Fire volunteers: A dying breed?

CarolinaFireJournal - Ron Cheves
Ron Cheves
10/14/2010 -

How many times have you heard in the past that we are losing our volunteers in the fire service? We all know the story; we are losing them due to work schedules. Too many people are working two or three jobs, they are traveling longer commutes to get to their job, which takes them out of the community they live in and want to help protect.


Recently I received a photo copy of a newspaper article dated almost 30 years ago entitled, “Fire volunteers: A dying breed? The answer then and still today is maybe. If in fact the breed is dying, it certainly is talking a long time to die. The volunteers are not going to be coming to the fire department to volunteer for all the reasons they did back then. Modern lifestyles afford people so many ways to spend their free time they’re no longer interested in volunteer service.

Today, we are asking our new recruit volunteers to do more and more training, spend more time at the station pulling duty, or in a classroom at a weekend regional training school. The new firefighting techniques are becoming more complex and difficult to learn on a volunteer, or part time basis. It takes someone with a desire to do something important for their community; someone with courage and dedication, who isn’t afraid of hard work, and would be willing to take on the challenges of a difficult job.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, volunteer firefighters save the United States $37 billion dollars each year, as they donate their time and their expertise to protect property and save lives. Almost 75 percent of fire departments in the country are fully staffed by all volunteer personnel and over 90 percent will rely on some volunteer staffing.

What are today’s fire service leaders to do to recruit and retain the members needed to do the job?

Now more than ever, with most departments facing budget cuts that will most likely go on for the next several years, the volunteer staffs will be crucial in meeting the needs of the community. The trends volunteer fire departments seem to be facing are that their responsibilities outpace the capabilities, the ability to raise enough funds though BBQs and cake sales, and the ability to keep the members once they have joined the ranks of the department.

Another trend that seems to be current is the internal conflicts that will do tremendous harm to a department for a very long time. Some departments seem to be losing focus on their mission. The department is more of a social club than a fire department, newer members running off the older or veteran members, leaving only the young and inexperienced members to carry out the department’s mission.

The U.S. Fire Administration identified that it was unanimous among those departments surveyed that poor management contributed heavily to members leaving the volunteer fire service. The leadership issue was considered the most important; nearly all the other causes were either directly traced back to the leadership problems.

The challenge of staffing due to funding is the first large hurdle that has to be overcome. Equipment needs and the need to have more and more training are probably next, but equally important.

We can no longer count on the children of our current members to follow their parents lead as volunteer members, nor can we count on a continuous stream of local people eager to donate their time and energy to the local volunteer fire department. The members that do come in are not staying active in the fire service for long periods of time.

How do we ensure our continued success?

The first thing we must do is have a marketing plan. How do we tell prospective members who we are and what we do? How will they know we need their help to protect our community? What will be the drawing card to get them interested in talking to someone about becoming a volunteer?

If you are not talking about your fire department everyday to someone, you are missing the opportunity to get the message spread across the community. Sent letters or notes to your local newspapers, make every media outlet aware when you do something, not just the fires and EMS calls, but everything. You must keep your name in front of as many people as possible, brag on yourself and what good things you are doing for the community.

While you are marketing your department, there must be a recruitment and retention plan in place to get the volunteers in.

What are some of the issues you have with recruitment? What are the things you are doing right? How do you recruit and retain the volunteers you have?

Several years ago my department had a policy that members must live within a certain area, or so many miles from the station. Another was you could not be a member of another department. We found this really limited the number of people we could recruit. We found that if we think outside the box we have a greater chance to recruit more members. We need to know what we have to offer and what other departments were doing to get new members.

In some cases you may be competing with other fire departments or rescue squads. A recruitment committee may be the answer for your fire department. A team approach can work to bring greater focus to the importance of ongoing recruitment efforts. The role of the recruitment committee should include, but not be limited to these points.

  • Rehearse the pitch (talking points)
  • Get the potential volunteer engaged
  • Relate to the individual
  • Learn how to talk and listen
  • Talk about the benefits as well as the time requirements and training requirements
  • Record all information and date for follow-up
  • Eliminate reasons to say no
  • Follow-up on all leads promptly

If a committee seems like too much, assign someone to be in charge of recruitment and retention. Remember, if you continue doing the same thing you are doing now, you will continue to have the same results.

Ron Cheves is the Fire Chief of the Idlewild Volunteer Fire Department in the Matthews, Mint Hill area of Mecklenburg County. Cheves has been serving Idlewild Volunteer Fire Department for over 27 years, where he has held every rank from firefighter to Chief of the Department. He currently works part-time for CW Williams of Rocky Mount as a fire truck specialist, and spends his weekends traveling the region.

Chief Cheves says the Idlewild Volunteer Fire Department is always looking for new recruits to join the ranks, and help protect the community in which we all are proud to call home. Idlewild Volunteer Fire Department is located at 10241 Idlewild Road, Matthews, NC 28105. Phone number 704-545-5561. Website address is Idlewild currently operates as a combination department, with part-time and full-time paid staff and volunteers to serve the area. Idlewild responds to more than 3000 calls for service annually in the Matthews and Mint-Hill communities.

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