Recruitment and retention efforts often need extra focus

Take whatever steps are necessary to recruit, retain, educate, hire, consolidate or reevaluate


At the recent Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) National Fire and Emergency Services Symposium, I attended a presentation by Chief Tiger Schmittendorf (common spelling) and Dr. Candice McDonald titled “50 Recruitment & Retention Steps in 50 minutes.” The premise is honorable, and recruitment and retention is a continuing dilemma that I certainly understand.

The program was motivating for those companies who have viable memberships and structures already in place, or “still hanging on”; however, the program, whether intentionally or unintentionally, also served to reinforce the old saying that the fire service is “150 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.” For the record, it was a great class for the time allotted, however, I will play my usual role – that of a realist.

Same actions, same results applies to service models, too

Paid firefighters and volunteers can work side-by-side for the common good. (Photo/Portland Fire & Rescue)
Paid firefighters and volunteers can work side-by-side for the common good. (Photo/Portland Fire & Rescue)

Let’s get this out of the way, as it won’t seem like a good article if I don’t say it up front: Just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t make it right! Conversely, it doesn’t necessarily make it wrong either.

Just like diet and exercise, there is no one-size-fits-all approach with volunteerism. But any way you look at it, it is safe to say that Albert Einstein was right when he defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Consider Walmart (or another store if you prefer to picture a different shopping experience). If a particular item doesn’t sell, what would Walmart do? Do they automatically throw it away? Maybe. Do they automatically discount it? Maybe. Do they reposition or re-market it? Probably. What they won’t do is leave the item just the way it is. They would do something to move the product!

The same analogy can be applied to most service models. If you’re a hot commodity and you’ve got all the right members doing all the right stuff, sure, keep doing what you’re doing. Watch the curve, though. You want to be ahead of the next “latest and greatest” fire service tool, approach, training – really, anything! – that can help us progress. Don’t get complacent and watch others evolve while your department stays stagnant.

Understanding your market – the people

I’ve heard this generational reality articulated several ways, but never the way I heard it in the CFSI session: “This next generation, right now, is the first generation to have been ‘global’ their entire life!” For you “older-like-me” folks, think about that for a minute. For us, playing outside, writing letters and putting a quarter in the pay phone was how we communicated when we were growing up.

The internet began development in 1983, cell phones slowly began to become affordable about 1990, smartphones were first out around 1993, Facebook arrived in 2004, and Twitter showed up in 2006. It really wasn’t until the advent of some of those social media sites that the world came to our fingertips!

When the “last” generation had a question in recruit class, they’d asked an instructor, listen to the order barked from a chief, or read it in a book. If they were fortunate, they might have had a computer inside the academy building, and if they were really fortunate, at home. For that generation, looking up the answer, validating an order or simply learning more really just meant listening, doing and reading in a book.

Today’s generation rarely looks up, validates or learns in the same way. Any expectation that everyone will follow as we did is simply naïve. You may not like it, but today, you may quickly find your expertise challenged and tested as no generation of instructor and chief has had before. Today’s generation will validate your answer in seconds from the smartphone, and you may not even know it.

Understanding how this generation learns and how they value the history of information differently than we did is difficult – but necessary – for many of us “dinosaurs” to accept. It’s also important to understand the work and life differences of past generations. For example, general inflationary costs have outpaced income, requiring additional work time and less “volunteer” time to make up the requested/expected standard of living.

Following is a simple financial comparison of gas/housing/salary between 1987, when I became a full-time firefighter, and today.

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While wages have increased by 150%, gasoline and housing have soared by over 220% each. In many cases, the time that people used to have to allocate to volunteer activities is now expended working additional jobs to make enough money to survive at the same standard of living.

A dose of reality about recruitment and retention

From the class I mentioned in the beginning, one of the messages to students was that we should stop all the negative talk and understand that no one wants to “join the Titanic Fire Department.” Specifically, the drumbeat of gloom and doom coming out of many states painting a dire picture of the decline of volunteerism may be precipitously driving more people away to do other things that seem less dire. While I agree that a negative mantra can drive negative results, I’ll call the mantra realism.

Ignoring the problem and only trying to recruit more won’t make it go away – it certainly hasn’t for the past 25 years or more! The past 10 years and more, with FIRE ACT and SAFER grants, has had generally positive results. Where the positive results have manifested in more volunteers and/or robust patterns of retention, let’s figure out to replicate and sustain the result.

Too many times, however, recruitment and retention is thought to be the panacea, with other attempts to rectify the lack of staffing rebuked as volunteer-busting hyperbole. Do you remember why we’re here?

Where we’re not getting fire trucks out the door and where we’re having trouble attracting people to even come to open houses – maybe the picture is dire! This is certainly the case in some communities where there is a refusal to acknowledge reality.

The colonial-era concept of fire stations being located a half-mile apart in every community was a necessary paradigm when we traveled with horses and fought fires with buckets and pitchforks. We simply don’t need fire stations a half-mile apart anymore, and yes, if my community had that problem, I would be advocating that we consolidate and streamline operations and, in fact, I was a part of exactly that in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Paid firefighters and volunteers can work side-by-side for the common good – again, been there done that, and forming that model now in Highlands County, Florida.

Like any organizational dynamic, paid and volunteer members will have friction. You can analyze it all you want, it’s one of those facts of life like dogs and cats. Sometimes they get along, sometimes they don’t – remembering our simple mission is key to getting through the friction.

What is that simple mission? SERVICE! Grandma Jones doesn’t care whether you’re paid or volunteer; she really doesn’t. Understanding that, there is also a certain expectation of perfection. Quoting my friend Chicago Chief John Eversole, “Our Department takes 1,120 calls every day. Do you know how many of the calls the public expects perfection on? 1,120. Nobody calls and says, ‘send me two dumbass firemen in a pickup truck.’ In 3 minutes, they want five brain-surgeon decathlon champions to come and solve their problems.” Grandma Jones wants you, at your best, regardless of whether you’re paid or volunteer.

Honesty, truth, transparency

There is plenty of room together for recruitment, retention and transparency. If your situation is already not roses, then talking like everything’s flowery isn’t doing a thing to fix it for Grandma Jones. Take whatever steps are necessary to recruit, retain, educate, hire, consolidate or reevaluate, because the service you provide (or don’t provide) will be what they remember, not the patch on your shoulder or the size of your paycheck.

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