By Joseph R. Cea, Elsmere Fire Co.
Sometimes a prospective firefighter walks in the door and the whole company just knows that they are there to stay. More often, in spite of our strong sense of duty, retention has barriers that must be overcome to keep that firefighter involved and, more importantly, going to calls.
Some circumstances we have no control over. Such as when marriage and a family take root and that firefighter simply will not be at the firehouse as much. But patient, consistent reminders are key to getting that firefighter back, as it may take years. In spite of the challenges, there are several key areas where retention of firefighters can drastically improve.
Probationary and orientation periods should be defined by more than a time frame and a Powerpoint presentation. In my two short years with the fire service, I have already met too many firefighters that have been left to their own devices to find out information about training and the Super Bowl party.
As a first step, company officers need to be consistently reaching out to the “probie” to make sure they are trained not only properly, but in a logical, sequential and concise time frame.
Once each segment is completed, the officer shall introduce the new firefighter to the next officer for qualifying experience until they are ready to enroll in Firefighter 1. If I had to guess, retention would increase 10-fold if our probationary periods were more structured.
Also, many departments have big brother/sister programs, but it’s time to take a good, hard look in the mirror. How many hours does the pair really meet and exchange information about the company? About drills? Is there a mandatory meeting on a weekly or monthly basis to go over goals (personal and training) for the new firefighter? Is there a company officer in charge of keeping track of these meetings to ensure they are productive and motivational enough to retain new firefighters?
Company officers need to be consistently reaching out to the ‘probie’ to make sure they are trained properly.
To build on that thought further, fire departments should also take a hard look at what their needs are. For example, “Inferno Fire Department” needs a safety officer and an arson investigator after the retirement of two of its long-standing members. At the same time, sit down with your new applicants and try to match their goals and interests with what is needed in the department.
Everyone needs interior firefighters just like every army needs infantry, but training new members for specialty positions within the fire service will provide those new members with a much-needed sense of ownership and training goals that would go a long way towards retaining members. Wouldn’t it be great if each department had its own State Fire Instructor? When any firefighter (but especially new ones) becomes necessary to the smooth functioning of the department with specialty training, then retention will be higher.
Lately, bunk-in programs have been a huge success. A bunkin is when a department utilizes either space in their firehouse or a locally rented or purchased property to provide housing for visiting firefighters that are in town for the short term. This housing is usually in exchange for manpower at the firehouse.
In many ways, it can be viewed as a “station keeper.” Bunk-in programs can keep firefighters active for a semester while they take college courses instead of having to lay low until they get back home, they also link distant departments together and that only strengthens the firefighting community and also helps with retention.
It’s a foregone conclusion that departments that have extensive community programs often retain the most members. Realistically, if you don’t feel good about yourself after taking an apparatus to an elementary school in your district then you’re probably in the wrong line of work. Getting out into the community has proven to reduce the number of fire-related calls.
Just as important is that it instills a sense of accomplishment within each firefighter, individually and as a unit. For me, I have no intention of leaving the fire service. The main reason is that every time I get into an apparatus, I make a difference and that positive feeling will keep me coming back time and time again.
Joseph Cea is an interior firefighter and lead advisor for Explorer Post 30 at Elsmere Fire Co. A in Delmar.