RECRUITING & RETENTION: You Cannot Leave Them to Chance

Sept. 29, 2009
There is a crisis in many places today: Too few people are joining local volunteer fire departments and many of those who join do not stay.

There is a crisis in many places today: Too few people are joining local volunteer fire departments and many of those who join do not stay.

The majority of communities in the United States are protected by volunteer fire departments. Research from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) indicated that "777,350 of the 1,064,150 firefighters in the year 2000 were volunteers." New research data suggests that far fewer volunteer firefighters are available in our country today. This research by a nationally recognized fire service research association stresses the importance of volunteers to the delivery of fire services in the United States.

Should we be content with handling the surface problems that continually crop up or should we attack the root causes of this membership crisis as we do the important job of providing fire protection to our communities? If we are to do the best possible job of recruiting new members and retaining existing members, we must find out what is right — and wrong — with our fire departments.

Many old-time traditions have begun to go by the wayside. Respect for authority, pride in a job well done, honesty and loyalty seem to have become dusty relics of an earlier time. So too has the concept of community-spirited volunteer service. Parents do not have time to be volunteer coaches for Little League baseball, youth soccer or Pop Warner football teams. They will pay a fee rather than donate their time. Ask them why and they will cite a lack of time.

So it is in the fire service. Where once there were waiting lists to gain admission to the rolls of local volunteer fire departments, people now stay away in droves. After many years of research, I have concluded that society in general has drifted away from the concept of giving something back to the community for the privilege of being a community member. John Harris of Tennessee, my roommate during our time in the U.S. Air Force's Eielson Air Force Base Fire Department in Alaska, recently shared interesting research he obtained from a friend in the New South Wales Rural Fire Service in Australia. That agency has identified seven values believed to be the keys to all that goes on there. They are:

  • Mutual respect
  • Adaptability and resourcefulness
  • One team, many players, one purpose
  • Integrity and trust
  • Support, friendship and camaraderie
  • Community and environment
  • Knowledge and learning

What an excellent series of building blocks for organizational success. In fact, these are rules to consider adopting as part of your personal plan for dealing with other people. Let me suggest that you must first come to know your department. List its strengths and weaknesses, then build on the strengths and work to overcome the weaknesses. Do the same for your community. Once you have done this, you should work to know your people in the very same way.

As part of my scholarly research, I have studied the impact of leadership on member-retention rates in the volunteer fire service. Even though my research was focused on leadership, many more negative influences were identified. I grouped my findings into five distinct areas:

  • Leadership issues
  • Economic issues
  • Personal issues
  • Interpersonal issues
  • Organizational issues

It is my contention that recruiting and retention are separate and distinct issues, and that you must attack both. However, my experience and research lead me to believe that you must cure the problems in your organization in order to stem the outward movement of people. One of my advisors at Capella University laid out the perfect example: Would you rather pour water into a bucket that is leaking or patch the holes in the bucket that are letting the water leak out? Of course, it makes sense to patch the holes. In our case, this means fixing the problems that are driving people away. It serves no purpose to have a well-conceived recruiting program if the people are being asked to join a seriously flawed fire department.

Ask yourself three key questions:

  • Do you think that the volunteer fire service of the 21st century has lost sight of its role in society?
  • Is it possible that society has evolved away from the mindset of community service that allowed a town to support a volunteer fire service?
  • Is it a combination of these two?

Some people seem to celebrate the fact that the fire service does not change much, but then they continually gripe about staffing shortages and fail to do anything to battle their recruiting and retention problems. My research has pinpointed problem areas that must be identified and then addressed if your fire department is to enjoy future success. Let's look at the leadership issues.

  • Leaders create positive experiences
  • Leaders create negative experiences
  • Leaders fail to do anything
  • Leaders do not listen
  • Leaders play favorites
  • Leaders engage in petty behavior that punishes people with whom they do not like to work
  • Leaders make it known that they do not need anyone's help or advice on how to run the department

It is critical for you to work with your associates to identify the extent to which these problems exist within your fire department. You must then work as a group to extinguish the poor behaviors. Create a training and mentoring program whose object is the development of a future cadre of well-trained and qualified leaders.

Economic issues are tougher to address, since they are beyond the control of any individual fire department. These are societal issues that must be explored and attacked at the local government and community level. The following issues were identified during my research:

  • Members work multiple jobs to pay family expenses
  • Both parents work and are sharing child-care duties
  • Members cannot afford to live in the fire department's response area because of a lack of affordable housing
  • Certain members live too far away to be effective responders

It is possible that some of these problems can be attacked by forming partnerships within the local business community. Although it is not as easy as it once might have been, your fire department should explore the creation of partnerships with local employers, banks and real estate brokers. You should explore developing programs with the potential to let more people afford to live and work in your community. This is a time to be creative and pursue non-traditional approaches.

Certain issues are beyond the control of any individual or organization. These include:

  • The fire service ends up not being what the people who joined it thought it would be
  • Some people tried it and they just did not like it
  • Some left because it was too much work
  • Issues of aging
  • Physical conditioning issues
  • Department changes because of new members and older members leave
  • People age and then pass away

These are difficult to address because they are specific to the individual member. Others are just a natural part of life. However, you ignore their impact at your own peril.

There is another category within this area of the study that has much to do with an individual's perception of their 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." These are also difficult to deal with, but you must face them if you are to create a better organizational environment for your members. Perhaps a show of concern on your part or that of the leadership will go a long way toward helping out here. Other study respondents 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." Again, beyond your ability to control.

Another area of problem issues can be seen as going hand-in-hand with leadership problems. These are the inter-personal matters that are often allowed to continue without any leadership intervention. Personality clashes between members of the department. Personality clashes between members and leaders. Personality clashes between people in different positions of department leadership. Weak leaders who do nothing to bring conflicts to a just and proper conclusion that eliminates the problem can create really bad situations. These drive people away.

There is a final category of problem that also serves as a disincentive for people to maintain their membership. I refer to those organizational problems that go unaddressed by the people in positions of leadership. In some cases, a small group seizes control of the department and runs it like their personal social club.

In some places, chiefs change too often to suit the members. In other places, chiefs do not change often enough to suit the members. Some departments have too many rules. Some departments fail to have a sufficient number of rules. Some departments have no operational guidelines. Some fire departments make too many guidelines and thereby stifle initiative. It is up to the leadership in your department to assess the problems that you may be facing. You must achieve a balance that works for you.

Just how can you do this? Before you attempt to build a recruiting program, square away your fire department. Eliminate the negative influences and emphasize the positive aspects of organization. Emphasize retention before you consider the recruiting part of the puzzle. To do this properly, conduct an environmental scan of your fire department by looking at the internal issues facing your department and then looking at the external environmental factors.

You will be called on to study the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing your fire department. Form a committee of seven to nine members to perform this study. Include all age groups and member classifications. Ask for volunteers, as it is better to have people who want to be on the committee, and select people who like people.

Create the position of recruiting and retention officer. Once that person is selected, he or she will serve as the committee chair. What are some of the things you should look for in a potential recruiting and retention officer?

  • Team builder — Creates an organization wherein trust and concern for the members are the hallmarks of retention success.
  • Esteem builder — Develops ways for team members to grow within the organization through the combination of increasing responsibility and organizational support.
  • Communicator — Creates and shares a vision with all of the members of the organization.
  • Climate builder — Can make the work enjoyable and rewarding.
  • Flexibility expert — Adapts, overcomes and succeeds despite problems that emerge from time to time.
  • Talent developer and coach — Creates, develops and teaches teams members the importance of a team environment.
  • High-performance builder — Creates an environment wherein the members understand what to do and the importance of doing it well.
  • Retention expert — Works to develop knowledge of the field of retention and possesses the ability to apply that knowledge in a real-world environment.
  • Retention monitor — Has the skills to identify and measure possible problems and the means to overcome them.
  • Talent finder — Works to look for that next great team member.

Once the committee has been put in place, members must be trained in the manner of performing a proper marketing study of your fire department.

Once you know the internal and external environment wherein you are operating, it is critical for you to define your product. How can you properly sell something if you cannot tell prospective customers what it is you are offering to them? Once you have the answers to these environmental plans, you can create your recruiting plan.

The following are some elements of a marketing plan that I developed for the Hershey Volunteer Fire Company in Derry Township, PA:

  • Development of recruiting criteria (What do you want to see and do for your organization?)
  • Development of retention criteria (What do you want to see and do for your organization?)
  • Creation of a list of the strengths that your organization has to offer to prospective members
  • Media campaign (radio, TV, print and the Internet)
  • Person-to-person contact
  • Focus groups to create an understanding of people's perceptions about the volunteer fire service
  • Focus groups of volunteer firefighters to create an understanding of people's perceptions about their own role in the volunteer fire service

Once the plan has been created, you must put it into play. Hold monthly recruiting and retention committee meetings. Stay on top of recruiting, and be ready to accept and train new members. Always be on the lookout for new members. Support and encourage people when they step forward to join with you.

How can you tell whether your marketing plan is succeeding? You will see an increase in contacts with the public. You will see an increase in the number of people joining and in the number of firefighters being trained by state and county fire training centers in your region. If you are really good at what you do, you will see an increase in the number of media stories covering the volunteer fire service.

Stay abreast of leadership issues in your department. Continue to make contacts within the economic sector in your community. Monitor personal and interpersonal relationships in your department.

Studies by the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) speak to the fact that volunteers are a resource that must be nurtured and supported. It is my belief that there is still time to strengthen our volunteer fire service and forestall its continuing decline before it launches itself into a downward membership spiral from which it can never recover.

DR. 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. Dr. Carter is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Currently 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 vice president of the American Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers (MIFireE). He recently published Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip, which was also the subject of a blog. He may be contacted at [email protected].

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