The Decline and Fall of the Volunteer Fire Service?

Feb. 1, 2006

Many decades ago, Edward Gibbon wrote a lengthy treatise on the collapse of the Roman Empire. His work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, portrayed the sad tale of how a mighty empire fell from the heights of civilized success. While this was a tough series of books to write, Gibbon had the benefit of hindsight and recorded history to guide him along the way on his literary journey.

It was Gibbon's finding that the empire declined because of variety of changes, some internally driven, others forced on it by outside forces. However, the reasons that caught my attention involved the nature of its leaders and the actions of the people being governed. Gibbon spoke of a group of people who lost sight of their role as citizens, with its attendant duties and responsibilities.

My friends, this is tough for me to write. Throughout my years as a volunteer firefighter, I've seen changes that have worked against the ability of volunteer fire departments to survive. It should be noted that there are those who cheer anytime a volunteer fire department falls on hard times. I am not among that throng.

Unlike Gibbon, I am creating a written record of events as they have unfolded during my life and career. I am not writing an epitaph. Rather, I am writing this in an attempt to raise the fire service's awareness of things that are capable of killing us from within. It is my belief that there is still time to strengthen our volunteer fire service and forestall its continuing decline before it launches into downward spiral from which it can never recover.

That is the reason for my doctoral research and that is the motivation behind a great deal of my writing. I do not want to have to write a post mortem of the fire service, such as Gibbon did for the Roman Empire. It is my opinion that we have people within the current generation of leaders who fail to recognize the importance of their role in organizational success.

My experiences indicate to me that people can be driven away from a volunteer fire department by a bad leader. I wanted to study whether my experience had a wider impact. To that end, I asked to post a question of mine in the website's Fire Poll area:

Have you ever seen a leader of your fire-EMS department drive members away as a result of their leadership style?

The question did not differentiate between career and volunteer agencies, but the size of the negative response surprised me. It also indicated that I was on to something important.

Let me set the record straight from the beginning. I am a strong supporter and encourager of the concept of voluntary community service. There are those who volunteer as Little League and soccer coaches. There are those who work for the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts or the Salvation Army. I have been active in volunteer emergency services since my junior year in high school, dating back to 1964. During the past four decades, I have witnessed a number of changes in our volunteer fire service. Much like the case of the Roman Empire, a number of these changes were driven by external forces. Other changes were of a more subtle internal nature, and in some ways mirrored the changes in society that all of us have seen and felt. Sadly, we did not always respond to these forces.

I have worked to address these issues in my writing and in my lecturing, but I felt that more was needed, that something had to be done to amplify the problem and let us all work toward creating solutions. The outlet for my energy came from the world of my academic endeavors. I went to work to identify those aspects of knowledge and experience that could point me in the direction of creating a set of solutions to our growing volunteer recruiting and retention problems.

Recently, I completed a doctoral degree in organization and management in the Business and Information Technology School at Capella University in Minneapolis. My degree specialization is in organizational leadership. The topic of my research and dissertation is "Member Retention in the Volunteer Fire Service: An Analysis of the Impact of Leadership." My study was structured to examine the issue of member retention in the volunteer fire service. My study identified a number of influences that were determined to have a negative impact on an individual's decision to continue his or her organizational membership.

I also found out that there was a limited amount of information in the academic world on recruiting and retaining members for voluntary service in the fire world. In the end, this study identified five major areas of negative impact within the volunteer fire service. In the final chapter of the dissertation, I recommended corrective actions to address each problem area.

After a year of research and data collection, I determined that leadership is a critical element in the volunteer fire service retention equation. Every one of my research study participants alluded to some level of leadership problems in their organization. Each also mentioned members leaving their departments for reasons that were in some ways connected to organizational leadership. This is an issue of critical importance to our entire country.

Most communities in the U.S. are protected by volunteer fire departments. Research from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) indicates that "777,350 of the 1,064,150 firefighters in the year 2000 were volunteers." This stressed the importance of volunteers to the delivery of fire services in the U.S.

Studies by the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) speak to the fact that volunteers are a resource that must be nurtured and supported. Their study indicated that no fire department can survive or function without adequate staffing. This is a fact that should be evident to every one of us. I have long held the opinion that one of the most important responsibilities of volunteer fire departments is recruiting and retaining sufficient numbers of qualified firefighters to provide the required services. Thus it was that I wanted to do a recruiting and retention study. However, my advisors at the university wanted me to narrow the focus for my study. Therefore, I purposely steered clear of the issue of recruiting, as it is a separate and distinct phenomenon.

At one of my university residential sessions in Virginia, I met Dr. John Latham. During our discussions regarding my proposed dissertation topic, he noted that one way to portray the problems I would be facing in studying recruitment and retention was to find a way to present my problem in a simple and easily understood manner. He suggested that there was an analogy that could explain why my study should be limited to one aspect or the other.

Since the issue of declining membership was my primary focus, he offered the thought that it might be helpful to portray the fire service as a leaking water bucket, with the loss of members being represented as the water leaking from the bucket. He suggested that there were two ways to approach this problem. The leaking bucket could be patched, thus stemming the loss of resources, or the bucket could be placed under a spigot (of newly recruited members) thus filling it with more water (members) who would leak out of the bucket where it not patched.

Dr. Latham then asked me which approach made more sense. It seemed to me that it made more sense to patch the bucket. So that is the approach I took to developing my study. These are the basic questions that drove my research:

The responses generated by each question formed one part of the overall answer to the overhead question involving the impact of leadership upon retention in the volunteer fire service. The necessary practical problem in this case involves finding ways to stem the growing shortage of personnel in the American volunteer fire service. My dissertation study sought to ascertain the magnitude of the impact of leadership on retention in the volunteer fire service within the confines of the selected population and sample.

The population for this survey was limited to volunteer firefighters in Monmouth County, NJ. Initial research indicated a population of approximately 1,000 volunteer firefighters in the county. This population was selected for the following reasons:

I felt that questioning all 1,000 members was not feasible, so a sample was selected from within the population. Parameters were developed to create a target sample. These parameters include a mix of department size and years of service, rank and gender of participants. Participants were selected according to the following delimiting qualifications:

2. Each possesses a minimum of 10 years of experience. This allowed for the interviews to be conducted with people who have seen a number of different leaders at work in their organization, and served as leaders themselves. This provided a better, long-term perspective over time. It might be that certain issues which could have been mistaken for poor leadership were merely misunderstandings of departmental operations and procedures by less experienced people.

3. Must be or have been a chief-level officer within a department of more than 25 members. This provided opinions based on scenarios wherein a variety of individual personalities must be dealt with. This allowed for participants to have seen a wider range of experiences from which to draw for their responses.

Many researchers have laid the need for improved retention efforts at the feet of the leader. This research study assessed the experiences of the study participants as they impact the issues of leadership and retention in the volunteer fire service. Over a lengthy period, I met with 27 individuals who were members of the targeted population and who met the criteria for being in my sample. In addition to conducting an in-person interview with each, I administered a validated survey instrument that assessed their individual leadership style.

For reasons of confidentiality, I will not go into the actual quotations that formed the basis of my findings. However, there were some really candid comments on the state of leadership within the subject population sample. Each participant indicated that to some extent member retention was a critical issue for the organization.

They went on to provide me with a rough list of 47 individual observations on matters of a leadership-related nature. Rather than list the 47 responses, many of which duplicated each other over the course of the study, I will list five overall categories that encompass all of the comments:

The list portrays the range of issues and made me aware of the all-encompassing nature of the problems faced by leaders in the volunteer fire service. Let's look at each area:

Leadership issues. In order to structure the delivery of the data, it was necessary to further delineate the data generated by the respondents. This allows for a more straightforward delivery of the data provided by the interview subjects. The following classifications were created for leader-related issues:

A number of individuals spoke about the importance of creating an enjoyable organizational experience. It makes sense to create an environment wherein people become enthused and find reasons to be with their peers at the fire station. How many chiefs do you know who pay no attention to this? Maybe that is why we are experiencing problems with retention.

Economic issues. A number of respondents said they had seen people leave their volunteer fire organizations for economic purposes. This is problematic given the economic status of the area wherein this study was conducted. Monmouth County is a high-cost, high-growth area. Statistics available from the county indicate a median household income of $64,271, well above the national average of $41,994. Further, there has been a net decrease in employment within the subject county. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there has been a 1.9% drop in employment in the county over the past several years.

One respondent suggested that economic issues were a member-retention problem because "jobs dictate that they (people) have to go where they work." Another aspect of the economic issue involves that fact that many respondents spoke of encountering situations where two-income households were the norm. Here are some comments regarding the difficulties encountered in the economic arena within the study population sample:

Interpersonal issues. The issue of relationships between individuals was identified a number of times. One reason given for members leaving volunteer fire organizations involved disputes between individuals. In some cases, the disagreements were between members. One simple statement about this aspect of the issues was provided by a survey participant who stated, "Sometimes it's a conflict of personalities that clash."

In another case, the dispute was between a member and the leader. Given the manner in which the survey participant mentioned this dispute, it seemed more appropriate to discuss in the area involving interpersonal issues. While the root cause might have been a leader-related issue, the manner in which the topic was presented by the respondent indicated that it was more interpersonal than leader-oriented.

Personal issues. There was a whole class of responses that had more to do with the individual members of the volunteer fire organization themselves than with the other people around them, the organization, their leaders or the general economic conditions in the area of the study. The comments of this type seemed to address elements of an individual nature that were within the control of people themselves, or only affected an individual. In other cases, the comments made reference to individual physical and chronological factors that are common to everyone in society.

The first classification of comments dealt with people who entered the volunteer fire service, then left when it did not meet their needs or expectations. This sentiment was encountered in many of the interviews:

There is another category that has much to do with an individual's perception of his or her ability to perform the duties of a volunteer firefighter. In some cases, the reference was to matters of a physical nature, while others made reference to mental concepts. One study participant stated that some (members) left because they "couldn't cut it, they weren't able to do the job." Others stated that people left because "with a lot of individual personalities you find people who cannot adapt ... Some people cannot take orders, so they leave." Another respondent noted that "there are some [people] who decided that they did not want to be team players and left."

There is another substrate within this category that speaks to matters beyond the control of anyone: health, aging and personal well-being. One participant noted that a "number of members just drifted away because of their age." Another participant commented that others left because "they felt they could no longer do the job."

Lastly, there were those comments made by the respondents which made reference to people who left their volunteer fire organizations because they felt that the group had changed in ways that disturbed them. One study participant noted that they had seen people leave because those people perceived in their minds that "the department changed."

Another participant noted, "Some members have left because of the change in the traditions of their department." Cross-generational issues seemed to also fall into this area. One study participant noted, "A lot of the younger kids aren't ready to deal with the commitment. They might not be able to deal with the fact that the department is a tight-knit family." Perhaps a skilled and sensitive leader can recognize ways to create solutions to these personal problems. (Let me know when you solve the one about aging.)

Organizational issues. Organizations can create problems that drive people away. We all like to think that organizations care about their members, but this may not always be true. Many times, a small group of people seize control of an organization and begin to drive it in a personally selfish direction.

The fire departments in my population change fire chiefs frequently. This creates, I believe, a built-in level of turmoil. Although it is tough to change the constitution and bylaws of an organization, the operational guidelines can change at the whim of a newly-elected chief. Since a number of the subject organizations change chiefs on a yearly basis, the potential for upheaval is great.

Additionally, my research identified a fact that I myself had previously overlooked. Perhaps it is the democratic nature of volunteer organizations that fosters turmoil that turns some people off and generates a desire to leave. These people then vote with their feet. Thus, we lose them.

Next: Recommendations

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE is a Firehouse contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is the former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. He is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Currently the chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners for Howell Township District 2, he retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is secretary of the United States Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (MIFireE). You can contact him through at [email protected].

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!