Volunteer Fire Department Recruitment & Retention

Larry Curl and Tim Wall suggest there is a “myth” surrounding the issue of recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters in this country.


There seems to be a myth about the recruitment of volunteer firefighters in this country. Many would lead you to believe that we – the volunteer fire service of America – are having a difficult time recruiting members. We contend, however, that this is just a myth. Oh, you say you...


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The next question to ask ourselves then is why is it that members of our community don’t want to join our ranks and offer to help their neighbors in times of need? Let’s list a few of the reasons that may affect our ability to recruit.

Some suggest that we simply don’t live in a society where folks are willing to give away their time to assist others, that there no longer is a “volunteer mood” in our towns and communities. Does your town have a church? Are there any civic groups, such as Lions Club, Rotary Club, Knights of Columbus, Little League baseball, Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts? Are we in competition for the people who choose to volunteer?

Maybe we are asking our volunteer firefighters to do more than they want to do or think they have time to do. After all, we ask them to respond to emergency calls at all times of the day and night, weekends and holidays, in the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter. That by itself is asking a lot. But there’s more. We tell our members they must train and become proficient in our service delivery. We ask them to put in a minimum “required” number of training hours, participate in work details, ready the apparatus, clean the station and maintain the facilities. We also ask them to participate in fund drives to raise the money so we can volunteer to help our community. Are we asking too much of our membership? Maybe our local population is small and the young people are all moving away when they complete school.

Let’s talk about our image as mem-bers of volunteer fire departments. Do we have a concern? Do we offer a negative image that might cause one not to want to join with us? Have we asked others about our image, or have we decided that our image is fine and if others don’t like it, too bad? What kind of an image do we have?

We could go on and on about why and why not we can recruit members, but what we really want to talk about is why we think what we have is the perception of a recruitment problem versus a recruitment problem.

“So tell me why you think I don’t have a real recruitment problem,” you may be thinking. Hear us out.

Let’s talk about what we think is your problem, the other “R” word. Let’s talk about retention.

Why do you think members are leaving? For some, it’s just a case of getting tired or “burned out.” For others, it’s an increase in family and or job requirements. One could even place the blame on organizational leadership or the direction in which the organization is moving. Could it possibly be any of the above, all of the above or none of the above?

The truth is, only the member knows why he or she is leaving what we once claimed to cherish so much – being a part of what we believe to be a great community organization. Some may ask whether it makes any difference why members are leaving, because when they leave they are gone, regardless of their reasons for departing. Have we ever conducted a needs assessment to figure out how many members we need? Do we have a retention program? Are we doing anything to save those in whom we have invested time, money and training, or are we operating a “swinging-door program” – in today and gone tomorrow?

We suggest that if you build a strong and productive retention program, one that meets the needs of members, fulfills the obligation of service to the community, has all the “right stuff” for success and offers a means of self satisfaction, then we would only have a need to recruit to keep up with our attrition rate, not recruit because of a shortage of members. If we work as hard at keeping members by leading, guiding, managing and working with them as some of us do at running them off, we would have many fewer open slots to fill. If we make each member feel as though he or she is our most important asset (as they truly are), we might be able to do a better job of retention.

Why do members quit? Do we conduct any exit interviews to attempt to answer that question or are we afraid to really find out the answer? Let’s look at what it takes to have a successful retention program – and this is not a one-size-fits-all program.