Small Fire Departments Confront Big Issues – Part 2

Steve Meyer explains why finding and keeping the right people may be the small fire department’s ultimate challenge.


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...


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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.

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