Understanding the New Class of Recruits

By Ed Butler, FASNY Recruitment And Retention Committee

Retention – “the continued possession, use or control of something” or, in the case of the fire service: “someone.”

Nowadays it’s no longer the challenge of getting new members into a fire department. Rather, it seems more of a challenge to keep those members. Retention is becoming harder as time goes on because “time” may be one of the biggest problems.

When new members first come into a department, they sit with the Membership Committee and go over what is expected of them, what probationary training they need to go through and what it will take to get off probation to become a full-fledged firefighter.

Where some fall short is the next step: introductions to the Chiefs of the department, with time set aside to ask any questions they may have, such as “What do you want/need me to do as a member?” Many times from the point of being voted in, new members are told little other than that they’re to spend the next four to six months, two or three nights a week plus occasional weekends, training. That’s an awful lot of time to ask of a new member.

Though some hang on and endure the training hours to become good firefighters who are willing to help any way they can, the risk is far greater that burnout and resignation will occur.

I was fortunate because firefighting ran in my family, so it gave me a preliminary understanding of what was expected of me as a firefighter when I joined at age 17. But, that was many years ago and times have changed.

Modern ways of fighting fires whether with or against today’s technologies have forced increased and specialized training. Personal financial burdens have also hindered the retention of volunteers because holding multiple jobs is too common and free time too rare.

Explaining benefits such as LOSAP and New York State tax credits are certainly useful and should be a part of the Membership Committee’s discussions. But, for the 19-year-old who’s renting, those benefits are premature.

I believe that with the challenges new members face, the biggest thing we can offer them is our support, our encouragement. We need to recognize them for their accomplishments because we all know how it feels to be told we did a good job.

I have seen so many young people fail and leave the fire service because no one wanted to help them or take the time to acknowledge their worth. If senior members with their years of experience or the current Chiefs and officers each took a new member under his or her wing as a mentor, it would give that new member someone to turn to, to learn from and to trust before deciding to leave.

Recognizing a need is the opportunity for the department to retain that member instead of watching them leave. We must come up with new ideas to keep members involved and interested in staying. We need to do something because we always need firefighters.