Decreasing employee turnover in your fire house

CarolinaFireJournal - Collin Hawkes
Collin Hawkes
04/23/2012 -

I will never forget it, the rush of excitement and confusion when I heard the tones go off. About 15 minutes earlier I had received my first set of turnout gear. “Jump on the truck!” the lieutenant barked as I quickly climbed up. As we drove to the call I was amazed at my first time running emergency traffic in a fire truck. As we pulled on scene my lieutenant said, “If it’s burning that will be the hydrant we will be catching.” At that time I really had no idea what he was saying, but I knew I already loved firefighting.


I had just started at my first volunteer department. Being new to the fire service I had no idea what to expect. There were three of us who were brought on at the same time to that department; one left a month later and another a year later. This was the first evidence I saw of employee turnover in the fire service, and it hadn’t taken long.

Employee turnover is a serious issue; imagine the time and money it takes to mold that fresh person off the street to someone who is a fully trained firefighter or engineer. The organization I operate uses the best practices in Industrial Organizational Psychology to bring real world solutions to fire department challenges.

Real Life Example

Let’s talk about a real life example of how employee turnover has an impact on the fire service today. We recently worked with a department in Mecklenburg County, the county that contains Charlotte, to reduce their employee turnover. This was a combination department with about 80 volunteers and 12 full time staff.

When I met with the leaders of this department they were somewhat aware of the turnover they had in their department. The leaders knew they wanted to stop the constant revolving door. They could see it hurt the morale of the department.

The analysis of the current turnover in this department showed that in 2010 the department had a 38 percent turnover among the volunteers. Just to put that in perspective the overall turnover in all industries is 16 percent. Needless to say, this was much higher than desirable.

Our next step was to determine what was causing these issues. We took a hard look at the past data the department possessed regarding who had left; we also met with the leadership to get their input on why so many people were leaving. The results showed two main issues:

  1. Unrealistic expectations by the applicants
  2. Poor selection procedures currently in place

We decided to put in place solutions that would help solve these problems. First we developed a realistic job preview to give to all applicants before they were given the chance to apply to the department. This was put in place to help bring expectations of the applicants as close as possible to the reality of the department. We essentially showed the applicants a detailed job description more accurately defining the work, schedule, and any pay involved, as well as tools and equipment used. Basically we did not want people walking into the department thinking they would be running into a burning building saving a woman and child every day.

The next tool we used to decrease employee turnover was putting a valid structured interview in place. If you think about how many departments use an unstructured interview with questions like, “Where do you want to be in five years?” or “Tell us about some of your past firefighting experiences;” it’s been proven that these interviews have absolutely no predictive validity. This means that without a well built structured interview you might as well be flipping a coin to decide whether or not to hire someone.

The Results

To not waste the time and money of the department, we study the pre and post results of our solutions. This department was a great example of how we do this. In 2010, of the 34 people the department hired, nine of them left that same year. After we used our solutions we did a post analysis. This showed that in 2011, of the 35 people who were hired, only three of them left that same year. These results speak greatly to the effectiveness of the solutions implemented.

So many of us have such a passion for the fire service. I know if I am on vacation and I hear sirens I miss driving that truck right away. To be able to recruit and retain folks who will continue to have a passion for this calling is something that is invaluable to a department.

Collin Hawkes is Organizational Development Consultant for Townsend and Rush Consulting. His specialties include employee selection and training, organizational development. He has been an active member of a fire department since the age of 18, as well as being certified as FF I&II.
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