Recruitment and Retention: The Second R Should Not Be Silent

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

Last year I had the opportunity to visit a neighboring fire department during the RecruitNY Weekend. The event was extremely impressive.

The membership had come out in full force, had the equipment and station looking like brand new, and the event had been advertised heavily in the preceding months. The day had all the makings to be a huge success. Striking up a conversation with one of the officers left me pondering some ideas on the way home. Could it be that we focus too much attention on recruitment and not enough on retention?

Evaluate the Need

One of the first things you should do is figure out exactly how many members you actually need. Too many departments think the more the better, but this may not always be the case.

When we have too few members, it is very difficult to complete all the functions to run effectively. One could also argue that with too many members, we bog down the system and become inefficient. When we have too few members, it is easy to burn them out and not get everything done. When we have too many members, it is easy for those members to become lazy and complacent about their role in your organization.

Every Department should do some soul-searching and figure out their sweet spot in membership numbers. How many members do you actually need to get the job done without having too many to become inefficient?

Determine Turnover

The next step is to figure out the average number of members that you will lose each year. People’s lives change, they move away, or they can become interested in another activity. We need to plan for this type of turnover.

When you know that number, you will know the average number of new members that you must recruit each year. What might surprise you is the actual number of members that you lose each year.

When is the last time you looked at one of those composite pictures from five years ago hanging at your firehouse or looked at an old meeting attendance list? How many people are no longer part of your organization that you really don’t understand why they left?

Far too many of us find ourselves losing what were good members for reasons other than listed above. Many of these people left our organization because they were unhappy. It is easy to blame that person and make statements like “they just didn’t fit in.” With some deep soul-searching, we may realize that we push some of these members out the door because of a failure to evaluate what they really needed.

Wait a minute: Did I just ask what they needed? Isn’t this all about us? If you want to recruit and retain good members the expectations must be clear from the very beginning. The second step in this process is to do regular evaluations to see how we’re doing. After we complete that evaluation, changes need to be made. Sometimes these changes will need to be made by the member. Far too often, we will realize some of these changes need to be made by our organization.

Moving Forward

Your homework assignment is to start the evaluation process. How many members do you currently have? How many of those members are active? How many of those members have one foot out the door and we don’t even realize it?

The next step is to evaluate your workload and figure out how many members you actually need. This number will be influenced by a number of factors. How many calls do you go on in an average year? What is your average attendance at these calls? Is that enough members to get the job done? Keep in mind, that very few departments can handle a major call alone.

What we must realize is the low percentage of our total calls that these major calls account for and plan for the average, not the big one.

The next step is to write down all the other jobs that must be completed around the firehouse. These tasks are everything from keeping the bathrooms clean, the financials kept and the trucks and equipment in working order. Who currently does these jobs? Are we asking each member to do too much, or do we have some members with very little to do? Write down each member name and list the major tasks each is responsible for. Often, we will find this to be an extremely lopsided list. Ask yourself if there are better ways to distribute the workload and determine how practical it is to do that.

The final step in this evaluation process is to figure out how many members you have lost each year for the last five years. Write down their names and next to each write down the reason that they left. How many of these do you not know why they left? Ask others to help you with these lists if the task is too daunting. When your lists are complete, schedule a meeting with the leaders of your organization and digest all this data that you have collected. The purpose of this meeting is not to solve all your recruitment and retention needs, but rather to start the discussion. This will only be the starting point of tweaking your process to meet the needs of your organization.

I don’t know of any successful business models where they just keep hiring people without understanding what they really need. Many think that because we are a volunteer organization that it is OK to bring in as many members as possible. We fail to realize that each member has a substantial cost associated to our organization. The cost of physicals, insurance, gear, training and those coveted hats and T-shirts all add up. The biggest cost, however, is the toll that having too many of the wrong members takes on the ability to retain the good members that we already have.

In the next edition, we will focus on setting expectations with prospects during our recruiting process. Following that we will explore annual evaluations, having difficult conversations and rewarding your members for positive behavior. Hopefully by now your wheels are turning. I look forward to working with you as we tune-up our membership process together. 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.