Recruitment and Retention

By Deputy Fire Chief Robert Outhouse, FASNY Recruitment and Retention Committee

Today, as we continue to see the numbers of volunteer firefighters dwindling from our departments, many of us are asking why. What are we doing wrong? What can we do better?

Recruitment and retention are the two biggest words in the volunteer fire service today. But, what do those words really mean?

What is recruitment? Recruitment is the process of adding new individuals to a specific group. In last issue’s article, we learned that we should market ourselves like Google, a major corporation, does. The days-gone-by when someone actually knocked on your department door and said “Hey, can I join this department?”, are very few and far between.

FASNY has taken on a major campaign to reignite that phenomenon. It’s called “Is There a Fire in You?” This campaign was designed for departments across the state to use in their information, media clips, pamphlets, etc. to urge people to come and volunteer. You are able to use your own delivery methods within your own municipality.

If your municipality has a monthly newsletter or calendar, try to get a line stating “Volunteers Needed.” Install signs at the entrance to your department and send out mailers once a year to your community on what you do and why it’s important to obtain new members.

I believe the days of just having an open house during Fire Prevention Week doesn’t really cut it anymore. Recruitment should be aggressively marketed throughout your community, schools, media and social media. Sell yourself to your community 365 days a year. Lastly, if your department offers incentives, like a tax reduction or length of service award programs, or any other incentives, put that out there.

Now comes the next big word, retention. What is retention? In simple terms, retention is to keep someone or something. Although as simple as it may sound, this is proving to be our second biggest obstacle in the fire service today. There is not just one cause to this dilemma.

There are many factors that affect the retention of members in the volunteer fire service.

In May 2007, the National Fire Administration released a study on Recruitment and Retention in the Volunteer Fire Service, FA-310. In this 261-page document, it outlines the challenges and solutions facing the volunteer fire service. Although this document is 11 years old, many of these challenges are still prevalent today.

In preparing to write this article, I spoke with many fire Chiefs, Presidents and Commissioners of local fire departments from small to large. Everyone says the same thing. We get new members and they leave. Why?

As reported in FA-310, these are the leading reasons why members stop volunteering in fire and EMS departments. Internal conflict, excessive time demands, feeling a lack of support from the department, perceived unfairness of disciplinary actions and perceived unfairness or inconsistencies in management. Unfortunately, some of these reasons have plagued the volunteer fire service for a very long time.

To help combat these issues, many fire service leaders have written about these very topics in articles, training manuals, seminars and books. Most of these issues have a direct correlation to human behavior. These individual human behaviors can directly affect and cause internal conflict; the feeling of a lack of support; and can cause the inconsistencies in management styles our leaders have today.

I believe that leadership must take an active roll in understanding these behaviors and apply that knowledge to the fire service and their local departments. This understanding will help them better manage these conflicts and feelings. This may minimize the internal conflicts, and feelings being unsupported and may save members from walking out the door.

Another reason we see members leaving are excessive time demands. We have seen the fire service change dramatically over the last 20 years. The hours of training for volunteer firefighters are extensive, but needed.

But, just as quickly as the recommended training requirements changed, so did the economy. It is much more expensive to live in some communities. Some members have to leave the area for better employment, better pay and affordable housing. Others may have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

To combat this, departments need to look for incentives to keep volunteers in their communities. Affordable housing is one way towns and villages are trying to retain volunteer fire and EMS personnel. Another incentive is local property tax reduction. There are many creative incentives that may be viable ways to retain members. Don’t be afraid to seek them out and implement them.

Cohesiveness is one of the essential ingredients that make a fire department successful. Firefighters depend on one another for their safety. It is important not only to work as a team, but also to feel like a team.

Unfortunately, cohesiveness is not always easy to achieve. Many factors can disrupt the peace. Cliques can form, groups and individuals may feel excluded, EMS and fire members may not get along, or career and volunteer members clash. Often, these problems cause one or more of the parties to resign from membership. Chiefs, line officers and other members of the department’s management team must try to promote an environment in which members cooperate and work as a cohesive unit to avoid retention problems due to disagreements or conflicts among members.

As I investigated information for this article, I sought an old friend, a former State Fire Instructor, past Director of the New York State Fire Academy and Deputy Chief of a local fire department. He had stated that many departments are having great success in implementing two strategies to retain members.

The first strategy is, when a new member is accepted by the membership as a probationary active firefighter, they are assigned a mentor. This mentoring program is a great way to keep the member actively involved in the functions of the fire department. The mentor guides the member on which training courses to enroll in; what committees they might want to join; family events; and on-the-job training activities. It also gives the support, that was identified earlier in this article, to the new member who may feel unwelcomed or unsupported.

The second strategy is one used by many large corporations. When you leave a job for whatever the reason, whether it’s retirement, better employment or a lack of satisfaction, many companies are conducting exit interviews. FA-310 recommends that an exit interview be conducted in the volunteer fire service.

Here are some of the questions that should be asked: What are your reasons for leaving the organization? What were your most satisfying experiences while volunteering? What were your least satisfying experiences while volunteering? What are your recommendations for improving the organization and increasing volunteer satisfaction? Are there any ways the department can be of assistance to you? Is there any way the department could have prevented your departure?

These questions will help you gather data specific to your department. Although it may not save that member, it may save one or many down the down the road. It allows the department to analyze this data, make changes to your department policies and procedures as needed, discuss disruptive behaviors and take actions accordingly.

In order for the volunteer fire service to survive, recruitment and retention must be a priority in your department. Take a look at what we have been doing and look for shortcomings. No one is going to do for you, so you need to get motivated. Sit down with your leaders and see what has worked and plan a new path.

What works for some may not work for others, so try different strategies. Review your numbers periodically: how many joined, how many left and the reasons. See what works best for your department.