By David Denniston, Association Of Fire Districts of the State of New York Director
If you have been following this series, by now hopefully you have started evaluating your recruitment and retention program. We have discussed having a game plan and the need to set clear expectations of your new members. Do you know if your plan is working or not? Without a proper evaluation, there is no real way of knowing how successful you have been.
Remember, your department does not just need bodies, it needs the right bodies to achieve your mission. Just like you need to evaluate your program, you need to evaluate your members as well. If we never evaluate their performance, how will we know if they are a good member or not? Even more importantly, how will they themselves know if they are meeting our expectations? One crucial step that most departments miss with their retention plan is to provide regular evaluations of their membership. These evaluations should be a two-way street for both parties to be heard. If everyone knows how they are doing, it can save some extremely difficult discussions in the future.
Many departments feel that by setting minimum training requirements or by having a minimum number of points that a member must obtain every year, they are performing a membership “evaluation.” With those programs, if you do not meet the bare minimum of requirements each year, you obviously are not doing what is expected. While you may feel this is enough, it is not a good practice as a standalone system.
There are two major flaws with that concept. The first flaw is that do you want to build a department that has a goal of just reaching the bare minimums. Think about the last times your tones dropped. Was your goal to just get a truck there and protect the exposures? I hope not. Hopefully, your goal was to get there with the right equipment and personnel with the right training and skills, to save lives, protect property and put the fire out. If the bare minimum is not good enough for your community, how can we say it is good enough for whatyou should expect from your members?
The second major flaw is that human nature has a way of figuring out how to just barely meet the bare minimum in some cases. If you require every member to complete 24 hours of training per year, do you have members that year after year make exactly 24 hours and no more? If you have a LOSAP program, do you have members that somehow get exactly 50 points every year and not a point more? Now look at your more productive members, many of them will have 75-plus hours of training and over 100 LOSAP points on a regular basis. Another issue is that the more productive members will watch what the bare-minimum folks are doing and often gravitate toward the bottom. If nothing else, that type of behavior will decrease the general moral of the membership. No one wants to feel like they are pulling the weight of the sled alone while the others are just running alongside for the glory and photo-ops.
Most of us have an annual evaluation where we work. It is how we know if we are meeting expectations, it is where we share what our future goals are, and where we can share any struggles or concerns, we have to our employer. This same process, often to a much lesser scale, can aid us at the fire department as well.
Develop an evaluation sheet to share with each member, every year. The sheet should include total number of runs, trainings, meetings and details that they made. Also show them a percentage of what they participated in each category and how their numbers compare to the department members average.
Take the time to congratulate those that are above the average, they are your shining stars. We simply do not say thank you enough to our hard-working members. The one simple act may push your members to want to give even more. For the ones that are below the average, do not be afraid to ask them if there is a reason why they do not make more of the events. Let them know that we count on them and could always use more help.
Remind them of what it costs to have each of them on our rosters and what the department gets in return for that investment. When you add up gear, physicals, training costs, insurance, banquet tickets, jackets, uniforms, etc., this number will surprise them. Ask them if there is anything the department can do to help them contribute more. You might be surprised that some will not even know they are being a subpar member.
Keep in mind our primary function is to protect the community. I have seen departments lose sight of this and put too much weight on all the other activities. Do you want a member that can march in 10 parades a year, or one that is there to put the fire out, perform CPR or cut the car apart?
The longer a member goes without meaningful discussions on their performance, the harder it will be to get them back on track. It is important to be respectful of temporary life changes as you have these evaluations. Family schedules, job requirements, illness and even the need to slow down a little, effect most all of us during our tenure in the fire service. Look at each member over the course of their entire service, not just the past twelve months of activity. Without annual, meaningful conversations, we also run the risk of shutting the door on a valuable member that is simply dealing with what life has currently thrown at them. In this process, be careful to treat all members consistently. While you may need to give individual consideration, you do not want to risk being accused of discrimination when it is time to part ways with an underperforming member. This entire process may seem confrontational at first, but after it has been implemented, you will find it can really benefit your organization. It is easy to get in the habit of only having the hard conversations with folks on a sporadic basis. This can lead to some difficult feelings and misunderstandings.
In the final edition of this series, we will look at ways to reward your members for everything that they do. These types of rewards do not need to cost a lot of money and can really tie your whole membership recruitment and retention program together. Until next time, be 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.