Today’s fire departments that use a staffing component comprised of all volunteers or a combination of mostly volunteers supported with career staff face significant challenges in recruiting and retaining an adequate number of qualified motivated personnel. Managing volunteers requires a proactive approach, which will then require monitoring of expectations along with developing plans to maximize effectiveness.
The ability to retain qualified personnel depends on various factors, with the top contributing factors being the following:
- Current volunteers like the people with which they volunteer.
- Leadership has its priorities in order: family, work, fire department.
- Leaders are qualified and competent for the positions they hold.
- Management of time is a high priority.
- There is minimal drama within the organization.
- Rules are enforced fairly and uniformly.
Recruiting an adequate staffing component of volunteers depends on the following factors:
- The application process is rapid and responsive.
- Realistic time expectations are communicated during the interview process.
- Volunteers are happy and satisfied and speak highly of the department and the leadership.
- There is minimal drama within the organization.
In today’s bustling society, leadership in a volunteer staffed fire department is competing for the volunteers’ discretionary time. Each of us has the same amount of time every day. We can choose how we commit that time. We all have time commitments that don’t really change much such as family time (kids, spouse, parents), work (travel to and from along with work activities), rest and relaxation (approximately nine hours each day), and meals and hygiene (approximately one hour each day). After organizational “drama,” “wasting time” has the most impact on volunteers staying active within a department. Most of us don’t manage our time very well; many of us are procrastinators. We get bogged down in the minutiae of events and projects.
As a leader of a volunteer staffed department, “staying busy” does not always mean you’re working hard and will be more successful. Being successful in recruiting and retaining volunteers means you understand and use time management skills that benefit the individual as well as the department.
The old adage “Work smarter, not harder” has become a staple in the way I go about work of any kind. Instead of being robotic in how I approach tasks, I try to be thoughtful and always ask myself if something can be done more efficiently or eliminated altogether. Managing my time is about simplifying how I work, doing things faster, and relieving stress. It’s about clearing away space in my life to make time for people, play, and rest. There really are enough hours in a day for everything you’d like to do, but it may take a bit of rearranging and reimagining to find them.
Following are key points to managing time properly in a volunteer fire department:
- Plan the activity.
- Have adequate resources.
- Complete the most important tasks first.
- Learn to say “no.”
- Focus on the current project.
- Don’t allow unimportant details to distract you from the “big picture.”
- Leave a buffer of time between projects by giving the team some time off to enjoy the accomplishment as well as rest up for the next project.
Remember, no matter how hard or fast you work, you will never complete every project. So, take it one project at a time.
Don’t ever think you don’t have enough time; you have the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Louis Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein. Organizational drama is extremely counterproductive. I’ve heard many horror stories regarding coworkers instigating drama and bitterness in their organizations. If your personnel are more focused on the latest gossip, putting down their colleagues to look better, or sabotaging each other so much that it hurts the department, it creates an extremely counterproductive workplace.
When looking for volunteers, we are most often willing to take all applicants. When interviewing volunteer applicants, ask yourself, “Would I genuinely enjoy this person as a member of our department?” The second question is, “Will this person add value to our organization?”
As a leader, when you hear someone make outlandish comments that you know are not true, challenge that person. Outlandish comments create rifts in organizational relationships, which can destroy camaraderie and trust quickly. No matter how hard we try, we are still going to have people who whine, complicate, and control. We have volunteers who become toxic members or who don’t pull their weight. Each can become detrimental to harmony within the organization. Toxic leaders will destroy the morale of all with whom they come in contact. Toxic leaders need to be recognized quickly and dealt with immediately and most often harshly.
Years ago, I dealt with very active and valued husband-and-wife volunteers. They had become toxic members who could find nothing good about the organization or the people who were members. They worked the second shift, which meant they were part of a sparse day crew. Volunteers told me they would not respond on an apparatus with them because of all the venom that came from their mouths. I had to take action and, when I did, the department members responded positively. Those two members left the department, and we never missed a response because they were gone.
Toxic members are detrimental to morale and efficiency. Often, drama starts out small, sometimes between just two volunteers. But when one volunteer consistently feels imposed on or taken advantage of by another and he doesn’t know how to deal with the situation, things escalate and spread throughout the membership, sapping morale and diminishing efficiency.
Although small misunderstandings are always going to be present, leadership can reduce drama by taking responsibility and establishing a culture of accountability. Hold volunteers responsible for their performance, keep them on task and focused, and reward productive behavior. Every organization has problems that can’t be ignored. Leaders create a solution-based culture of learning from mistakes and make possible constructive input. If you have a complaint, bring forward a solution.
Toxic members can suck the life out of an organization. Don’t approach toxic leaders when you are emotionally involved. Make the conversation about the performance, not the person. Be positive in the hopes of creating a solution to help the person. Take a minute to gather yourself; an emotional attack typically elicits a defensive reaction and will undermine your ability to influence change within that person.
JOHN M. BUCKMAN III has served as chief of the German Township (IN) Volunteer Fire Department for 35 years. He has also served as director of the Indiana Fire and Public Safety Academy for 13 years and as president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs from 2001-2002. He is a photographer and has authored several books and numerous articles.