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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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?