‘I’m Just a Volunteer’

By David Denniston, Association of Fire Districts of the State of New York Director

Welcome back! In the last issue, we laid out a game plan to evaluate your department’s recruitment and retention efforts.

We explored the idea that recruitment may actually be the easier part of this process. You will never be able to bring enough members into your process if they are leaving at a rate faster than they are coming in. Often, we fail to realize how quickly they are leaving because of the sheer number of members in our ranks.

Take a look in your gear closet. Do you have newer gear in there that does not fit anyone anymore? Where did those people go? Many of us have some pretty nice gear that was ordered to size for a particular person that no longer is part of our department.

When we fail to figure out why they left, we fail to understand why we run short on members. Every time a member leaves, you should conduct an exit interview. We aren’t talking about the “blah, blah, blah” they put in the resignation letter. We are talking about asking serious questions about why they have made that decision. Be prepared – some of the answers may be hard to swallow.

What you may be surprised to hear is how many people never realized what was expected before they signed on.

We will always have people that change jobs, have a life event, or realize that putting their own life on hold every time the pager goes off is not for them. What you may be surprised to hear is how many people never realized what was expected before they signed on. Look at the majority of the time that you spend giving to the fire department. Many of us joined our local department to put out fires, cut cars apart, do CPR or even fly down the road with lights and sirens blaring (cue up the Top Gun soundtrack).

Yes, most of us joined for the pure adrenaline rush of being a superhero. Now look at the limited time we spend doing those things. Instead, we spend the bulk of our time training, going to meetings, doing truck and equipment checks, testing hose, cleaning the station and even flipping chickens, serving pancakes or selling raffle tickets. Add up the total number of hours that you do, or are at least expected to do to help out the organization for both emergency and non-emergency tasks.

These events can easily add up to 40 hours a month, on average, depending on the size of your organization. That equates to a whole extra work week per month.

Candidates should be told upfront what is expected. Yes, this is a volunteer organization, and yes, they come when they can. But, it is not completely pick and choose when they want to participate. Be sure to tell them what training is expected. This is more than saying “you need to take firefighter basic.” They need to understand the total number of hours that it will take to complete. They need to know what nights or days those classes are offered. They need to know there are additional readings to be completed outside of class. They need to know that course only gets them on the scene and to the front door. Wait a minute, you want to drag the hose inside, be an EMT, drive the trucks, do search and rescue or hazmat? Well, let me tell you about all the extra hours of training that will take as well.

Set clear expectations and then hold people accountable. You will be amazed how much better people perform when they know what is expected of them.

On top of that we have a department meeting once a month, department training every other or every week, we cook pancakes once a month and don’t forget your truck check. You want to be an officer? Well, that takes even more hours. I think you get the point.

I have even seen organizations get upset that the new member does not make it to any Monday night meetings or trainings only to find out the person belongs to another organization that meets every Monday night as well.

At this point, several people have said that “we don’t tell them all that upfront because we will scare them away” or “everyone is not going to come to everything and that’s OK.” Think about those statements for a minute. If we are not forthcoming with that information or don’t set clear expectations upfront, we are only setting ourselves up for failure. Either the organization or the firefighter will be disappointed, and we will continue to hemorrhage members faster than we take them in. When you look at the cost of onboarding a new member, which includes physicals, training, gear, insurance, uniforms, hats, coats, we simply cannot afford to have too many failures.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard “I am only a volunteer – what are they going to do, fire me?” The sad truth is, yes, we will either get rid of them or they will get disappointed and leave. If they are not meeting our oft-unspoken expectations.

Would you expect your employer to let you show up when you want, do what you want and never try and correct any of the shortcomings? If you do, please sign me up because that sounds pretty sweet. The same is true with our volunteer organizations. Set clear expectations and then hold people accountable. You will be amazed how much better people perform when they know what is expected of them.

In the next article, we will explore the evaluation process and discuss how starting with clear expectations, and then holding people accountable, will actually improve the general morale and productivity of your department. Until then, stay safe my friends.

David Denniston is the Director of Risk Management with Emergency Services Insurance Program by McNeil and Company. Dave has 30-plus years in the fire service and is Past Chief and current President of the Cortlandville Fire Department. He serves as a Fire Commissioner in the Virgil Fire District and as a Regional Director of for Association of Fire Districts of the State of New York. He also serves as a Deputy Fire Coordinator in Cortland County. Dave speaks at trade shows and conferences across the U.S. and recently began a webinar series called “Keeping It Real,” where he leads a panel discussion on current issues and opportunities in the fire service.