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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  • Do you think that the volunteer fire service of the 21st century has lost sight of its role in society?
  • Is it possible that society has evolved away from the mindset of community service that allowed a town to support a volunteer fire service?
  • Is it a combination of these two?

Some people seem to celebrate the fact that the fire service does not change much, but then they continually gripe about staffing shortages and fail to do anything to battle their recruiting and retention problems. My research has pinpointed problem areas that must be identified and then addressed if your fire department is to enjoy future success. Let's look at the leadership issues.

  • Leaders create positive experiences
  • Leaders create negative experiences
  • Leaders fail to do anything
  • Leaders do not listen
  • Leaders play favorites
  • Leaders engage in petty behavior that punishes people with whom they do not like to work
  • Leaders make it known that they do not need anyone's help or advice on how to run the department

It is critical for you to work with your associates to identify the extent to which these problems exist within your fire department. You must then work as a group to extinguish the poor behaviors. Create a training and mentoring program whose object is the development of a future cadre of well-trained and qualified leaders.

Economic issues are tougher to address, since they are beyond the control of any individual fire department. These are societal issues that must be explored and attacked at the local government and community level. The following issues were identified during my research:

  • Members work multiple jobs to pay family expenses
  • Both parents work and are sharing child-care duties
  • Members cannot afford to live in the fire department's response area because of a lack of affordable housing
  • Certain members live too far away to be effective responders

It is possible that some of these problems can be attacked by forming partnerships within the local business community. Although it is not as easy as it once might have been, your fire department should explore the creation of partnerships with local employers, banks and real estate brokers. You should explore developing programs with the potential to let more people afford to live and work in your community. This is a time to be creative and pursue non-traditional approaches.

Certain issues are beyond the control of any individual or organization. These include:

  • The fire service ends up not being what the people who joined it thought it would be
  • Some people tried it and they just did not like it
  • Some left because it was too much work
  • Issues of aging
  • Physical conditioning issues
  • Department changes because of new members and older members leave
  • People age and then pass away

These are difficult to address because they are specific to the individual member. Others are just a natural part of life. However, you ignore their impact at your own peril.

There is another category within this area of the study that has much to do with an individual's perception of their ability to perform the duties of a volunteer firefighter. In some cases the reference was to matters of a physical nature, while others made reference to mental concepts.

One study participant stated that some members left because they "couldn't cut it, they weren't able to do the job." These are also difficult to deal with, but you must face them if you are to create a better organizational environment for your members. Perhaps a show of concern on your part or that of the leadership will go a long way toward helping out here. Other study respondents stated that people left because "with a lot of individual personalities, you find people who cannot adapt. Some people cannot take orders, so they leave." Another respondent noted that "there are some (people) who decided that they did not want to be team players and left." Again, beyond your ability to control.

Another area of problem issues can be seen as going hand-in-hand with leadership problems. These are the inter-personal matters that are often allowed to continue without any leadership intervention. Personality clashes between members of the department. Personality clashes between members and leaders. Personality clashes between people in different positions of department leadership. Weak leaders who do nothing to bring conflicts to a just and proper conclusion that eliminates the problem can create really bad situations. These drive people away.