting) is at an all-time high and growing. Leadership needs to be explicit about setting more realistic expectations to recruit and retain more volunteer firefighters and EMS providers. New recruits need to know what they’re signing up for – the whole of it.

In my next article, I’ll tackle the other key issue of meeting recruits’ expectations of what it’s like to be a member of a fire department and creating an environment where people want to be.

Joe Maruca is chief of the West Barnstable (MA) Fire Department, a combination fire department on Cape Cod. He served as a volunteer firefighter from 1977 until becoming chief in 2005. He is a director of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and represents the NVFC on the NFPA 1917 Technical Committee. Joe is a retired attorney and Of Counsel to the Crowell Law Office in Yarmouthport, concentrating in the area of estate planning.

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