The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) has long been on the forefront of recruitment and retention issues affecting the volunteer fire and emergency services. From retention and recruitment research, workshops, kits, legislative initiatives, innovative programs like Fire Corps and Fire Line, NVFC recognized early on the need to maintain the existing ranks within a department while at the same time promoting recruitment to gain new members.
In both the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, the NVFC, in conjunction with the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), conducted research on recruitment and retention challenges and solutions. The project was the culmination of interviews with hundreds of departments to determine the difficulty facing the dwindling ranks of the volunteer fire service. In the past decade, there has been a 15% decline in the number of volunteer firefighters nationwide. The reason: lack of time. No matter where the department was located, its budget or leadership, the main reason for the decline in the ranks was due to the amount of time it takes to be trained to be a volunteer firefighter and to maintain certification and standing within the department.
Today, the NVFC and the USFA are collaborating on a project that will update past reports and offer workshops to fire departments on successful retention and recruitment techniques. The project began with the analysis of variables that motivate volunteers to stay and leave emergency service organizations, as well as an analysis of what their volunteer services "save" their communities in annualized costs. These "motivators" were then analyzed for specifics and will be detailed along with several case studies in the final document to be released later this year. The research conducted found two major reasons for members leaving the ranks: no time to volunteer and poor or inadequate leadership; while motivators to stay are as varied as the local communities, making recruitment and retention a local issue.
The NVFC has also taken a lead role in promoting legislation at the federal level aimed at addressing recruitment and retention. When the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program was created by Congress, it included NVFC-backed provisions that set aside 10% of the funding for volunteer recruitment and retention grants. NVFC offered assistance to state fire associations in applying for funding. In addition, the program includes a requirement that at least 10% of the funds for hiring firefighters go to volunteer and majority volunteer departments and that any firefighter hired under this program is not discriminated against for or prohibited from engaging in volunteer activities in another jurisdiction during off-duty hours.
In addition, the NVFC is pursuing the passage of two bills to provide federal tax benefits to volunteer fire and EMS personnel. The Supporting Emergency Responders Volunteer Efforts (SERVE) Act would provide a $1,000 annual tax credit for active members of volunteer fire and EMS organizations. The Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Act would prevent the IRS from taxing the nominal compensation awarded to local volunteer firefighters and emergency medical responders for service to their communities.
Finally, the NVFC soon will be seeking changes to the IRS code to simplify the requirements for length of service award programs (LOSAPs) under the IRS Code, so that they can be more universally available despite differing methods of compensating emergency services volunteers across the country. In addition, we will be looking for the IRS to permit the treatment of LOSAPs as "eligible deferred compensation plans" maintained by a governmental employer, even if the LOSAP sponsor is an independent tax-exempt entity, not a municipality.
The NVFC also offers a "New Tools Kit" for volunteer fire and emergency services that includes recruitment press releases and camera-ready artwork for print in local newspapers. The Kit includes information on how to work with the media and tips on recruiting new individuals. The package is available for free and can be downloaded from the NVFC website at http://www.nvfc.org/pdf/new_tools.pdf.
The NVFC Foundation has developed an effective new calculator tool that dramatically demonstrates the importance of volunteer fire and emergency services departments to the communities they serve. The Cost Saving Calculator enables volunteer and combination departments to determine the true financial value of their services to the community. Departments can educate legislative bodies, community groups and other parties about the value of their services, and costs that would otherwise need to be borne by local and regional governments.
The calculator features a user-friendly design wherein each department inputs important variables from which a dollar value of the service provided by the department is derived.
Among the important input variables the Cost Savings Calculator includes are:
- Geographic area of service, plus population and number of households served
- Number of fire stations, and amount and type of apparatus
- Annual departmental operating expenses
- Active volunteers (ground operations, fund-raising, administrative categories)
- Average starting salary plus benefits that paid personnel would earn in the local market
After this data has been entered, the program automatically calculates the overall value of services being provided by the department to its community.
Taken as a whole, the value of services provided by volunteer firefighters across the U.S. is noteworthy. In fact, an analysis conducted by St. Joseph's University's Public Safety & Environmental Protection Institute in Philadelphia and released in a 2004 report titled Economic Impact of the Volunteer Fire Service found that it would cost American taxpayers more than $37 billion annually if all volunteer firefighters were to be replaced with career staffers.
Chief Robert Kilpeck, president of the NVFC Foundation, said the Cost Savings Calculator was developed to assist departments in their quest for community recognition and for securing funding for equipment and programs.
"The St. Joseph's study shows in dramatic fashion just how valuable and vital our volunteer and combination departments are," he said. "Our tool provides a way for departments to build a stronger case for local, state and Federal investment in the volunteer fire service. It also enables all departments to valuate their services based on a consistent set of factors."
As a further aid to this effort, the NVFC Foundation has developed a free downloadable PowerPoint presentation that individual departments can customize by inserting their own information. Now any volunteer department, no matter how large or small, can devise an effective, professional-looking presentation quickly and easily. This tool can reduce the time and effort needed for fund-raising by justifying a department's cost savings.
To download the NVFC Foundation's Cost Savings Calculator and accompanying PowerPoint presentation template, visit www.nvfc.org.
The NVFC is also working in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security, the International Association of Fire Chiefs Volunteer Combination Officers Section (IAFC/VCOS) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) on the Fire Corps program. Fire Corps is a locally driven Citizen Corps program that allows community members to offer their time and talents to their local fire departments. Fire Corps serves as a gateway to information for and about fire department programs and meets a citizen's desire to serve as well as a department's need for support.
Any fire service-affiliated organization that uses citizen advocates (volunteers) constitutes a Fire Corps program. While departments are encouraged to integrate Fire Corps programs into local or state Citizen Corps councils, there are no additional requirements other than having citizen advocates volunteer in your organization and registering yourself with Fire Corps.
The only requirement to register is being a fire or EMS department or directly affiliated with a department or local, state, federal or tribal fire or EMS agency. Fire Corps may ask for more information prior to listing your organization in the Fire Corps database.
There is no cost to register with Fire Corps. Its aim is to connect fire departments with citizens in their communities who want to help supplement operations. All that is asked of fire departments is to occasionally review Fire Corps information and keep the number of citizen advocates, hours worked and program information up to date.
Citizen advocates are a benefit to departments because they let fire departments focus on providing fire and rescue services by providing supplemental and/or support services, such as administrative assistance. Investing in a citizen advocate program can help a department's staff fulfill their primary functions and provide services that may not otherwise be offered. The financial return on investment of a citizen advocate program can be substantial, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Fire Corps members can perform a wide array of duties, including administrative functions, life safety education, fund raising, Explorers, data entry, bookkeeping, canteen services, public relations, pre-plan research, and apparatus and facility maintenance. The list of non-operational tasks is endless; any non-operational task can be accomplished by a citizen advocate.
While Fire Corps is a new initiative of the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, citizen outreach programs in the fire service are not new. There are many exemplary programs in paid fire departments in the U.S. in addition to the thousands of volunteer fire departments.
Fire Corps can provide essential services to help begin new programs or improve existing ones. Services immediately available at this website are:
- An expanding database of fire department programs in the U.S.
- Program documents
- Links to other websites
In the future, Fire Corps will offer:
- Additional sample policies, protocols and procedures
- Training curricula
- On-site technical assistance, where appropriate
- Peer-to-Peer program assistance
- Regional symposiums
1-800-Fire-Line is a nationwide recruitment campaign managed by NVFC in an effort to boost the ranks in the volunteer fire and emergency services. 1-800-Fire-Line is a toll-free number that links interested citizens with volunteer emergency service opportunities in their community. This service is operational in all 50 states, with the majority of states answered within the state the caller is from, and the remainder answered by the NVFC.
As part of its mission of reaching out to citizens and facilitating their involvement in local fire departments, Fire Corps has incorporated 1-800- Fire-Line as one of the many ways citizens can obtain information about local opportunities. Although a majority of citizens have access to the Internet, not everyone does. Through 1-800-Fire-Line, citizens are provided with a toll-free conventional way to request information on Fire Corps opportunities.
For the latest retention and recruitment information, stay connected to NVFC through its website at www.nvfc.org.
Heather Schafer is executive director of the National Volunteer Fire Council.