Recruitment and retention should be a priority for all of our departments now and for a long time to come. Why, you might ask. First, our volunteer ranks are dwindling at best in most places. Departments are failing to respond to calls for service and are having to merge to maintain fire protection levels to try to meet the needs of their district.
Secondly, we are seeing less and less people apply for jobs in all areas anymore.
Where organizations use to get 30 to 40 people apply for an opening, they are now seeing five to 10. Some may blame COVID. Some may blame politicians. That is not what should concern us the most as we need to focus on solutions for our needs.
Most times when dealing with recruitment and retention, most resources are spent on recruitment and not retention. This is due to not looking to assess our situation and if there is an issue or problem that needs to be addressed. The fire service has always been great at assessing situations and responding to fix the issues; except in one area: our situations and problems. In response, we put resources in the recruitment side and try to make sure that there are more people walking through the in door than those walking through the out door.
There are many issues with this mentality. The main one being cost. It costs money to train new members whether volunteer or career. It also costs money to outfit them when you do not have personal protective equipment that fits them. This is all happening while there is a shortage of members requiring other actions to ensure services. Another one is that we cannot continue to arterially hemorrhage members while trying to put a simple Band-Aid on the wound. We must look for stronger and lengthier answers to our issues.
How Do We Determine If There Is a Problem?
The first thing I would encourage you to do is to do an exit interview, if possible, with any member who is resigning or quitting, whether career or volunteer. An exit interview should be done by someone who is as neutral as can be (e.g., Departmental Board Secretary) to determine many things. Questions can include:
1. Why are you quitting or resigning?
2. Did we train you adequately for the position we expected you to serve?
3. What needs were we unable to fulfill for you as a member of our department?
4. What does your new department or organization have to offer that we do not?
5. Did you have a problem within the department? Did you address it with anyone?
6. What could we have done to retained you as a member?
Now, these exit interviews are done with career members, but this is something we should be asking all our members. This is important firsthand information. The member normally feels open about talking to a more neutral party and do not feel the chance of any punishment since they are leaving anyways. Take these interviews into account individually and jointly with others. Do you see a pattern?
Another aspect to use to do assessment is a suggestion box or comment box. As leaders within the department, we should be open to hearing things even when it may hurt our feelings or make us mad. Train your members to understand that the suggestion or comment box is to be used for when something happens and is not being addressed or if you feel the need to share information that leadership may not know about. Make sure that they understand this is not a complaint box for members to moan and whine about stuff. I personally encourage the leadership to encourage members submitting notices in these boxes to include ideas of how to correct the issues. To ensure that this works and helps, the leadership must address these items. This does not mean that they must fix them. The answer may be explaining why we must do this action in this manner. The member feels their concern was addressed but also understands why it cannot be changed. The only comments that should be rejected are those moaning and complaining ones. Otherwise, respond to all of them in due time and in due regard, otherwise this will be another failure to the department.
Many departments have chaplains that are either career or volunteer. I know mine has a sweet couple that serves my department, and they do a great job at it. Use these chaplains to assist you in determining if there are issues. Sometimes the issues we have are simply that the member needs someone to tell them what their thoughts are and to be heard. Chaplains can do this well and do not have to break any confidentiality rules/laws. This may break down a huge problem when someone just listens to the members.
A final piece to the puzzle here is to keep statistics on members who are parting ways with the department. Do you know how many members resigned or quit in 2020? I would venture a guess that only a few departments can answer that without some time to go through the roster month by month. Add in information concerning how many people signed on as a volunteer or career member during the year too. There is a lot of statistics that can be used to help our cause. These statistics may end up being helpful in a whole other arena in that there are grants such as the SAFER grant which can aid in these recruitment and retention efforts. Having these statistics would be very beneficial in obtaining such a grant.
In conclusion, fire departments need to make recruitment and retention a priority. We need more quality people and for them to stay in our agencies so we can maintain a high standard and level of service. Every time we lose members, we are not just losing a body. We are losing knowledge, skills, abilities and organizational knowledge. All of that is priceless to our departments and we must work to ensure we retain it.
Until next time, be safe.
David Hesselmeyer began his emergency services career in 1997. He is credentialed as a firefighter, paramedic, rescue technician, North Carolina Executive Emergency Manager, an as an International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Certified Emergency Manager. He graduated from East Carolina University with a Master of Public Administration (MPA). He owns On Target Preparedness, LLC, which is an emergency services consulting firm serving public and private agencies in preparing and responding to disasters. He is a member of the Buies Creek Fire Department in North Carolina. He writes for multiple emergency services publications.