By David Denniston, Association of Fire Districts of the State of New York Director
In this series to date, we have explored the topic of recruitment and retention by evaluating your needs, setting expectations and completing performance reviews of your membership. In the final installment of this series, we will look at ways to reward firefighters for all their work and dedication.
In New York, we have what is known as the firefighters benefit law. This law allows for payments to firefighters who become injured in the line of duty. The law provides for relief of medical expenses and some lost income that a firefighter may suffer if they are not able to return to their paying job.
Recently, New York passed the presumptive cancer law that affords some payments to firefighters that are diagnosed with certain types of cancer. That law was intended to help firefighters and their families cover added expenses that come along with a cancer diagnosis. The law has received some other updates and continues to be looked at to meet the needs and benefits of firefighters.
New York also allows fire companies to buy more types of accident, health and group life insurance policies for their members. While these insurance coverages are well deserved and intended, are they enough to reward our firefighters for the countless hours they donate to their communities?
New York is one of the few states left that restricts districts and departments from incentivizing their members. Many states now allow for call stipends, gas cards and payments to the firefighters to compensate them for the time that they donate to their communities. We encourage fire service organizations in New York to come together and make this one of the items of universal concern and work to make these legal in this State.
Some departments have tried to find creative ways to work around the law and offer their members something of value for their time. While these types of programs are well intended, if a department is providing these, they should be sure to consult their legal representative with the exact details of the program. Just because a neighboring department may be doing it, does not mean it is within the requirements of New York State law. There can be severe consequences for a department operating outside of the limits of the law.
Many departments struggle with how to reward their members enough to keep them interested. Fortunately, there are some programs that allow you to show appreciation. New York does allow for what is known as a Length of Service Awards Program (LOSAP). These programs are approved and paid for by the local taxpayers.
The program allows firefighters to earn a minimum number of points and then rewards them with payments when they reach the retirement age. Other laws allow for tax credits to active firefighters. It is important that we explain all these benefits to firefighters on an annual basis. Many firefighters simply do not understand or have forgotten what they are afforded. An annual review can go a long way to make people feel appreciated.
Other incentives include tuition assistance through programs offered by organizations like FASNY (the Higher Education Learning Program or HELP). Some departments have been able to team up with local businesses and organizations to offer discounts to their members on items such as meals, insurance, gym memberships, bank service charges, cell phone plans and auto repairs. Do not be afraid to ask businesses to show some support to your hard-working members.
Another way to show appreciation is to host appreciation events and parties. Don’t forget to include the families in these types of events. There are a lot of missed meals, school events and family activities that are suffered by the whole family – show them love with these events. These events can be as simple as Friday night cookout, family movie night or a softball game. You can even make it a dish-to-pass and have little expense. Remember that families that play together, stay together. These events help both our biological and our fire department families.
The most overlooked show of appreciation is simply to say “thank you” or “awesome job.” How many meetings have you sat through where we complain that the trucks aren’t cleaned or equipment isn’t checked right? Sometimes we leave members feeling like whipped puppy dogs by the end of the meeting. Does that make them want to stay around?
You always remember how great it makes you feel when someone acknowledges what you have done. We all have annual membership awards, but what about a monthly or quarterly award for members that go above and beyond? Something as simple as a cool hat, pin or special T-shirt can raise spirits quickly.
It is great to recognize special people. We can make even more people special by more frequent recognition.
The final way to acknowledge a member’s hard work is to show respect upon illness, injury or passing. I have had firefighters say, “Why would I go to a funeral? I hardly knew them.” It has nothing to do with if you knew them or even liked them. It has everything to do with showing respect to a family that allowed their loved one to give countless hours to our organization.
Think of how rewarding it will be to your family when you pass for them to see a long line of your fellow firefighters coming to say, “thank you for allowing them to help their community.”
It does not stop there. No firefighter’s family should ever suffer alone. Go mow a lawn, shovel a driveway, build a new porch or attend a graduation for one of their kids. We probably never did enough to thank the firefighter for all they did for our organizations.
Chances are they all felt underappreciated at some point in their career with us. Make sure their families are not left feeling the same way. We are quick to call this a brotherhood and sisterhood, so let’s start acting like it really is.
As we said in the beginning of this series, the second “R” in recruitment and retention is extremely important. The more your organization can do to retain good members, the less you will need to do to recruit new ones.
If you would like to discuss any of these topics in more detail, please feel free to reach me at ddenniston@mcneilandcompany. com. By all of us working together, we can keep the volunteer fire service strong both here in New York and beyond. Be safe out there, 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 Regional Director for the 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.