By Kevin Kupietz, Faculty Member, Emergency and Disaster Management, American Military University
The average citizen likely has no idea the important role volunteer firefighters play in protecting communities. Nearly 21,000 of the nation’s 30,167 fire departments are totally volunteer-based and another 7,000 departments are a combination of paid and volunteer firefighters. That means only 2,457 departments in the entire country are made up of paid firefighters, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Yet despite the great number of communities that rely on volunteer firefighters, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for fire departments to recruit and retain quality volunteers. This has been an ongoing problem across the nation for the last couple of decades and is expected to worsen as fewer people volunteer and existing volunteers increase in age.
The severity of this situation cannot be understated. Not having enough volunteers will lead to less efficient fire protection within communities, which could ultimately result in increased property losses and, more importantly, an increase in fire-related injuries and deaths of both citizens and firefighters.
The Decline of Volunteerism
The fire service is not alone in seeing declining numbers of volunteers—all types of organizations are seeing such reductions. Research shows that only one in four Americans currently volunteers with a recognized volunteer organization or agency.
It’s important to understand the demographics of volunteers. For example, research shows that individuals in Generation X accounted for the highest percentage of volunteers at 29.4 percent. They are closely followed by the Baby Boomers at 27.2 percent and Millennials at 21.7 percent. It’s also worth noting that females volunteer their time (28 percent) more than males do (22 percent). It is also interesting to note that 32 percent of all married couples volunteer their time with an organization or an agency.
Leaders in the fire service must know and understand such data to help drive recruitment efforts. Gender disparity is a good starting point. Statistically, more women volunteer than men, but females make up less than 7 percent of the fire service. This highlights a potential opportunity for the fire service to increase the number of female volunteers as well as improve diversity.
Another interesting fact for leadership to make note of is the donation impact that volunteers make to organizations. Research shows that a 78.9 percent of all people who volunteer make regular charitable donations compared to only 40.7 percent of non-voluntary individuals. This means that a connection to community service helps not only drive increased staffing numbers, but also funding.
Strengthening Retention Can Lead to Increased Recruitment
In order for a recruitment campaign to be successful, an organization must first have a strong retention program. It makes no sense for an organization to recruit members that they cannot support or keep within the ranks.
A key to retention is having strong leaders who understand the volunteer force. A good leader must recognize and understand the goals of each individual in their command. Leaders must ask themselves: What are the reasons this firefighter is here? Is it because they want a sense of belonging to the family atmosphere of the fire service? Do they want to be useful, helping to protect their community? Do they like the physical challenge of the fire service?
Once a leader identifies the driving force behind a person’s volunteerism, they must strive to help the person meet those goals as best they can within the organization. This often requires time, dedication, and true mentorship. While such mentorship is essential to retention, it can sometimes clash with the traditional fire service culture. One of the sayings in the fire service is that “firefighters eat their young.” Rather than being nurtured, rookies and firefighter candidates are often rigorously tested to ensure they can be relied upon for the safety of themselves, their fellow crew members, and the public.
While it’s important that new individuals are properly trained to handle the physical aspects of the job, they are often unfairly thrown into worst-case scenarios that can misrepresent the full picture of what it’s like to be a volunteer firefighter. There are many stories of these types of situations, like rookies being told to recover a decapitated head on the first day of duty, which can cause extreme distress and not accurately represent a typical fire run. Ultimately, it is up to fire leaders to make sure new firefighters are prepared in all ways for the job, but they should not overlook the power of mentorship and guidance.
Restructuring the Expectations and Roles of Volunteer Firefighters
Another reason it can be difficult to recruit volunteers is because the average person does not understand the variety of responsibilities and opportunities that exist within the fire service. Traditionally, fire suppression has been the jewel task of the fire service—firefighters become firefighters to fight the big fire.
A common saying is: “If you want more volunteers, you need to have more fires.” This means that those who are likely to volunteer are drawn to the action that comes with responding to emergencies. Without this excitement and sense of contribution, volunteers will feel unneeded and seek other paths. However, this mindset not only restricts the pool of potential volunteers, but is actually misleading and omits other important responsibilities of firefighters.
Leaders of volunteer forces must work to paint a more accurate picture of the role of volunteer firefighters. Granted, there will always be a need for quick, decisive, efficient, fire-suppression activities within a fire department, but the typical firefighter has plenty of opportunities to make a difference beyond the fire ground. Firefighters can actually save far more lives through public education outreach and emergency medical service tasks than through fire suppression activities alone. By providing resources and opportunities for volunteers to participate in these other lifesaving tasks, leaders could help volunteers achieve a strong sense of satisfaction from helping their community and meeting their personal goals.
For those volunteers who join because they crave the adrenaline rush of responding to a fire, leaders can help satisfy that expectation through training opportunities. An active training schedule allows volunteers to maintain a high state of readiness by participating in ongoing drills that include challenging hands-on physical tasks. This strategy not only increases the skill level of volunteers, but also their sense of security in knowing they’ll be ready to respond to worst-case scenarios, should they happen.
Gathering Data to Better Understand Volunteers
Fire leaders can further enhance retention by better understanding why volunteers remain a firefighter or why a person may decide it is no longer for them. Not many fire departments actually poll their firefighters on a regular basis, anonymously, to determine what it is they like about the department and what opportunities they believe could change to better meet their needs. This information would provide insight into what leaders can do to improve satisfaction among their current volunteer force.
Similarly, not many departments conduct exit interviews with departing firefighters to find out why they are leaving. Collecting this information, without bias, can help leaders identify problems and find ways to improve retention rates. This data-collection strategy can be used by all departments, whether they’re fully paid, combined, or wholly volunteer.
Both reading what information is out there and gathering feedback from their own firefighters can provide leaders greater insight to the retention problem, and it can also save departments money in the long run. It’s expensive to train a firefighter, from outfitting them with specially fitted gear to having them participate in training drills and exercises. It also costs money to run advertising and outreach campaigns, in addition to the administrative expenditures of conducting interviews and testing candidates.
The future of the fire service depends on the ability of leaders to understand what is causing the volunteer deficit so they can improve recruitment and retention. The bottom line is that communities across the country depend heavily on volunteers to protect lives and property. To keep this force strong now and sustain it into the future, fire leaders must turn their attention to providing accurate information about what it means to volunteer as well as incentives to strengthen volunteer numbers within the fire service.
About the Author: Kevin Kupietz, Ph.D., is a firefighter and paramedic by trade with more than 20 years of experience. He has taught in traditional classrooms as well as in online formats for more than 15 years. He is an adjunct faculty for the graduate program of Emergency and Disaster Management at American Military University. He currently is a full-time emergency management faculty member at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU). He also serves with the Roanoke Rapids (NC) Fire Department, RRT1 hazmat team and NC1 DMAT. He received his Ph.D. in human services, MS in occupational safety, and BS in fire engineering. In addition, he is an Executive Fire Officer (EFO) graduate.