Recruitment and Retention:

Volunteers and employees are without a doubt the most priceless resource we have in emergency services. When they perform to the highest standards they portray our agency as outstanding and above excellence. When they become frustrated, annoyed, or lack in skills they can cause the rest of the agency to seem as if we are incapable of performing to any level. Every agency is, or should be, devoting effort to being the best that they can be so we can provide the utmost service.


Volunteers and employees can also be a large expense in our budgets. I remember watching “Burn: One Year on the Frontlines of the Battle to Save Detroit” where former Chief Donald Austin is speaking with some firefighters and he explains that the salaries of his department accounted for over 90 percent of their entire budget. Now I doubt that the percentage is that high for most of us but it is likely still high even with volunteer agencies where we still have to pay for items such as workers compensation, retirements, etc.

So it is evident that we spend resources on our staff and that they can really show off our hard work and dedication to those who we agreed to protect. Thus we need them and need to keep them.

and Retention Programs

Do you have a recruitment and retention program? I hope the answer is yes.

Recruitment and retention programs are made to help us find the highest qualified or dedicated candidate to offer employment. The programs are also there to make sure that as we put more resources into these employees to make them superior, these resources are not wasted when the employees leave for another agency.

When I lecture on these programs this is the time I start getting questions or comments.

— “The employees just want more pay.”

— “We do not have money for programs like this!”

I have heard these and similar comments many times. The problem is that most people look at the cost of these programs and normally limit it to pay only — which we will discuss later — but do not look at the cost of losing employees and volunteers.


Let’s make a quick comparison.

You are in the process of compiling your budget. You decide to try to create a line item for this program and add one thousand dollars to do some work in the program. Well the cost is simply that, the amount you budget. You may have someone still leave as not every parting employee or volunteer has the option to stay. But you may not fully know how many stopped looking for other opportunities due to your actions.

Secondly, you make no changes. Employees quit, volunteers quit. Do we ever really think of this cost? During the time that we have an open position we have to spend money on overtime to maintain staffing levels. We have to, due to federal and state human resource laws, open the position and advertise the job — more cost. We must interview and test the applicants which costs manpower hours of interviewers and time away from other duties. We also have to train the new candidate. This does not really stop until we can say the new candidate is up to the level of the employee who left.

With volunteers it is harder to gauge as you mainly have to train the new recruit and likely do not spend the same money. That being said we know that trained and dedicated volunteers are so important to the volunteer companies. Giving up a trained for an untrained volunteer is not an option we would like to make.

The cost of this second option is harder to calculate. If you are willing to dedicate the time to look at the costs mentioned above for the last five years, calculate what annual average cost you spend to maintain staffing. Keep in mind there is also an immeasurable cost of not having adequate trained and ready to go staff, which could mean there is additional damage to persons and or property to your citizens.

It is my hope you can see it is likely that the first option is less costly.

Recruitment and Retention Ideas

As mentioned before, increasing a staff member’s pay — whether hourly rate or per call basis — is not the only retention strategy.

I am the officer responsible for recruitment and retention for Buies Creek Fire Department. We are a combination department that is made up of four full time members, 12 part time employees, and 53 volunteers, so we have to look at this program in a variety of ways but all that we do is open to all members.

A recent example of a retention project was the Super Bowl. The fire department offered for all members and their significant others to come and watch the Super Bowl together. The fire department provided pizza for all and required all members to bring some side dish and drink. The cost of this was very low for the department. However, for a period of about five hours we had two engines, a ladder, a squad, and an ambulance staffed. We bettered our relationship between ourselves as well as between the three types of members we have.

There are many other needs that our members have that we can provide making them want to stay if at all possible.


There is much more to recruitment and retention programs than most people think. Soon we will be following this information up with how to build better programs, what kinds of needs our members have, and similar discussions. Hopefully now you can see that these programs can have profound impacts on our staffing situations.

Thanks and be safe!

David Hesselmeyer, M.P.A., has been in emergency services for 16 years. Currently he is a firefighter, rescue technician, paramedic, and North Carolina Executive Emergency Manager. Hesselmeyer is the owner and primary consultant with On Target Preparedness (OTP) which contracts with emergency services agencies and non profits to assist in risk assessments, plan writing, plan revision, exercise development, etc. He currently volunteers with Buies Creek Fire Rescue and works part time with Harnett County EMS. He can be contacted at or visit his website at

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