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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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