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Filling the Ranks: Recruitment, Retention or Both?

The U.S. Fire Administration statistics show that there are approximately 1,190,000 firefighters in the United States. Based on U.S. Census data, there are currently 318,130,500 citizens in the U.S. That averages out to be one firefighter for every 267 citizens. Most of us would agree that this is a lot of responsibility. Wouldn't this be a lot better if we had better numbers by having more firefighters?

So how do we do this? One solution is having a good retention and recruitment program within your department.

Recruitment And Retention Or Retention And Recruitment

Before we go any further, some of you may be saying, “Aren’t they called recruitment and retention programs?” In short, yes. However a good start with a program like this is to focus on the resources that you have in place now. Remember your parents telling you, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush?" The lesson here is that what we have is worth more than what we may have.

If we lose the firefighters we have, there is more loss than just that firefighter on the rig. We are potentially losing years of experience, education, knowledge and time devoted to our cause. In addition, if the lost firefighter is a career member, we are losing money when it comes to having to pay others to be in his/her position (can you say overtime?), training costs and such.

The Start

One of the most important parts of this program is just to get started. Do not let fear, lack of funding, etc. get in the way. You may not be able to make the program perfect, but having one operational as best as possible is often better than not addressing these issues. 

Secondly, look at your department. Create statistics for yourself. How many career members do you have? How many volunteers? And, yes, how many administrative personnel? Then work with your human resources agency or internally and develop related information as per how many staff you have lost per year for the last five years (it is important to see trends) and include any information you can from exit interviews and other factual documents that explain why they may have left (and yes this includes volunteers). By obtaining and reviewing this information, you should get some foundational information as to where to go next with this program. 


The work noted above informs you of why people have left your agency. Now we need to know what motivates your members for working and for staying. There are several methods for obtaining this information.
First, you may consider doing an anonymous survey. There are many online survey builders (I cannot tell you how many Survey Monkey surveys I have completed in my career). Build a survey and ask your staff questions such as:

  • What do you like about your job?
  • What is your career path?
  • What training would you like to see?

A second option is to find an indiscriminate process for building a focus group. Include staff and volunteers from all levels (i.e. chief officers, mid-level officers, senior firefighters, new recruits). Set up meeting times and encourage participation. Ask pointed questions including those noted above. Ensure that you stay on the topic, but let the participants take discussions in avenues that will provide information.

From either of these sources you should get information explaining why they do what they do, why they like what they do and what would make it better.

Now What?

Now that we have this information…what do we do with it? The information that you have should guide you as to what motivates your staff and what has led to members leaving.

If these are organizational items, then these are things that as administration we need to look and determine if the information provided is enough for us to make organizational changes.

An example of this would be if many former members stated that they felt they could not progress in the system. Take a second and look at your bylaws, standard operating guidelines or job descriptions. Are the requirements feasible and fair?

This could be determined by comparing it to other jurisdictions of similar size and makeup as well as to consider if the requirements are such that members have access to either through the department or through their own abilities. If they seem fair and accessible, then this probably isn’t why they left. If they are out of sync, find steps to be able to adjust to make it fairer.

What Else Can We Provide?

After looking at these items, we need to start looking at what else we can provide. As part of this program and process we need to look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Our members will have many different stated needs that you will determine in this process and others that will not be mentioned. Needs may include pay and self-actualization.

Then what can we provide to our members? Maybe if you can provide an avenue for a member to start a pet project within the department, give them the leeway. Maybe they need increased self-esteem so institute an “Atta-Boy” project where you inform others of good jobs when they are deserved (not just to do it). Try to be fair across the board, but remember not all members need just a paycheck and can be supported in various ways.

Remember, our members are our most valuable asset!

DAVID HESSELMEYER is a 17-year veteran of emergency services. He holds certifications as a firefighter, rescue technician, paramedic, instructor and Executive Emergency Manager. In addition, he earned a Masters of Public Administration from East Carolina University. Hesselmeyer is the owner of On Target Preparedness, LLC (OTP), which contracts with various agencies to assist in risk assessments, disaster plan writing, plan revision, exercise development, grant writing, etc. He currently serves with Buies Creek Fire Rescue and Harnett County EMS. He can be contacted at or visit his website at