Volunteer Roundtable: Recruiting & Retention

May 1, 2006
The two-part Command Post series "The Decline and Fall of the Volunteer Fire Service?" by Contributing Editor Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., in the February and March issues of Firehouse generated much reaction from volunteer fire chiefs, company officers and firefighters. We asked a sampling of them to participate in a roundtable discussion of recruitment and retention issues.

The two-part Command Post series “The Decline and Fall of the Volunteer Fire Service?†by Contributing Editor Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., in the February and March issues of Firehouse® Magazine generated much reaction from volunteer fire chiefs, company officers and firefighters. We asked a sampling of them to participate in a roundtable discussion of recruitment and retention issues. The discussion centered on whether their fire departments have problems recruiting new members and retaining existing members, innovative ways in which they have tried to correct these problems, and whether they see the situation getting better or worse in the future.

Timothy S. Wall is chief of the North Farms Volunteer Fire Department in Wallingford, CT, and has over 20 years of volunteer fire service. Wall is chairman of the Volunteer and Combination Officers Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and a member of the Connecticut Fire Chiefs’ Association recruiting and retention committee.

Firehouse: Does your fire department have a problem recruiting new members?
Wall: No, not a problem, but a challenge. It is something that a recruiting committee works on every year.

Firehouse: Why is this?
Wall: I think that a lack of communication or informing the community that you need new members and maybe the department doesn’t recognize you need new members.

Firehouse: Does your fire department have a problem retaining existing members? Why is this?
Wall: I would say not a problem, but it goes with the territory of recruiting. Some move on because it is not for them, different jobs or they get hired somewhere else. The key point is to recognize if many are leaving. You have to find out why – is it your requirements, the leadership of the department, is it what your department provides to the members?

Firehouse: What innovative ways have you tried to correct these problems?
Wall: Starting with the officers and your recruiting committee to improve leadership and having organized recruiting drives with a group effort from external and internal members. Coordination of your training classes, whether Fire 1, EMR, MRT coexist with your recruiting efforts. Your department should show leadership, professionalism and encourage that you need new members. When they come on board, help them with their education and make them feel welcome. Establish a Length of Service Awards Program (LOSAP) or tax abatement for your existing members along with significant and proper insurance coverage. Reward them for their success; i.e., uniforms, department T-shirts, etc.

Firehouse: Do you see things getting better or worse in the future?
Wall: I’ll take this one case by case, for your department is what you make it. The challenge is making individuals welcome and making sure that their time is not wasted for them. Today’s officer has to be proactive in understanding the needs of the recruit. I believe people will volunteer if you tell them they are needed in their community and you reward them for what they do for their community. It is a problem if you ignore it. If your department is proactive and has a recruiting plan and marketing plan, this will ensure that you have flow of new recruits.

John J. Cudo is a 32-year member of Taylor, PA, Hose & Engine Company 1, where he has been assistant fire chief, trustee, recording secretary, president and vice president. He is a member of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Volunteer Fireman’s Federation and Pennsylvania State Fireman’s Association. Cudo served for 23 years as volunteer emergency management coordinator for the Borough of Taylor, 10 years as a volunteer deputy director of the Lackawanna County Emergency Management Agency and 10 years as a volunteer on the Lackawanna County Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC). He also has worked as a seasonal forest fire patrolman for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Firehouse: Does your fire department have a problem recruiting new members?
Cudo: Yes.

Firehouse: Why is this?
Cudo: We do not do enough public relations. No one wants to do this function. No one wants to talk to the news media.

Firehouse: Does your fire department have a problem retaining existing members?
Cudo: Yes!

Firehouse: Why is this?
Cudo: A point system was put in place to keep only those who were actively involved with firefighting, training and fundraising. Unfortunately, this pushed out more members than it was trying to retain. A lot of comments were, “I volunteer what I can, when I can and no one is going to make me do anything I do not want to do.â€

Another problem is that we get young people out of high school, then we lose them if they go to college, get married and have children. Some of them migrate back after their children have grown up, but by the time they get back to us all the training and regulations have changed and they have to go through the new basic training requirements again, and a lot do not want to go through all that again.

The enormous amount of training requirements and fundraising efforts (our municipality does not fully fund our fire department) takes its toll on a lot of people who cannot devote the time because of their full-time jobs and family priorities.

Firehouse: What innovative ways have you tried to correct these problems?
Cudo: In the area of recruitment, we’ve opened up our membership beyond the confines of our small town to a radius that encompasses all of our neighboring municipalities, including the City of Scranton, PA, which has a paid fire department.

Firehouse: Do you see things getting better or worse in the future?
Cudo: Probably worse. We’re struggling to survive. It’s hard to be a volunteer. And we are to blame for our mismanagement of everything a volunteer fire department is to be. Quoting the comic strip character Pogo, “I have seen the enemy, and it is us!†– administrative and line officers should take the USFA course titled “Volunteer Fire Services Management†to get a better understanding on how to manage people and how to do public relations.

There should be different classes of membership instead of only active and social. There should be professional memberships for persons who want to help using their work skills (CPA, secretarial, legal, culinary, etc.), but do not want to perform firefighting activities and give these persons equal voting privileges as the ones given to active members. Municipalities should fully fund their volunteer fire departments so they can have more training and response time and not worry about fundraising time.

Many other volunteer service-orientated organizations are feeling the pinch of fewer members. When I joined our volunteer fire company in 1974, I was lucky to get in because the active membership limit was at its capacity of 125 members and the social membership was at its maximum of 75 members; the guys after me had been put on a waiting list. This isn’t the case now.

But all this reverts back on good management skills: How does one obtain good management skills? By taking management courses. If the volunteer fire department is to survive, someone is going to have to get some education on non-fire management.

Bill Pickett recently retired after 20-plus years of service with the Mountain View Fire District in Colorado. He currently works as a public safety officer for a major defense contractor in the Denver area.

Firehouse: Does your fire department have a problem recruiting new members?
Pickett: Recruiting is starting to become an issue with us. Our numbers have always had their ups and downs, but it seems that recently the trend has been downward.

Firehouse: Why is this?
Pickett: The demographics of our area have changed very dramatically in the last several years. Most of the farm and range land has been developed into unincorporated, yet upscale, bedroom communities. Many prospective recruits commute two to three hours per day on top of a 10- or 12-hour shift and just do not have the time. However, an even more disturbing trend that I am seeing is a thought process that says, “When I dial 911, someone will show up. After all, I pay taxes for emergency services and I shouldn’t have to volunteer to do this potentially dangerous work that I pay to have done for me.â€

Firehouse: Does your fire department have a problem retaining existing members?
Pickett: Retention has always been a problem, but more so now.

Firehouse: Why is this?
Pickett: Again, I think time is the biggest factor. Once folks get through the academy and find out just what all is involved in providing services to their community, they run into a conflict with work or family life, or both. A core of potential volunteers is also going almost untapped – those that work second or third shifts. Many of these folks would love to support their communities, but are unable to when they find that they must meet minimum training requirements and the only training meetings are Wednesday at 1900 hours. They simply can’t take time away from work during this time frame.

Very few employers in this area support volunteer firefighters, even if their business is protected by a volunteer agency. Again, “call 911 and someone will show up.†Also, I don’t see the family involvement in volunteer organizations here that is commonplace elsewhere; therefore, the fire department becomes a second job, with no corresponding income, and that further deepens the family detachment.

Another trend hampering volunteer retention is the move toward combination, and eventually, fully paid departments. Once volunteer recruitment declines, the easy way to staff a department is to start hiring paid crews. (Notice I said “easy,†not cost effective.) Once the paid members “take over†a house, the volunteers start to feel as outsiders in what once was their domain. They get to fewer and fewer calls and their skills start to decline. Decline in skills and the chances to use them equate to a decline in morale, and once that happens the members just drift away. Departmental administrators don’t mind this, as they find it is easier to control employees who have to be there to earn a paycheck versus volunteers who are there because they want to be and are not held by the need for income.

Firehouse: What innovative ways have you tried to correct these problems?
Pickett: My department, along with many others in the area, is moving away from the more traditional respond-from-home volunteer to what we call “reserve firefighters.†Reserves are still very much volunteers, the differences being that there is no residency requirement and the reserves sign up for and work shifts the same as career firefighters, the minimum requirements being 36 to 48 hours per month on duty (minimum increments vary by agency from four to 12 hours at a time) with training being conducted on shift. This approach not only gives us coverage in stations that have not been staffed by paid members, it gives younger members aspiring to career positions a chance to see if the job is indeed for them, along with a potential hiring pool of trained personnel.

Firehouse: Do you see things getting better or worse in the future?
Pickett: In all but the most volunteer-committed departments, I see the problem getting worse. Money and time are the key elements. As long as folks feel that they are already paying for the service and it would take too much time out of their already stretched schedules, and it is easier to hire and control paid personnel, volunteerism will continue to decline.

Bob Haworth joined the Belgrade, MT, Volunteer Fire Department in 2004. He was appointed to the position of information officer in 2005 and was promoted to lieutenant early this year.

Firehouse: Does your fire department have a problem recruiting new members?
Haworth: Yes, we have had trouble recruiting new members.

Firehouse: Why is this?
Haworth: The community in which we serve is not really big. It’s roughly 160 square miles, with a lot of federal and state forests. The majority of the residents in our area are elderly. A lot of people in the area feel they just don’t have the time to volunteer for community service projects. It could be that some feel that they have better things to do.

Firehouse: Does your fire department have a problem retaining existing members?
Haworth: Currently, our department has roughly 20 volunteers. We have not had many just up and quit in the last year, but there are about seven or eight that have not shown up to anything in the last six to eight months. Although these people have not “quit†the department, they have personal reasons for the time they have been absent from things.

The majority of our volunteers work during the day. Family obligations, business requirements and keeping things done at home play a major role in the amount of time that is left in the day for community service. Some have expressed that they simply don’t have the time to participate in all of the training. Being a small department with a very limited budget, we try to squeeze in all the free training that we can. Over the last several months, I have noticed that the attendance that we have at training sessions has dropped off.

Firehouse: What innovative ways have you tried to correct these problems?
Haworth: We are currently working on a junior firefighters program. Our goal is to get some of the young people in the community interested in working with the fire service. We also respond with one of the neighboring fire departments on calls in order to have adequate manpower. There is another program in the community that installs smoke alarms and fire extinguishers for residents who have a need. In this we try to up the residents’ awareness of fire safety. On the Fourth of July, we take one of our wildfire trucks and several personnel to stand by at the fireworks display. And during the yearly Fire-Prevention Week, several of our members take a truck to the school and talk to the children about fire safety and prevention.

We have also been working on different fundraising events that are a lot of fun for the community, which serves dual purposes. We raise a little money for the department and members of the community can see what enjoyment they can get from serving the community. The future personnel of the fire departments are our children. If we can get them interested at a young age, they may look to a career in the fire service.

Firehouse: Do you see things getting better or worse in the future?
Haworth: I feel that things will get worse before they get better. People seem to be more interested in helping themselves rather than helping their neighbors. But I feel that when some of the children who participate in junior programs get older, they will have the same feeling of pride in serving their community, and hopefully that will increase the number of active members. Even if some of the children who participate in a junior program may move away from their hometown, it could benefit the community in which they do reside in when they become adults.

I believe that we need to let people know about the sense of pride that comes from serving the community in which you live. If that can be accomplished, it will filter down, and eventually it will increase the number of people interested in working in their community.

Mauro V. Baldanza is a 35-year member of the Long Branch, NJ, Fire Department, where he has held line and executive officer positions. He served as assistant chief in 2002-2003 and chief of department in 2004. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and New Jersey Society of Fire Service Instructors. Baldanza is a 28-year veteran police officer, serving as captain with the Oceanport Police Department, and was recently appointed as coordinator of emergency management for the Borough of Oceanport. He holds bachelors’ degrees in business administration and criminal justice and is a New Jersey State Certified Level II Instructor and a Police Training Commission Instructor, teaching at the Monmouth County Police and Fire Academies.

Firehouse: Does your fire department have a problem recruiting new members?
Baldanza: Let me first explain the department, so you have a better understanding of who we are and what we cover. Long Branch is a combination department, consisting of nine individual companies with a total membership allowed of 600 and a professional firefighter division of 23 members (Uniformed Division). The Uniformed Division is covered under New Jersey Civil Service hiring practices, so hirings are posted when necessary. We staff eight pumpers, two ladders and a heavy rescue. The Uniform Division has five members on duty at five stations, each assigned to a particular apparatus dependent on the incident location. We protect a population of about 35,000 in a roughly six square miles, with a hospital, rail station, a large resort complex and 18 high-rises. When I served as chief in 2004, we had approximately 1,800 incidents. Roughly half were false alarms, about 12% to 14% were actual fires, the rest were service- type calls.

The department does not do any recruiting; membership is done by the individual companies within the department. Prospective members join a company and their membership status within the company would meet a category for membership within the department. There is no formal organization or procedure in place for the companies to collectively recruit. Most of the recruitment is by word of mouth. You speak to a neighbor or friend, they show interest and join or relatives bring family members into the ranks.

The department does have an Explorer program, which attracts several teenagers. Some of them are members of our firefighting family and others with no formal connection have shown an interest and wanted to join. Most have gone on to join at the allowable age.

Firehouse: What attracts new members to your department?
Baldanza: I would have to simply say tradition. That’s the way it has been done. There had been mention in the past of trying to establish a program at the high school level, to make them aware of the volunteer fire service, what it offers and what they contribute to the community, but it never has gone anywhere.

The overall structure of the department does not allow for a continuous effort. Chief positions change every year in the department and companies normally change every year in line officer positions. Executive company positions seem to last longer. We’ve had people in my company hold office of secretary and financial secretary for 50 years; president is a two-year term. Unless you form a permanent committee of members to address the issue, it would be haphazard.

Firehouse: Does your fire department have a problem retaining existing members?
Baldanza: To give you a definitive answer, I’d really be guessing. But I can comment on what I’ve seen over the time I’ve been a member. We have members who join to become active volunteers. Some of them are the guys who really want to get involved with the service and are seeking a possible professional career with a department. Other active members get involved because they like the fire service and get self satisfaction from what they do. Others will join and last awhile, but leave for various reasons; job, family, training demands too much or it’s not what they thought it was.

Our community demographics have changed greatly in the last 36 years that I’ve been a member. The jobs that were within the community have moved outside the area, taking volunteers available for daytime service away. Some families need to have two paychecks, so people might work two jobs and no longer have the time to devote to volunteer service. Training time has increased dramatically, leaving less time for family and other responsibilities. The content of the basic firefighter class has changed recently and class dates have been added to meet the changes at our county academy. Call volume has increased and volunteer members just cannot keep pace with the demand for service, causing burnout.

I’ve also seen personality differences cause members to leave the service. It’s unfortunate, but it does happen. We just don’t get along sometimes.

Firehouse: What innovative ways have you tried using to correct these problems?
Baldanza: We have tried to reduce training time. Long Branch several years ago introduced a program for the mandatory training that must be conducted each year. During the first four or five weeks of the year, mandatory training is held on Saturdays each week. The department is divided by companies with three companies per week, but if you’re not able to make your week, you’re allowed to attend a different week. Classes in Hazmat Refresher, Right to Know, Bloodborne Pathogens, Face Fit Testing, Gear Inspection and whatever additional matters of importance for the department are all done in one day, each Saturday. Over the years, surrounding departments were invited to attend and have taken advantage of the process.

We have tried to concentrate on those training issues that have the greatest importance to us. The basics have been stressed with hands-on work and training that has relevance to our community. Additional training for members is encouraged and is obtainable with free courses at the Monmouth County Fire Academy.

Let’s face it. Training can get to be boring after awhile, especially if you have the same instructors teaching the bulk of the time. It’s good to get new faces that may have new and important information on a topic. I was fortunate enough to have budgeted in our training program to allow for guest speakers who gave lectures on specific topics.

Long Branch does not have a Length of Service Awards Program (LOSAP); however, the city does have a program which waives certain fees for volunteers, such as building construction fees and beach-access fees.

Firehouse: Do you see things getting better or worse in the future?
Baldanza: Better or worse for our future depends on a lot of factors. And it’s not just related to Long Branch. Will the demographics continue to change for us? Our town is presently in a major redevelopment along the beachfront and downtown area, which has added hundreds of new housing units with more to come, so our service demands might be changing.

We are still bringing in members, but a lot of those members are firefighters in surrounding towns who join for the increased action. But will they be there for us during large emergencies and when their hometown is in need at the same time? We could have a false sense of security as membership goes.

What new demands will training bring? Executive Order 50 signed by the governor in 2005 placed additional training related to the National Incident Management System (NIMS) with specific deadlines for each level. In most cases, that’s an additional 50-plus hours of 300- and 400-level training which must be completed by 2007 for people in professional fire service positions and those presently servicing in similar positions on the volunteer side. How do you find the extra time as a volunteer? Yes, it’s a one-time deal, but the requirement won’t change for those still coming up.

Will our young adults graduating from high school and college be willing to serve their communities in a volunteer capacity or will it take a LOSAP with a financial incentive to get them to join? How much will the tax payer be willing to pay?

Nolan Higgins is incident safety officer for the Freehold, NJ, Fire Department. He served as chief in 2000-2002 and is an ex-captain and past president of Engine & Hose Company 1. Higgins is a former member of the department’s Board of Representatives and is a New Jersey State Certified Firefighter 1, Incident Management Level 2, Level 1 Fire Service Instructor and Hazardous Materials Incident Commander. In addition, he is a member of the department’s LOSAP Committee, New Jersey State Fire Chief’s Association, New Jersey Society of Fire Service Instructors and Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA).

Firehouse: Does your fire department have a problem recruiting new members?
Higgins: Yes.

Firehouse: Why is this?
Higgins: The major barrier to entry for a new recruit is the training requirement. The New Jersey Firefighter 1 program is a 135-hour class given at our county fire academy. The commitment is a difficult one for prospective members who are starting a family or working long hours in their career.

For the record, I think this training is a great program for new members. Members coming into our department are better trained than when we joined, when most training was “on the job.â€

Our recruiting efforts seem to be most effective when a prospective member between the ages of 18 and 21 years is asked to join the department. Our most successful recruiters encourage family, close friends and schoolmates to join. Those prospective members have been exposed to the volunteer service at an early age and are enthusiastic about joining the organization.

Time away from a job, family and other responsibilities make it increasingly difficult for a person to commit to training, emergency calls and meetings. Our rolls are not filled as quickly as they were 15 or 20 years ago. We had waiting lists to join. Now, most of our companies have openings and a person can join shortly after an application for membership is submitted.

Firehouse: Does your fire department have a problem retaining existing members?
Higgins: No.

Firehouse: Why is this?
Higgins: Once a member is through Firefighter 1 training, he or she usually remains an active member. We draw from an older community where most members live and work nearby. The tradition of volunteer service remains strong with those members. The fraternity of the department and the idea of service to our community keep the interest and the commitment of our current members.

Firehouse: What else are you doing to retain members?
Higgins: Our municipality approved a Length of Service Awards Program (LOSAP) for our members two years ago. In my view, this plan does not provide a recruiting tool, but may provide a reason for members to stay in the department. Our plan is still a young plan. It will take five years for members to vest in the program and we will have to look at member retention numbers when money is available to members who choose to leave the department.

Firehouse: Do you see things getting better or worse in the future?
Higgins: I’m afraid I see things getting worse. At this time in our history, members of all emergency services are held in high regard by our citizens. However, the economic demands on volunteer members make it difficult to manage career, family and social commitments. The volunteer fire service will face the same issues as fraternal and service organizations, professional societies and civic volunteer associations. An increasing request for community-based services will be provided by a smaller volunteer base.

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