By Dr. Candice McDonald, Founder of Success Up
As the number of volunteer firefighters decreases, it is important for fire service leaders to take a proactive approach in developing strategies to recruit and retain members. Many people are quick to assume offering a financial stipend or moving to a combination department is the answer to addressing the decline in volunteer firefighters.
My three-year doctoral study revealed financial incentives were not the key to addressing firefighter retention. In fact, monetary payments didn’t even make the list of top strategies proven to retain volunteer firefighters in the United States. What did land on the leaderboard was non-wage benefits.
Non-wage benefits of importance were identified by firefighters as uniforms, branded items, an attractive working environment, professional development and camaraderie activities. Research shows that aligning non-wage benefits with the needs and wants of younger generations is proven to reduce turnover and will create an attractive organization volunteers will want to engage in.
Offering Professional Development Opportunities
Organizations that provide professional development opportunities have higher rates of retention. The fire service, like any other business, is in need of diverse skillsets to stay fully operational. Instead of outsourcing for services, fire service organizations can invest in their own people.
This not only meets the needs of the fire department, but it also meets the needs of the volunteer. It gives the volunteer a skill they can add to their resume. Adult career centers and community colleges are filled with professional development courses and certifications that can be used to achieve this goal.
For example, we know that having a website presence is key for visibility among stakeholders and is the preferred way for potential members to complete the volunteer application. Many departments outsource their webpage development and maintenance. Fire service organizations can eliminate the monthly cost of a webmaster by sending members to learn how to use website platforms. The department gains in-house webmasters and the members being trained to gain professional development that can be beneficial in the job world.
Who do you pay to repair and conduct daily maintenance of your vehicles? Would paying for a member or two to become certified mechanics reduce the costs of routine maintenance?
Are you engaged in large community events, fundraisers or acquisition projects? Would sending someone to learn how to become a project manager increase the efficiency in how you operate and reduce costs of big projects? The most successful organizations in the world use project managers, why can’t you?
Who is developing your recruitment and marketing materials? Would sending your most creative volunteer to a course in Photoshop and graphic design allow you to internally create professional-looking web and print materials without paying a marketing firm?
The list is endless and our younger generations have a greater interest in meaningful roles over financial gain. Offering professional development tied to a role within your organization increases the feeling of organizational ownership and the volunteer’s desire to engage.
Uniforms and Department-Branded Items
Rising to the top of key retention strategies was offering, at no cost to the member, department-issued uniforms and branded items. Wearing a uniform specific to the fire department is a motivating factor. Branded items foster a sense of belonging and personal pride, which in turn contributes to a collective pride towards the fire service organization.
One volunteer Chief with high retention rates indicated every new recruit received a license plate bracket, T-shirt and stickers. This instantly made the new member feel welcome and part of the team. Once his new recruit finished fire school, they were issued a class B uniform and after one year of service they received a class A. Uniforms not only offer a sense of belonging and pride, but they also represent professionalism to the community.
Candice McDonald is a firefighter/EMS officer with the Winona Fire Department in Ohio and works for NASA in the Office of Protective Services. She is the founder of Success Up, a consulting firm bringing focus and purpose to organizations. She has been the co-chair of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association Reputation Management Committee, a trustee for the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services, and has served as the appointed Fire Corps state advocate for Ohio and in other capacities for the National Volunteer Fire Council since 2009. She is a contributing author to numerous publications and has traveled the country for the past 20 years.