That is the number of search results that appear when typing, “volunteer firefighter shortage” into your google search bar. It has become an epidemic in the fire service, and there are a host of excuses as to why it is happening. These range from, “people just don’t have the time anymore” all the way to, “the training requirements are too difficult for a volunteer.” While both of these may be contributing factors, I believe there is something far more simplistic: Leadership, or a general lack thereof.
According to Dictionary.com, leadership is, “the position or function of a leader, a person who guides or directs a group.” While there are many definitions of the term, this one will suffice for the purposes of this demonstration. Whether individuals want to admit it or not, we love a good leader. Deputy Chief Frank Viscuso is a great example of a current leader in the fire service. If you have ever read, “Step Up and Lead,” you know that the book is filled with great methods of ensuring quality leadership in your firehouse. Due to the success of the book, Dep. Chief Viscuso regularly speaks to rooms packed with firefighters and officers seeking to become better leaders. But here’s the deal; it’s one thing to hear it at a conference, and an entirely different feat to put it into practice at your own department. Is it that it’s difficult, or that the leadership of many volunteer departments just don’t care.
It’s a difficult job, being the chief of a volunteer department. In some areas, the chief is selected via a popularity vote — not taking into account the education and experience that the member may or may not have. In other departments, there are so few members that meet the minimum training requirements to become chief, that the selection is made by default. And in other cases, the chief is the member that has been on the department the longest. All three of these methodologies are dangerous to the fire service.
When a chief is selected via any of these methods, recruitment and retention efforts will almost cease to exist. Any qualified member, or member with great potential will be pushed out of the department. The officers and chief of the department become fearful of losing their illustrious titles due to the threat of a qualified member coming aboard. The more unqualified people we can keep hanging around the department, the less jeopardy our titles are in.
With this mentality, the volunteer fire service is destined to fail. So, how do we take corrective action
It’s Not All About Firefighting
Yes, we know — the number of fires that the modern-day fire service responds to is far and few between compared to those of the 70s, 80s and even 90s. Instead, the fire department of the present is focused more on prevention and safe practices. The third focus needs to be on our role as fire service leaders. There are too few volunteer fire officers that attend leadership classes or operate in a true leadership capacity.
Instead of complaining about a lack of volunteerism, these officers should instead focus on making their departments a place worth being!
How do we do that?
Succession Planning. Start Early
Succession planning is a big topic across a broad spectrum of industries and this includes the fire service. Well before a chief retires/leaves the position, there needs to be an active process to prepare the next chief of the department. Therefore, the fire chief’s number one priority should be to build a department of personnel that are more qualified and more capable than the chief. Not only will this assist when the transfer of command is to occur, but a healthy department can make even the weakest chief look strong.
Be Realistic with your Expectations
The majority of volunteer firefighters do not work in any form of emergency services in their full-time employment. Volunteering is something that they do above and beyond their nine to five gig. Therefore, we have to stop the assumption that every volunteer walks through the station door ready to respond to emergency calls.
Timed gear drills, breathing air out of an SCBA, and pumping the truck are all things that come with training and time. If we are not realistic in our expectations of our membership, they will quickly become disinterested in the fire service. Be prepared to start from the ground up on every prospective member.
Recruitment and Retention
Every member on your department, regardless of rank or experience, is your marketing department. Utilize their fire service pride for the good of the department. Don’t limit your department to “friends and family” — make sure your team is representative of the area that you serve.
Don’t Go It Alone — Empower your People
Too many chiefs want to do it all on their own. Some take on the responsibility because they feel it is their burden to bare. Others want to limit the number of members capable of performing the necessary functions of station management — again, in an effort to reduce any competition at the top. This methodology is destructive to a department, and to a community. The chief must be willing to empower his or her people, allowing the strengths of others to build up the department. Empowering others is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of leadership strength.
The volunteer fire service is alive, but in many areas, it is not well. Fire service leaders need to look away from the white helmet and embrace the overall role of the fire service. Leading an organization can never be done with one. It takes a team of compassionate and dedicated individuals to allow a volunteer fire department to succeed, both now and in the future. At the end of the day, we must realize that we are not present for self-service, but at the service of others. Each day, take one more step toward the betterment of the fire service. Efficient leadership within any department can rapidly improve your recruitment and retention woes. Be the change that the fire service needs, and your community deserves.