Recently, there have been a number of stories in the national media regarding the need for more volunteer firefighters.
I was especially impressed with an interview done by Fox News with a representative of the National Volunteer Fire Council and an FDNY fire officer on a cooperative program to attract returning or former military personnel into the fire service – both career and volunteer. The program uses the web site to match former military personnel with the opportunities to become a firefighter in their hometown.
As a former Air Force officer and fire chief, my experience in hiring returning military personnel has been well worthwhile, to both the individual and the department. These men and women are accustomed to team work and they understand the need for discipline, the chain of command and continuous training.
While the dwindling numbers of active volunteer firefighters is not new, there now appears as well to be a growing shortage of quality firefighter candidates in the part-time and career ranks.
Let’s start with the volunteer recruitment challenge. The facts would show that the number of volunteer fire and EMS personnel throughout the United States has stayed about the same for the last 15 to 20 years.
Meanwhile, the call volume faced by these departments, especially for EMS, doubles approximately every 5 years – meaning a seven-fold increase over the same 20-year period.
Volunteer departments cover over 70 percent of the area in the United States. Although few of them cover major population areas, the overall increase in the population of the US has not given them a corresponding increase of dedicated volunteer personnel.
This is not a new problem. In fact, the U.S. Fire Administration, as far back as the 1990s, made a concerted effort to assist volunteer fire departments with recruitment, retention and finances with the publications “Recruitment and Retention of Volunteer Firefighters” and “Alternative Finances for Fire and EMS.”
Several factors also enter in to the lack of a corresponding increase in volunteer firefighters.
- A lack of marketing on the part of the department leading to the perception that the local fire and EMS department is staffed full-time.
- A weakening sense of community among the population in part because the department may not adequately reflect the diversity of people it serves.
- The ratio of men versus women in the fire service giving a misconception that a department is a “good old boys club.”
- A lack of available or convenient entry-level fire and EMS training opportunities.
How does a department and most of all how do you as the chief of the department handle these issues? It can be done through marketing, community connection and training.
Marketing a fire department does not require hiring a firm to set out an elaborate plan for reaching a target market. Most marketing can be free.
For example, if you need additional personnel, put a sign outside the station announcing you’re taking applications and post the contact information.
Have an official department Facebook and web page. List your future activities and training and invite residents to drop in to see how the department operates.
Show your monthly statistics; use pictures from both training and actual incidents. Constantly remind the Facebook viewers that you are volunteers and there is always a need for more people to come forward to help.
Make presentations or awards to fire personnel and residents for their outstanding service or actions during the town council meetings and invite the media to cover the story.
Contact area religious and community groups and ask them to distribute flyers announcing your needs and that you are taking applications.
Consider starting a fire cadet program for high school students. Understand this takes both planning and consistent opportunities for them to interact and learn about the value of fire and EMS in the community.
If you are or are near a college or junior college, recruit those students with the idea that they would remain on station for a certain number of hours per week to help answer calls, but in their down time provide them with a WIFI connection to work on their college assignments in a quiet part of the station.
If their dorms are close to the station, they can also be available between classes to help as well. Even if they leave you after two or four years of college, you’ve trained an individual who can be of great value to their hometown volunteer department.
2. Community connection
It’s hard to pinpoint how, when or why we lost a sense of community. Some sociologists believe it started when homes were built without a front porch where residents could regularly sit outside to meet and greet their neighbors.
Whatever the reason, the volunteer fire department can be a melting pot for a community to come together, and learn about one another, while serving the common good. I am also a believer that not every member of a volunteer department has to be a firefighter or EMT – there is a job for everyone who wants to volunteer.
When I was starting out, my first volunteer department had a member nicknamed “Bubba.” He was out of shape and never made a fire run, but he was an excellent accountant who kept all the financial records. And he literally knew everyone in a community of 10,000.
If we needed something fixed or the best price on a piece of equipment, Bubba knew just who to contact and how to negotiate.
I’ve also seen how a department’s neighbor would come over to close all the bay doors and watch the station when everyone was out on a call. Or the grandmother who volunteered at the station to take care of young children while their parents trained or went out on a call.
That service alone allowed a department to add several new men and women as members, especially those needing two incomes to support themselves.
Lastly, as the demographics of any community changes, so too must the demographics of the fire department. There is no better way for someone to feel a part of the community than to be accepted as a volunteer firefighter.
Perhaps the hardest thing to accomplish for new volunteer recruits is to find a convenient time to offer training, especially at the entry level. A few states have initiated training programs to help bridge that time convenience.
For example, the Ohio State Fire Marshal’s office and the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation have combined to offer free Firefighter I training in all of its 88 counties.
A class needs a certain number of enrollees to qualify, but these students can come from across one county or multiple counties. These classes and the written and practical examinations must be successfully completed in one year.
Several states are testing or considering on-line training instead of the traditional classroom setting for the textbook portion of fire classes. This allows the student more flexibility in fitting the book work into their busy schedule.
When the class comes together, it is to test their knowledge of the assigned material and to do the hands-on exercises. The standards for passing both the knowledge based and practical training remain unchanged, so it places the responsibility to learn the content squarely on the new firefighter.
This concept is already working for continuing education requirements for firefighter and EMS recertification in many states.
It is time for the fire service to become more creative in meeting the challenge of adequate staffing in volunteer departments. But rest assured that many career and part-time departments are also facing personnel shortages; I’ll address that in the near future.
In the meantime, stay safe.