Volunteer Fire Department Recruitment & Retention

Oct. 1, 2004
Larry Curl and Tim Wall suggest there is a “myth” surrounding the issue of recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters in this country.
There seems to be a myth about the recruitment of volunteer firefighters in this country. Many would lead you to believe that we – the volunteer fire service of America – are having a difficult time recruiting members. We contend, however, that this is just a myth.

Oh, you say you disagree? You personally are having trouble with recruitment? Many others you know are having the same difficulty and you want to know why we think the recruitment problem is just a myth? We’re going to tell you why we believe it is a myth, but first let’s talk about what you say is a problem, recruitment.

Let us follow your way of thinking for just a minute; let’s say we are having difficulties in our recruitment process. Let’s take a look at the big picture together.

Beyond the fire service, who is a “volunteer” within the community? How can we identify such a person? What qualifies a person to take on a volunteer position and how can we pick him or her out of the community in which we live, work and raise our families?

A study done some years ago, but that still holds true today, profiled a “typical volunteer” (if there is such a thing). The study revealed that the average age of those who volunteer in the community is between 35 and 45 years old; one-quarter of the volunteer population is under 30 or over 65, and they are split equally between male and female. They can be white- or blue-collar workers.

So, our first question is, are we even looking in the right places for the right faces when we attempt to recruit volunteer firefighters?

What are looking for in a volunteer firefighter? The typical volunteer fire department looks for someone who is that “be-all/do-all” member. That means we are looking for those who will answer our emergency calls, become well trained and qualified, spend many hours getting an education and experience, handle the business affairs of the department, attend meetings, and participate in fund raisers and special events – and in his or her spare time help maintain not only the building(s) and grounds, but often the apparatus and equipment as well. Did we forget to mention that another expectation is to become popular with the others just in case they want to take leadership roles (everyone knows we have to win popularity contests if we are to be leaders)? And, by the way, we sure could use the other skills they may have, such as computer or carpentry work, to mention a few, and by all means every member must be a full-time recruiter so we can maintain the necessary number of names on the roster.

Please don’t take all of this out of context. We are not saying that each of us as members should not be doing any of these things, but how much time do we really expect our members to give?

Where do we find the types of people who are willing to volunteer? Usually, they are located within our community, possible even right next door, maybe someone we work or socialize with. They may belong to a civic group with us, be involved in our local schools, churches, businesses or hospitals, or be the friends or acquaintances of existing members.

What is a potential volunteer looking for? For many, it is a need to belong to something they see as important. They are looking for achievement or responsibility. Some are looking for recognition, a challenge, or a role that will give them a personal reward or good feeling. Maybe it’s the thought of helping others, or because “I see my neighbor doing it.” For others, it is for the possibility of securing a position in a paid fire department. There are many reasons people volunteer; we simply need to be able to meet their needs and expectations.

Do we have effective recruitment programs in our departments that include a needs assessment, an interview process and evaluation of potential applicants, realistic expect-ations, a question-and-answer process and other procedures that allow us to recruit people who will make great members?

The next question to ask ourselves then is why is it that members of our community don’t want to join our ranks and offer to help their neighbors in times of need? Let’s list a few of the reasons that may affect our ability to recruit.

Some suggest that we simply don’t live in a society where folks are willing to give away their time to assist others, that there no longer is a “volunteer mood” in our towns and communities. Does your town have a church? Are there any civic groups, such as Lions Club, Rotary Club, Knights of Columbus, Little League baseball, Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts? Are we in competition for the people who choose to volunteer?

Maybe we are asking our volunteer firefighters to do more than they want to do or think they have time to do. After all, we ask them to respond to emergency calls at all times of the day and night, weekends and holidays, in the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter. That by itself is asking a lot. But there’s more. We tell our members they must train and become proficient in our service delivery. We ask them to put in a minimum “required” number of training hours, participate in work details, ready the apparatus, clean the station and maintain the facilities. We also ask them to participate in fund drives to raise the money so we can volunteer to help our community. Are we asking too much of our membership? Maybe our local population is small and the young people are all moving away when they complete school.

Let’s talk about our image as mem-bers of volunteer fire departments. Do we have a concern? Do we offer a negative image that might cause one not to want to join with us? Have we asked others about our image, or have we decided that our image is fine and if others don’t like it, too bad? What kind of an image do we have?

We could go on and on about why and why not we can recruit members, but what we really want to talk about is why we think what we have is the perception of a recruitment problem versus a recruitment problem.

“So tell me why you think I don’t have a real recruitment problem,” you may be thinking. Hear us out.

Let’s talk about what we think is your problem, the other “R” word. Let’s talk about retention.

Why do you think members are leaving? For some, it’s just a case of getting tired or “burned out.” For others, it’s an increase in family and or job requirements. One could even place the blame on organizational leadership or the direction in which the organization is moving. Could it possibly be any of the above, all of the above or none of the above?

The truth is, only the member knows why he or she is leaving what we once claimed to cherish so much – being a part of what we believe to be a great community organization. Some may ask whether it makes any difference why members are leaving, because when they leave they are gone, regardless of their reasons for departing. Have we ever conducted a needs assessment to figure out how many members we need? Do we have a retention program? Are we doing anything to save those in whom we have invested time, money and training, or are we operating a “swinging-door program” – in today and gone tomorrow?

We suggest that if you build a strong and productive retention program, one that meets the needs of members, fulfills the obligation of service to the community, has all the “right stuff” for success and offers a means of self satisfaction, then we would only have a need to recruit to keep up with our attrition rate, not recruit because of a shortage of members. If we work as hard at keeping members by leading, guiding, managing and working with them as some of us do at running them off, we would have many fewer open slots to fill. If we make each member feel as though he or she is our most important asset (as they truly are), we might be able to do a better job of retention.

Why do members quit? Do we conduct any exit interviews to attempt to answer that question or are we afraid to really find out the answer? Let’s look at what it takes to have a successful retention program – and this is not a one-size-fits-all program.

What are people really looking for when they become volunteer firefighters? Is it social activity or a sense of belonging? Does the thought of saving a life encourage some? What about the status we gain in our communities? There are many reasons why people join community service organizations, and the most important part of a leader’s job is to keep them once they have joined.

So you think you have provided a good retention service and you have done everything right, but they are still leaving. Let’s examine some of the factors that may keep them as members.

Providing qualified leadership is a start. Are we offering sound leadership or are we still electing the “best buddies” or “good ole boys” as leaders in popularity contests?

What about training? You say our members are tired of all that training, but have we offered or provided our membership alternatives such as distance learning, CD-ROM training and on-line drills? Are we really being serious about our training by letting our membership know what we are training on and why? Do we start when we say we will start and finish at the stated finish time? And do we add a little creativity to make our training interesting and perhaps even a little fun? All of these factors have a bearing on the training we do.

Do we still insist that every mem-ber must be a “jack of all trades” who can do it all, or do we attempt to match job duties with members’ skills? We understand that we need the vast majority of our members to be qualified, trained and experienced in the delivery of our emergency services. But if we have an accountant, a graphic artist, a mechanic, a plumber, a carpenter or a data-entry specialist in our community who is willing to offer his or her time and talents, but is not willing to fight fires or answer other emergency calls, couldn’t he or she still be valuable to us by freeing up valuable time for those of us who want to be firefighters or EMTs? Are we offering a membership based on qualifications and services, or are we still living in the world of “if you’re a member, you must be a full member and be able handle to every need”?

Lastly, we must ask this question: Are we operating our departments like the businesses they are, by being professional and responsive to the needs of our communities, or are we still operating the local social clubs, the places to hang out when we have nothing better to do? If we operate our departments as businesses, taking into account the needs of the business and the needs of our customers, and with the intent of being successful, we will find the departments we belong to, live for, work with and love become a much more viable part of our community with pride and success greater than that which we have ever known.

If, after all of this, we still have not convinced you that the real problem is not recruitment, but retention, then we offer other facts and suggestions about recruitment. This may be very basic for some, but rest assured there are many who do not have or even know what a recruitment committee is or does.

Let’s examine the importance of the volunteer fire department membership committee. Every department should have membership or recruitment committee in place. This outline will contain information and suggestions that can improve a membership committee – your department’s most important committee.

1. Establish who should be on the committee:

  • Members who are active and in good standing in the department
  • Officers or seasoned veterans
  • Knowledgeable of the firefighting and emergency medical fields
  • Good and effective communicators

2. Find those who want to serve on this committee:

  • Consider individuals who have retired or “went exempt,” but who know the history and operations of your fire department

3. What members of the membership or recruitment committee should know:

  • Applicable state and local laws
  • Fair Labor Standards Act
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • American with Disabilities Act of 1992
  • Immigration laws
  • Bylaws and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and standard operating guidelines (SOGs) of the department (Some of the above can be controversial, so the committee chairperson should consult with the department or town legal counsel.)

4. The make-up of the committee:

  • Three to five members of your department, who can be elected by the membership or appointed by officers

Here are some interesting facts that can be found in the “Blue Ribbon Report” by the Volunteer and Combinations Officers Section (VCOS) of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC):

  • According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there are close to 800,000 volunteer firefighters across the United States, and the majority of this nation’s geographical area is protected by volunteer fire departments. Of all the fire departments in America, 73% are all-volunteer departments. It is estimated that volunteer firefighters save American taxpayers $37 billion per year.

  • Total emergency calls in the United States have increased by an estimated 61% since 1983 to nearly 18 million responses per year.

Now, the commercial. As the chairman and vice chairman of VCOS, we welcome your suggestions, comments, input, thoughts and membership. We offer the “21st Century Leadership Course” to help you manage your department. If you wish additional information on membership or the educational opportunities offered by VCOS or read our “Blue Ribbon Report,” please visit us at www.vcos.org.

We do not claim to have all the answers, or even all the questions, but we can offer suggestions that have worked and are working for us and for many others.

Tim Wall is vice chairman of the Volunteer and Combination Officers Section (VCOS) of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and chief of the North Farms Volunteer Fire Department in Wallingford, CT. Larry Curl is chairman of VCOS and deputy chief of Hillman Firefighters Inc. in Montezuma, IN. This article is based on their presentation, “Recruitment and Retention in a Volunteer Fire Department” at Firehouse Expo 2004 in Baltimore.

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