Help Wanted!

Oct. 1, 2007
Barry Furey discusses recruitment and retention problems in volunteer department staffing.

Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?" was a popular peace maxim of the 1960s that made its way into songs and onto billboards and T-shirts. However, in the 21st century, an unpopular thought for many volunteer fire departments might more appropriately be, "Suppose they had a fire and nobody came?" because in some communities this is a very real possibility every time the siren sounds or pagers chirp.

Since volunteer firefighters protect more than 95% of the smaller towns and villages in the United States, the problem is certainly almost universal. In 2005, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) estimated that there were approximately 823,350 individuals donating their time to protect the public. While this seems like a significant number, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), it was more than 60,000 less than the work force just two decades before.

According to an article in USA Today, also published in 2005, some regions are extremely hard hit by this reduction. By their estimates, New York State has lost 31% of its volunteers and Pennsylvania a whopping 76%. Still, firefighter shortages are far from isolated. In many cases, they are truly global issues. For example, the New Zealand Fire Authority has a page on its website dedicated solely to volunteer recruitment, and in the early 1990s the author witnessed appeals for new members posted outside rural fire brigade stations in Australia.

There have been numerous reasons given for the continuing decline in our ranks. Child-care and available-time issues relating to single-parent and two-job households, increasingly longer commute times in white-collar communities, employers that no longer let workers respond to calls and lack of affordable housing are all among the prime suspects. For the first time, more Americans live in cities than in rural areas, meaning that the formerly available workforce may not even be there anymore. Add to that an ever growing list of additional required training such as the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and blood-borne pathogens on top of what each state may mandate, and a seemingly dwindling number of fires in comparison to the number of automatic false alarms, and you have a hard time keeping those you do get.

In June 2007, the USFA and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) released the second edition of Retention and Recruitment for the Volunteer Emergency Services: Challenges and Solutions. "Retention and recruitment remains a challenge for our volunteer fire and emergency medical services," NVFC Chairman Philip C. Stittleburg said.

While this may be stating the obvious, less obvious are the most effective ways to ensure adequate volunteer staffing. Let's take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of this pressing issue.

In Rockland County, NY, 20 miles northwest of New York City, all fire companies remain strictly volunteer. To a large extent, ranks are filled by off-duty members of area career departments and by firefighting families who have carried out the tradition for generations. Still, staffing is a concern. The median house value is rapidly approaching $500,000, and a study conducted by the Tax Foundation rated Rockland as number six in the nation for highest property tax burden. The county is still largely a bedroom community, and as is the case with many other similar towns and villages, people are moving even "farther out" in an effort to trade driving time for a lower cost of living.

Recognizing this, many communities are considering subsidizing housing for volunteers. In many cases, this applies to both fire department and ambulance corps members, since EMS has a mix of paid paramedics and volunteers. In 2004, the Town of Orangetown in Rockland County obtained homes on former state land to use for this purpose. Although not without cost, statements made at the time estimated that the annual expenditure is about 15% of what it would require to support career employees. Because the income levels for eligibility conform to federal guidelines for assistance, it does place a limitation on availability. However, college towns have long known the value of providing housing for volunteers, with several allocating bunk space in their quarters for student firefighters.

Reasonable entry requirements also play a part in attracting staffing. When the author joined the fire service in 1970, there was a particularly onerous practice called "black balling" whereby a single negative vote could be sufficient to deny someone membership. Although not in practice in that department, there were still individuals who voted against any new member on the grounds that if anyone were ever denied and appealed, it could be shown that nobody — even relatives of current members — got in automatically. I am not sure that this mindset still exists, but if so, it is probably best summed up by Groucho Marx when he said, "I won't belong to any organization that would have me as a member."

Still, there are plenty of practices that make it difficult — if not impossible — for many prospective firefighters to join, or at least seriously discourage their interest. One of these impediments is the membership cap or waiting list. While there may be some situations where insurance coverage may be limited to a set number of people, a more simple solution would seem to be to extend the policy. Granted, some rural agencies scrape for every penny, but free labor is the essence of any volunteer organization, and few expenditures would seem to be more important. However, some of these limitations may also be carried over as legacy regulations that once made sense, but are now outdated. A search of municipal ledgers would reveal similar "requirements" about the need for homeowners to maintain a supply of stout buckets, hay hooks and other devices that were once required to ensure safety from fire. Whatever the reason, a department that limits its membership — especially one that does not enforce minimum standards on its current roster — is limiting its future.

Stipulations regarding residence can also be points of contention. While no one benefits from firefighters who have outrageously long responses, there is also no benefit in denying membership based on extraordinary rules. Some agencies require that a firefighter must reside in the district; no ifs, ands or buts. This immediately rules out two viable candidates — the individual who resides in an adjoining district yet reasonably close to the station and the person who is employed in the district. Losing the latter may be particularly costly because he or she may be available to respond during the day when staffing is critical.

Another restrictive aspect of residency requirements concerns length of residence. Although it is understandable that agencies desire members who are committed to the community before providing extensive training, it is difficult to determine the minimum number of months or years that people must live in an area before they may be considered permanent residents.

Thought should also be given as to the total skills and talents needed by the organization. While structural firefighters are doubtless the most attractive targets, there may also be need for emergency medical technicians, drivers, public educators, mechanics and clerical staff. Be open to all. If your organization is serious about growing, perhaps the first person recruited should be a marketing guru or website wizard. After all, your goal should be to put your department out there in the most professional manner possible.

And "putting yourself out there" requires an advertising campaign that alerts your community to the facts that their fire protection is provided by volunteers and that help is wanted. Chances are, there are residents that are unaware of these facts, and are similarly ignorant of the fact that they can actually help. When rural and suburban America was less transient, word of mouth and tradition carried the recruiting message. Although your current members are still your best ambassadors, it is virtually impossible for a single strategy to reach everyone.

To this end, a variety of low-tech options are available at minimal cost. These include message boards outside the station, and even lettering on the rigs. After all, fire engines still draw a crowd. Why not use them as a recruiting tool? Billboards can also be used to get attention. Some vendors may even donate locations or reduce costs as a gesture of good will. Charges will probably still apply for the design and installation of your message.

Obviously, the media can be put to good use in attracting volunteers. Develop a working relationship with the local press. Try to come up with interesting and unique ways of delivering the facts. Inviting a reporter to participate in training is one of many good ways to garner attention. Be careful, too, not to narrow your definition of media. On a smaller scale, local "shopper" newspapers have a fairly geographically focused distribution and are frequently looking for stories. They can be a valuable ally in hitting your target audience. On a broader scope, the State of North Carolina regularly runs public service announcements (PSAs) recruiting volunteer firefighters. Cooperation on a state or regional level can effectively increase visibility when local departments have insufficient resources to support an all-out marketing blitz.

Of course, in the 21st century, no marketing campaign is complete without an Internet component. Utilizing the World Wide Web has several facets. One is the creation of a personal page for your department, and making sure that it is registered with the more popular search engines. "Meta-tags" should be added to point visitors to your site based on entered keywords. If your intention is to use your site to recruit, then words and phrases that relate to this need should be included. The cost of domain names (the name of your website, such as and hosting services (the firm that maintains your files on their server) have become increasingly reasonable over time, and are now in reach of most departments. Free hosting services also still exist, if you are willing to deal with advertisements and occasionally sluggish performance.

Another means of working the Web is to utilize specific job sites to assist in recruiting. These range from public safety-specific services to broad-based employment pages. Some even deal exclusively with volunteer organizations, The cost can differ significantly, but by shopping around, bargains can be found.

Finally, steps should also be taken to retain those viable members that you already have. A trained firefighter is always difficult to replace. With regard to retention, if your focus is on increasing daytime response, then activities such as training must also be tailored to daytime availability. Establishing mandatory quotas or requirements that can be met only through evening attendance will quickly decimate these ranks. Consider alternate means of education, where possible, such as computer-guided exercises and online certifications. After all, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and many other agencies have long used this strategy to serve first responders. Obviously, this does not work for practical skills, so these drills must be scheduled at a convenient time. However, banding together with your neighboring departments can reduce the overhead for providing these additional exercises. Mutual aid has its place in more than just responding.

While some states now offer pensions to volunteers, even monetary incentives may have limited benefits. According to a study carried out by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania last year, "Chiefs said that while financial incentives of some kind are most helpful, they alone are not the reason volunteers come to or stay with a fire company. The sense of giving back to a community, the camaraderie and the feeling that their work is appreciated are all factors contributing to successful recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters."

With that in mind, Firehouse® is asking you to share your best practices with others. What works for you? What doesn't? And, what would you try if you had the money and the time? If you have a success story or just some neighborly advice that might interest our readers, drop me a line at [email protected], and we'll assemble these suggestions for a future issue. Until then, hopefully some of the strategies presented here will help you fill your ranks.

BARRY FUREY, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is director of the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center in North Carolina. During his 35-year public safety career, he has managed 911 centers and served as a volunteer fire officer in three other states. In 2002, Furey chaired the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) International conference in Nashville, TN, and in 2005 he received an APCO life membership for his continued work in emergency communications.

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