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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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.