RECRUITING & RETENTION: You Cannot Leave Them to Chance

There is a crisis in many places today: Too few people are joining local volunteer fire departments and many of those who join do not stay.


There is a crisis in many places today: Too few people are joining local volunteer fire departments and many of those who join do not stay. The majority of communities in the United States are protected by volunteer fire departments. Research from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA...


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There is a crisis in many places today: Too few people are joining local volunteer fire departments and many of those who join do not stay.

The majority of communities in the United States are protected by volunteer fire departments. Research from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) indicated that "777,350 of the 1,064,150 firefighters in the year 2000 were volunteers." New research data suggests that far fewer volunteer firefighters are available in our country today. This research by a nationally recognized fire service research association stresses the importance of volunteers to the delivery of fire services in the United States.

Should we be content with handling the surface problems that continually crop up or should we attack the root causes of this membership crisis as we do the important job of providing fire protection to our communities? If we are to do the best possible job of recruiting new members and retaining existing members, we must find out what is right — and wrong — with our fire departments.

Many old-time traditions have begun to go by the wayside. Respect for authority, pride in a job well done, honesty and loyalty seem to have become dusty relics of an earlier time. So too has the concept of community-spirited volunteer service. Parents do not have time to be volunteer coaches for Little League baseball, youth soccer or Pop Warner football teams. They will pay a fee rather than donate their time. Ask them why and they will cite a lack of time.

So it is in the fire service. Where once there were waiting lists to gain admission to the rolls of local volunteer fire departments, people now stay away in droves. After many years of research, I have concluded that society in general has drifted away from the concept of giving something back to the community for the privilege of being a community member. John Harris of Tennessee, my roommate during our time in the U.S. Air Force's Eielson Air Force Base Fire Department in Alaska, recently shared interesting research he obtained from a friend in the New South Wales Rural Fire Service in Australia. That agency has identified seven values believed to be the keys to all that goes on there. They are:

  • Mutual respect
  • Adaptability and resourcefulness
  • One team, many players, one purpose
  • Integrity and trust
  • Support, friendship and camaraderie
  • Community and environment
  • Knowledge and learning

What an excellent series of building blocks for organizational success. In fact, these are rules to consider adopting as part of your personal plan for dealing with other people. Let me suggest that you must first come to know your department. List its strengths and weaknesses, then build on the strengths and work to overcome the weaknesses. Do the same for your community. Once you have done this, you should work to know your people in the very same way.

As part of my scholarly research, I have studied the impact of leadership on member-retention rates in the volunteer fire service. Even though my research was focused on leadership, many more negative influences were identified. I grouped my findings into five distinct areas:

  • Leadership issues
  • Economic issues
  • Personal issues
  • Interpersonal issues
  • Organizational issues

It is my contention that recruiting and retention are separate and distinct issues, and that you must attack both. However, my experience and research lead me to believe that you must cure the problems in your organization in order to stem the outward movement of people. One of my advisors at Capella University laid out the perfect example: Would you rather pour water into a bucket that is leaking or patch the holes in the bucket that are letting the water leak out? Of course, it makes sense to patch the holes. In our case, this means fixing the problems that are driving people away. It serves no purpose to have a well-conceived recruiting program if the people are being asked to join a seriously flawed fire department.

Ask yourself three key questions:

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