Small Fire Departments Confront Big Issues – Part 2

People: a fire department's most valuable resource. It's not a gleaming new truck or fancy fire station that determines a small fire department's success, it's the people - people are the fire department. Everything a fire department accomplishes, whether it's organized fireground operations, purchasing that well-specked new truck or launching an innovative fire prevention program, ultimately hinges on people.

Staffing, though, represents an area that is a struggle for many small fire departments. Problems with recruitment and retention are always at the top of the list in any focus group dealing with small fire department issues. This is not just a problem that is endemic to the fire service - if you talk with the CEO of a large corporation, he or she will probably tell you that recruitment and retention of the right people is a problem for that company too.

Staffing is probably a bigger challenge for small fire departments. The personnel resources many small fire departments can access are limited. Numbers speak for themselves. A fire department in a community of 10,000 has a larger pool to draw from than a fire department in a community of 2,000 and so on down the line. This limiting factor does not mean, though, that the small fire department is doomed by a lack of personnel resources.

Fire service authors and educators have not ignored the challenges inherent in recruitment and retention; they have in fact promulgated a library of recruitment and retention strategies. Entire books have been written on the subject. The intention of this article is to offer some thought-provoking ideas and observations that will make it easier for the small fire department to attract and keep the people it needs to get the job done. We'll examine the issues involved from seven different perspectives:

  1. Solve Retention Problems First
  2. Looking Outside The Box
  3. Change The Way You Do Things
  4. Giving Volunteers Their Due Reward
  5. The Role Of Motivation
  6. Not Every Body Is A Good Body
  7. The All-Important Role Of Leader-ship

1. Solve Retention Problems First

Step one in solving recruitment problems actually begins with retention. According to Chief Nyle Zykmund of the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Department in Minnesota, the most effective way to get volunteers is to focus on keeping the ones you have and giving them the most you can for their volunteer experience. Find out why your people are leaving. If you have a staffing shortage due to retirements of long-serving members that's one issue, but if you've got a staffing problem due to people who join the department and stay for only a short while, you've got serious things to look at in your department.

A concerted focus by a fire department to do what it can to keep its current members will have a spinoff effect that ultimately affects recruitment. How? When you give members everything you can to help make their volunteer firefighter experience something positive, they will tell other people, and there you have it - marketing. A motivated volunteer firefighter is a walking billboard, the best advertisement you have for recruiting new members. In effect, every member of the department is a recruiting agent.

2. Looking Outside The Box

Solutions to small fire department staffing challenges often lie right outside the station doors; all a department needs to do is broaden its views and take a look around. Here are some ideas.

  • Non-traditional volunteers. America is aging and a plethora of retired senior citizens are looking for things to do to make them feel worthwhile. Retired and senior citizens can fulfill many critical fire department functions, primarily non-fireground related with such tasks as the administrative and maintenance burdens that officers contend with.

  • Job differentiation. Another remedy is making a distinction in the physical characteristics required for combat and support functions on the fireground. This gives the department a means of admitting firefighters who do not have the physical attributes necessary for stressful functions like interior attack, but who can still fulfill other necessary functions on the fireground. Non-traditional volunteers can also be candidates for some of these duties. It doesn't take a firefighter with an athlete's physique to drive a fire truck and operate a fire pump.

  • Junior firefighter programs. Whether it be Boy Scout Explorers or any other self-generated program for youth, this is a time-proven way of gaining solid members for many volunteer fire departments.

  • Different cultures. Cultural awareness is a buzzword in society and it's trickling down into the fire service. A good argument can be made that many small fire departments remain culturally unaware in spite of the United States being the most culturally diverse country in the world. Many cultural groups, which in some cases have a large local presence, remain untapped by the fire service. For instance, Hispanics now represent the number-one minority in the country. Juan Trujillo, who was a volunteer firefighter in both Santiago, Chile, and Webster City, IA, said his people regard it as the highest honor to be able to serve in such a capacity. According to Trujillo, this is a trait of the entire Hispanic culture; that they give something back to their community by volunteering. A good-sized population of personnel resources that many small fire departments can tap lies in this cultural group alone.

  • Women firefighters. As old as this issue seems, the fact is, women are still not being sought after to the extent they could be in the fire service. George Oster, past executive officer of the Iowa Fire Service Institute, said he found that in spite of all the focus on equality of sexes, only 3% of Iowa firefighters are women. There has not been a national study of similar caliber done, but Oster believes his studies parallel national trends, meaning that there is an ocean of recruits that has not been tapped to any significant extent in the volunteer fire service.

3. Change The Way You Do Things

Measures that are countercurrent to traditional small fire department culture are often necessary to field the contingent of firefighters necessary to handle alarms. For instance, consider how one Iowa fire department solved its retention and recruitment problems by holding a double set of meetings every month. Monthly training and business meetings are not only a necessary requirement in small fire departments; they are part of the fabric that keeps the department focused and moving in a direction. This particular department had meeting requirements like most do, but it was located near a major city with a huge industrial base. Many community members worked second- and third-shift jobs that made it impractical for them to take part in required meetings; hence, a significant portion of the local population could not be tapped for members.

The department solved the problem by holding monthly meetings twice, once on the traditional weekday evening and another on a weekend morning. Second- and third-shift workers could attend the weekend meetings. Not only did the department gain and maintain more members, it also found members who were available to answer daytime alarms.

Another department plays heavily on the family orientation with its monthly meetings to gain and keep members. Every Wednesday is meeting night for this department - the first Wednesday of the month is a regular business meeting, the second is reserved for training and the third is for equipment checks, maintenance and station cleaning. The fourth, however, is reserved for a monthly family get-together and social.

Oster identifies two key components that cannot be ignored in a small fire department culture, and that small fire departments use to differing degrees in attracting members: the fun factor and emotional support. Small-town volunteer fire departments are a social entity, there is no avoiding it. The degree to which social activities are managed is critical as the social aspect of a volunteer fire department cannot override the overall purpose of a fire department. Recognizing the social element of a volunteer fire department and the unique role it plays in functionality of the department is an aspect that can be used in recruitment and retention strategies. Friendships and relationships are formed in small fire departments that carry members through the trials of their lives as well as inspire them toward lofty goals.

As far as residency requirements go, for the most part those days are gone for small fire departments. In today's society people no longer live, work, go to school or shop in the same town; they do these activities in four or five different communities. Look around your community, it is very likely there are able bodied and willing people who work within your fire district, but who don't live there. Tap into this recruit pool and you'll help solve the daytime staffing dilemma. Also, many small fire departments, recognize that a good pool of volunteers resides in rural areas and have done away with the requirement that you must live inside the city limits where the department is headquartered.

Though retention and recruitment are challenges faced by all small fire departments, the situation covers a broad spectrum. There are some that have waiting lists of people willing to volunteer while others struggle to maintain a contingent large enough to fight a residential fire.

Why have a waiting list? People want to belong and do something; if they have to wait too long, their interest dwindles. Give those people on the waiting list something to do. Granted, they may not be able to fill an active fireground function because of insurance or legal constraints, but they can at least operate in some auxiliary capacity until the time arrives that there's an opening on the roster for them.

Another issue is the department's basic approach to how it does business. Is it rigid, having a lot of membership requirements that exclude significant portions of the population it has to draw from for its membership? Greater flexibility and job differentiation are two solutions that many small fire departments have used to overcome rigidity problems.

4. Giving Volunteers Their Due Reward

To get at the core of retention and recruitment in small fire departments, remember that everyone joins the fire service for a reason. In a small volunteer fire department the reason is not financial. That's one big advantage corporate America has in recruitment and retention that small fire departments do not have - the tangible incentive of a paycheck.

We can talk about all kinds of tangible incentives other than a paycheck to use in keeping volunteers on the roster, but the fact of the matter is, even those incentives are beyond the budget of a vast majority of small fire departments. Hence, we must rely more on intangible factors. Find a volunteer's hot button and figure out how you can push it, and you've got a member who's going to give you 110% and he or she is probably going to stay with you for quite a while.

Volunteer firefighters may say they are doing it for the community, and there is no doubt they are, but ultimately there is some other more deeply rooted personal gain they hope to receive from being members of the department. This is something that once identified can help the department immensely in its staffing challenges.

Chief Eric Ward of the Blue Township, KS, Fire Department (a community of 2,000) has a unusual way of identifying with the needs of volunteers, or in essence the motivations of volunteers. Good neighbors, adrenaline seekers and the professionals are the three characteristics Ward sees in volunteer firefighters.

"We try to recognize these motivations in volunteers and then use them to capitalize on their individual strengths so they get the most out of their volunteer experience and to help them meet our department's needs," Ward said. "It can be tough with the adrenaline seekers in small fire department where you don't get a lot of alarms, so you've got to find other things that challenge them."

Ward said another key to motivating volunteer firefighters is giving them something they can be proud of. "Get them the best equipment and uniforms you can and give them a little frill once-in-a-while," Ward said. "If they feel like they're part of the best fire department there is, that really helps. We want people to think it's really special to belong to our department." No fire chief worth his weight in salt wouldn't want to give his volunteers something in return for their time and efforts, but the real world is that in a small fire department it's usually beyond the chief's means to give them much at all. Even the smallest of token counts with a volunteer though. Like any gift, it's the intent, not the size.

5. The Role Of Motivation

Motivation, particularly the motivational climate, is definitely a factor in recruitment and retention. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs provides the classical foundation of human motivation. The ideal is to have volunteer firefighters toward the top of Maslow's hierarchy, where they are achieving their self-esteem and self-actualization needs. These are the volunteers who feel like they are "being all they can be." To get volunteers to this level, make certain they have all the challenges and opportunity they need and that they feel they are making a worthwhile contribution. In short, make them successful - nothing motivates like success.

At the other end of Maslow's Hierarchy are the basic levels of human needs - safety and security. Consider how your department operates. If a department has a reputation for haphazard operations that people view as endangering their lives, how successful will it be at retention and recruitment? A reckless disregard for safety represents a violation of one of Maslow's lowest most basic levels of human needs - safety and security.

6. Not Every Body Is A Good Body

Every time a new member is sworn in, the fire department takes a risk. By all means, do not fall into the "any body is a good body" syndrome; selection criteria are a must. Selection criteria help to reduce the risk and channel the most appropriate recruits to the department.

Not everyone is suited to the volunteer fire service and the personal sacrifices made by members of small fire departments. Some recruits come to the table with motives for membership that are out of step with fire department needs. You must be able to sort those people out before expending all of the resources required to train and outfit a new member. Job differentiation, the development of standards for member requirements, making certain that potential members know up front what is expected of them, and once they are on the department's roster, making certain they have the personal challenge as well as training they need all adds up to successful retention and recruitment.

Keep in mind the influence that standards and regulations can have on firefighter selection. The degree to which selection criteria is used is up to the individual departments discretion.

7. The All-Important Role Of Leadership

Retention problems are often the result of not just a single issue, but an event cascade. Airline pilots recognize that a crash results from a cascade of events. An engine may have fallen off the airplane and caused a crash. The engine fell off because of a string of events that started with poor maintenance. The poor maintenance happened because of underqualified mechanics. The underqualified mechanics were hired at a cheaper wage because the airline was in trouble financially. The airline's financial troubles started due to poor leadership.

The same sort of event cascade is often found in a small fire department with a staffing dilemma. Volunteers have quit and left the system because they were burnt out. They were burnt out because the department was not recognizing their needs. The department was not recognizing their needs because of poor leadership. The department's leadership situation arose because of inner turmoil and a change in chiefs at the last election.

Ultimately it is leadership that is the problem, and the solution to change. For a small fire department that does not mean leadership traits and skills are the prized possession of an elite few. Leadership skills can be acquired, and need to be something that every member of the department needs to pay attention to, for it could be them who is called upon to exercise those skills in some way, be it heading a special projects committee to giving direction on the fireground to serving as an officer. Leadership will be dealt with in detail in a subsequent article in this series. Suffice it to note here that leadership holds the key to solving retention and recruitment problems.

There's a simple formula, it goes something like the right people combined with the right motivational climate determines a department's success. And what is the right environment? It will vary from department to department, but ultimately it is determined by the department's leadership - leadership sets the tone, leadership is the success factor in the equation. Will it be a closed environment or an open one? Will it be an environment accepting to people with cultural and personal differences? Will it be an environment willing to try new things, think and look outside the box? Most important, will it be an environment that focuses on the needs of the individual?

Granted, some recruitment and retention measures create an additional burden for the chief because of extra time requirements, but for small fire departments that extra bit of effort is required to achieve goals. If a chief isn't willing to go that extra mile, either the department is going to fall short of its goals or the chief faces replacement. From a leadership aspect, some introspection is necessary. If you're unwilling to expend the extra effort required to solve retention and recruitment dilemmas, or any dilemma for that matter, its time to delegate or move over and let someone else take the helm.

The chief who realizes that people are the success element of the fire department is the leader who is focusing on the most important aspect. Channeling retention and recruitment to finding the right people will ultimately lead to success as a fire department. How does one quantify or qualify a successful small fire department? Quantitative measures can be established, but most small fire departments will not take the time to do them and even if they do, they may not mean much to them.

Success is best qualified by looking at three aspects:

  1. Do citizens feel they are getting good service?
  2. Do governing and taxing bodies understand the department and feel the department is doing a good job?
  3. At the department level itself, do the firefighters feel they have good leadership and do the leaders feel they have good followership?

All of these measures are ultimately determined by staffing and a small fire department's ability to keep its roster filled with functional, motivated volunteers. In short, and stated again to emphasize its importance, the bottom line to the retention and recruitment dilemmas that lead to a shortage of motivated volunteers is rooted in leadership. Remove all forms of bias and barriers and look at the entire spectrum of potential volunteer firefighters available, then go after them.

The department's leadership must be evaluative of where capable recruits can be found in the community and introspective of the department's policies and the department's individual "personality" in solving retention and recruitment challenges.

Results of recruitment and retention efforts are not immediate. They are all part of an ongoing management cycle. The going will most likely be slow, a solid member may be gained and it may be many months before another is placed on the department, but the cumulative result will ultimately be a bolstered roster of competent, motivated volunteers. In most cases new recruits are not going to come to you, you have to aggressively go after them and go after them consistently.

One-on-one contact is bliss in gaining recruits. Concerted efforts in the form of a recruitment campaign do work, but ideally successful recruitment is an ongoing campaign. It may mean a lot of footwork and door knocking, but it all comes back again to leadership, and how much effort is leadership willing to expend in seeking success. Minimal efforts get minimal results. A sincere effort combined with the element of time brings success.

Steve Meyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department for 22 years, serving as chief since 1985. He is past president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association. Meyer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for leadership and administration with the NFA. In 1998, he was presented the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.