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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  • 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.