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.