Three of the country's leading fire service veterans put their expertise into seminars on volunteer department issues at the 2006 Firehouse Expo in Baltimore. Upon documenting the challenges that volunteer fire departments face today, the discussion leaders offered strategies to improve the operations of these units with a focus on recruitment and retention.
The speakers were former Newark, New Jersey Battalion Commander and Firehouse.com contributor, Harry Carter; Chief of the Hanover Fire/EMS Training and Quality Assurance Division, Eddie Buchanan and former King of Prussia, Pennsylvania Fire Chief and Firehouse.com contributor, William Jenaway.
Buchanan began by offering a de facto state of the union for volunteer departments. Citing Research (PDF File) from the National Volunteer Fire Council [NVFC], he said that volunteers comprise 73 percent of firefighters in the United States. Furthermore, over two-thirds of the 30,000-plus U.S. departments are entirely volunteer -- with all but approximately 2,000 having some volunteers.
Volunteer ranks have declined by about 10 percent since 1983. At the same time, the calls have risen by about 60 percent, thereby requiring more time from volunteers. Despite this increase, the number of fires has decreased; which although good for public safety, means fewer opportunities for training, said Buchanan.
The research also shows that the average department must invest one thousand dollars to retain one volunteer per year. Volunteers on average stay on board for four years, which has caused shortfalls in the ranks of experienced personnel. Many volunteers also join as a stepping stone to full-time employment, thereby limiting the combined experience of these department members.
Furthermore, 75 percent of volunteer departments cannot communicate with other public safety agencies, 67 percent of volunteers operate without self contained breathing apparatus, and 89 percent are unprepared to handle a rescue procedure in which a structure building with at least fifty people collapses. Buchanan believed that with the threat of terrorism and natural disasters, the latter statistic was highly relevant even in rural areas.
In addition, services by volunteers save local municipalities an estimated $37.2 billion per year -- a statistic Buchanan said was a bargaining chip in legislative negotiations regarding funding and benefits. A few of the attendees encouraged people to make use of the 'cost savings calculator' available for download off the NVFC site.
Time followed by department culture are the biggest obstacles in attracting and retaining volunteers, said William Jenaway at his seminar in referencing the findings of Public Safety and Environmental Protection Institute at St. Joseph's University. Consequently, the most effective solutions for recruitment will address the public's shortage of time and attitudes toward the volunteer fire service.
Time shortages, said each seminar leader, emanate from the public's lifestyle dynamics. People work long hours. Those who do volunteer for something often prefer to do so for causes that do not require the physical demands, time commitment and training that are necessary to be a firefighter. Furthermore, people can be dissuaded to join because they wish not or cannot leave work at a moment's notice to fight fires, or because they fear death or injury. Shortages in equipment also require volunteers to spend time fundraising, which takes time away from training and in-house assistance.
Culture problems, meanwhile. are rooted in the tradition of volunteer departments being operated as inflexible, fraternally-oriented hierarchies rather than as meritocracies. This inhibits efforts to recruit because departments too closely resemble cliques; it inhibits retention efforts because promotions and demotions can be issued capriciously, and it harms the performance of departments because there is no premium placed on knowledge or reforming fire fighting strategies and internal policies.
Regarding non-staffing issues such as interoperability and preparation for large disasters, Buchanan argued that the federal government has made strides in addressing the concerns, but that much more work needs to be done. He argued that all elected leaders claim to support firefighters at politically prudent times only to have short-term memories.
The seminar leaders offered strategies to combat the declining ranks of volunteers, and to promote enhanced leadership within departments. Specifically, Buchanan referenced the recommendations of The Blue Ribbon Report (PDF File) authored by the Volunteer & Combination Officers' Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
For example, an accountant might assist in managing a department's finances. A retiree may perform time consuming in-house functions.
Accepting non-firefighting volunteers can also open departments to networking -- the benefits of which are manifold. Fostering a relationship with a local real estate entity, for example, can aid a department secure affordable housing for its volunteers. Ties to local business can secure jobs. A dialogue with elected leaders may give workers the flexibility to respond to emergency calls without fear of reprimand, or on a more ambitious scale, could influence a government official on department funding and volunteer benefits matters.
"This is not a time for doing what you always did," said Carter, urging creativity.
The key to devising good benefits is "knowing what is wanted", said Jenaway. Providing free room-and-board for college or offering discounts on gasoline were referenced as two examples that departments have successfully employed to attract the "16-25 age group". Retirement benefits, in contrast, could be used as a carrot for more mature prospects.
The Blue Ribbon Report offers government methods that can aid in recruitment and retention. Federal recommendations include creating national job protection for volunteers, and funding the SAFER and FIRE acts. On the state level, benefit plans could be created for volunteers and their families in case there is a line of duty death, and regional and statewide recruitment campaigns may be established. An itemized list of recommendation can be found within the report.
An effective advertising campaign bolsters the department's public image -- a point highlighted by Jenaway who said that word of mouth was the best way to foster interest in joining among the public. He encouraged stations to leave their front doors open and allow charity events and political gatherings to be held to generate goodwill (in addition to providing networking opportunities.) Creative posters, billboards, public television and even good truck maintenance can also grab people's attention. Picnics, comedy nights, and Christmas parties can promote good experiences among volunteers, thereby bolstering retention and creating a social incentive for prospective members.
Inhibiting the capability for departments to attract and retain members is bad leadership, or departments being "led by dumbasses" said Carter more colorfully. "Leaders say they don't need anyone's help or advice in the fire department… Those people run others away [by resisting change]."
Both he and Buchanan urged department leaders to challenge the status quo and instill a merit based system of promotion in place of an electoral method in which staff may be offended when management decisions are rooted in politicking. While acknowledging the difficulty in setting forth such sweeping change, Buchanan nonetheless said, "A business model should replace the social fraternal model in the volunteer system."
Carter echoed this philosophy, and believed that 'officer candidate programs' should be established so that the wisdom of veterans is imparted among future leaders improving efficiency, and a family environment is instilled that aids recruitment and retention. Within these programs, a central method of leadership training would be made available to all, and only seriously dedicated candidates would garner promotions. The system would also mandate continuing education and training requirements for leaders.
In addition, each speaker emphasized that chiefs must listen; treat members as individuals, and praise and promote participation, thereby applying the same business model private sector employers use to retain staff. Positively reinforcing volunteers also can be effective. Despite external incentives, "Often what volunteers want is a pat on the back," Jenaway said.