Retaining Volunteers From the Fire Chief’s Prospective

Retention of high-performing personnel is necessary to the success of any organization. This holds true particularly for volunteer fire departments where institutional knowledge can mean the difference between life and death for firefighters and the community at large. Community protection and wellbeing depends on the experience, expertise and tenure of local emergency providers. Volunteers bring tremendous depth and diversity to any emergency scene based on their regular jobs and their expertise in their communities. Weak retention rates often indicate a problem with an organization and diminish the level and quality of service to the public. Not all attrition is bad. Many organizations use exit interviews to get honest reasons why people are leaving. You should consider these reasons carefully to determine whether your organization is experiencing positive or negative attrition. If your retention rates are low and the reasons why people leave are not negative (for example, they are being transferred out of state), then the organization probably is performing well. However, if people are leaving because they do not enjoy the work, they have conflicts with other members or they are concerned about safety, you are facing an organizational problem. You should know the retention rate and average length of service of your department. image

Calculate your organization’s retention rate for a given time period by taking the number of members at the end of the period and dividing it by the number of members at the beginning of the period if your retention rates are low, consider implementing the following strategies

Minimize Interpersonal Conflict

A very important factor in retaining volunteers is the level of conflict within the organization. This reinforces the notion that the single most important issue affecting retention is solid department leadership. Leadership may suffer if popular elections are held with no requirements for promotions and officers are not trained to deal with personnel issues. Constant turmoil, a lack of discipline, improper management of personnel disputes, overly dramatic embellishments and immature conflict resolutions are often to blame for good volunteers leaving fire departments. As the chief officer, you have the responsibility to minimize conflict and resolve interpersonal disputes in a predetermined, fair manner. Bear in mind that most individuals join community service organizations to provide a service, make new friends, learn new skills and have fun. At some point, you may have to ask difficult people to leave your department before they cause irreversible damage by driving good volunteers out. The health of the organization must prevail over the desires and ambitions of individuals’ personal gain.

Show That You Value Your Volunteers’ Time

The fire chief should create an environment in which people feel they are part of a group yet still are unique. When you task volunteers with specific jobs and give them the responsibility to complete them, you unleash tremendous motivational power and a desire to serve. The role of a volunteer firefighter in a successful department is twofold. One aspect is emergency response, training and going to calls. The other is non-emergency response, such as finance, maintenance and human resources. A dedicated non-operational support staff – whose motto is, “Our job is to make your job easy” – can make the department hum by reducing the burden on operational volunteers.

Non-operational volunteers can assist with training, logistics, administration and communications. Do not waste your volunteers’ time. Schedule non-emergency work far in advance and efficiently execute it. Similarly, make sure that routine tasks are routine. For example, do not take an entire day to replace minor equipment because too many people are involved in the process, or require firefighters to fill out forms in triplicate to obtain a new pair of gloves.

One way to effectively minimize volunteer inconveniences is to use a “one-stop” approach, whereby you deal with each of a volunteer’s concerns during one visit to the department. While this takes a little more administrative time and organization, it clearly shows the volunteer that you value their commitment. The department can establish an appointment system so that you are aware of all the issues that need to be addressed when the volunteer arrives at the station. Set an agenda for meetings. For example, if the department has one two-hour meeting each month, you might set aside 15 minutes for briefing or business, 45 minutes for training or work, a 10-minute break, 35 more minutes of training and 15 minutes for conclusion or cleanup. Determine a training and meeting schedule for the entire year and disseminate it at the beginning of the year. This allows members to plan their fire department commitments in advance. A meeting will be more productive if your members have a chance to look over the agenda and any reading materials in advance of the meeting. This is easy to do with e-mail distributions.

Provide daily recognition for the contribution your volunteers make to the department and show your trust in them. For example:

Say “thank you.” Involve the volunteers in decisions that affect them, treat all volunteers equally, show an interest in the volunteers’ families, the occasional formal praise cannot take the place of daily informal interaction. Show your appreciation frequently, publicly and in a timely manner. You should be consistent and, most importantly, sincere. Finally, recognize the achievement, but praise the person who achieved it.

Offer Benefits and Incentives

Positive ways exist to retain volunteers. Among these are benefits and incentives. Benefits include the privileges and securities that are provided to you as a result of your membership. Incentives are rewards for improved performance. Benefit programs should encourage long-term participation from the volunteer, clearly showing the department’s commitment to the safety and security of the individual and his or her family.

Those benefits should include workers’ compensation; health, accident and life insurance; and coverage that will protect the livelihood of the individual in case of injury, such as wage-supplement insurance that adds to workers’ compensation payments. Every volunteer has the right to expect adequate financial compensation in the event that they are injured in the line of duty. Every department has the responsibility to ensure that the volunteer and his or her family are financially protected should such an injury or death occur.

Nonmonetary benefits may include using an empty apparatus bay to clean a personal vehicle and having controlled access to the Internet while providing station coverage. A number of departments are finding substantial value in organizing activities that include the entire family. Picnics, special showcase drills designed to demonstrate the kinds of tasks the volunteers perform or station fun nights are events that allow the families to interact.

Incentive programs should award individuals and team members for their performance and commitment to the department and community. An annual awards banquet provides an excellent opportunity to recognize many achievements. Most of these programs are acceptable expenditures within governmental accounting systems. Awards should honor individuals as well as team members. They can be spread out over the course of the year and be incorporated into other department activities. There are many examples of awards that can be given during monthly business meetings or trainings and those that are best suited for the end of the year.

Hold graduation ceremonies for individuals completing the fire academy or obtaining their initial Firefighter I and II certification. This is the first big step for most volunteers and, accordingly, should have a prominent ceremony that involves their families, the board of trustees and chief and station officers.

End of the year:

— Rookie of the Year, FF and EMT of the year

— Medal of Valor

— Years of Service Awards

— Most number of call run

Consider recognizing other emergency providers as an effective way to improve interagency relations. These kinds of awards generally include the dispatcher, law enforcement officer and EMS provider of the year and are awarded in conjunction with a significant community event or if the individual has made a special effort to cooperate and improve relations with the fire department.

Invite former patients and representatives of businesses that you have helped to the awards ceremonies to improve community relations. Invite local, state and federal elected officials to solidify your political relationships. Do not invite every elected official to every event; rather, select events that you think your political leaders would be interested in attending. Consider inviting the local media, or have a press release available for them, which has the dual benefit of improving the department’s public image and providing an increased incentive for public officials to attend.

All awards must be defined in a policy that clearly outlines the criteria for obtaining the recognition and the incentive that is provided for that accomplishment. Those incentives may be in the form of plaques, gift certificates for special events and/or dinners, as well as jackets or caps. A department should not feel compelled to present an award simply because a category of recognition exists. Make every effort to ensure that the award is meaningful and maintains the level of prestige for which it is intended.

Financial Reimbursement and Tax Breaks

Financial reimbursement for volunteer time is becoming a popular method of attracting new members and retaining experienced members. Payment programs include a year-end bonus, monthly stipends, payment per call or hourly compensation for responses and station standby. Departments that are looking to implement some type of financial reimbursement program are encouraged to consult with their legal counsel and their regional Internal Revenue Service (IRS) office to have the program validated. Be aware of all State and Local labor laws including Federal FLSA** rules. Departments that have financial payment programs should be prepared to withhold appropriate payroll taxes, Social Security and Medicare payments. Departments that provide hourly payments for services are most likely not volunteer companies and may be in a position to extend payment for overtime hours and appropriate employee benefits. A number of states offer different types of tax breaks for volunteers. However, please note that the IRS may record any form of compensation to firefighters as taxable income, including tax breaks or other benefits such as free water or reduced utilities.

**See the IAFC/VCOS publication “Managing Volunteer Firefighters for FLSA” (Fair Labor Standards Act) as required by the Department of Labor

Make the Department a Family Organization

Families of volunteer firefighters often experience a great deal of stress when the firefighter dedicates a substantial portion of time to the community, especially when that person misses family events or runs out of the house on a moment’s notice You can mitigate this stress by making the entire family feel as if they are part of the department. Organize family events at the firehouse and engage family members in tasks that are not necessarily firefighter related. They may want to assist with fundraisers, special event days, daily business operations or junior explorer or cadet programs. If your department has or plans to have a junior explorer or cadet program there are several ways to accomplish this.

Chief Ron J. Cheves (ret.) has 40 plus years as a volunteer in the fire and emergency services rising to the position of Fire Chief. He currently leads the Red Ribbon courses for the VCOS section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and in 2012 was appointed to NFPA 1720, the standard for Organization and Deployment by Volunteer Fire-EMS Dept. He is a columnist/lecturer for several fire service publications and participates in numerous conferences throughout the country. Cheves now serves his local community as the Safety Officer for the Robinson Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department, a progressive Fire-Rescue provider for about 5,000 residents. He can be reached at 704-557-5781 or

Contact Us

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.