By Brad Davison, alumnus, American Military University
It will come as no surprise to members and chiefs of combination fire departments that the faltering volunteer firefighter system is one of the largest and most daunting issues in the fire service today.
According to a 2017 study I conducted as part of my Master’s Degree from American Military University, chiefs reported that volunteer firefighter recruitment and retention was the second biggest issue for their combination fire departments. (Read about their biggest concerns, budget and funding limitations).
[Related: Figuring out the Retention Puzzle]
The number of volunteer firefighters has rapidly declined over the past several decades. Many fire service veterans blame this decline on changes to the volunteer firefighter system over the last 30 years, including the increase in training requirements, time demands, and call volume. There’s truth to this beyond the tales of seasoned firefighters—statistics from the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) show the magnitude of this escalating problem.
A Decline in Volunteer Firefighters
In the last three decades, the number of volunteer firefighters has fallen by 12 percent, according to the NFPA. While this may not seem like a disastrous figure at first glance, consider that the number of calls for service has increased by roughly 240 percent. To handle this increased call volume, the number of career firefighters has increased by 43 percent, but departments are still struggling to keep up with demands for service.
In the past, gaps in manpower were filled with volunteer firefighters who joined—and often remained for years—within the ranks. However, the findings from my research found that 60 percent of chiefs now have major problems recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters. Of those chiefs, 78 percent reported that it was either the first, second, or third most influential problem they faced.
Volunteer and paid-on-call (POC) firefighters have always been the foundation of the American fire service. These firefighters still comprise 70 percent of the firefighting force and protect 50 percent of the population. The NFPA estimates that in 2011 alone, the donated time and labor of volunteer firefighters saved American taxpayers $139.8 billion. That equates to roughly 1 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
What Motivates and Discourages Volunteers
Since recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters has posed a considerable challenge to the fire service over the past several decades, a significant amount of trade and scholarly research has focused on this topic. Researchers and fire service leaders have worked tirelessly to better understand what’s causing the decline and to craft solutions to recruit more volunteers.
One of the major initiatives has been to identify what motivates someone to become a volunteer firefighter. It’s been found that volunteers are largely motivated by:
- Serving their Community
Volunteer firefighters are seeking a meaningful and practical way to serve their neighbors. Their service includes not only responding to emergency calls, but participating in community-oriented events such as chili-dinner fundraisers, public education events at schools, and more. These are people who thrive on engaging with the community and putting their training to valuable use. A proven way to burn-out a volunteer is with insignificant or infrequent service opportunities.
- Emotional Fulfillment
Studies are proving that volunteer firefighters are not motivated by money. The emotional feelings of value and worth are the only return that most volunteers desire. Volunteers at successful volunteer organizations report that they would continue to perform their duties without pay simply because they love what they do. Making volunteer firefighters question their community worth is an effective way to remove the love for what they do.
- Camaraderie within the Firehouse
Firefighters have historically been gripped by the sense of community and camaraderie around the firehouse. This network of support, education and enjoyment, often referred to as the brotherhood, is rarely experienced in other professions. Fire departments with an absent, negative, or cliquey sense of community make it difficult and unenjoyable for volunteers to join. This is especially true in combination departments that occasionally foster divides between career and volunteer firefighters.
Although there may be some overlap, the motivations of volunteer firefighters may differ from those of career firefighters. Realizing how to appeal directly to volunteers has proven to be a considerable challenge for many fire service leaders. A sustainable and realistic solution has yet to be identified. Continued attention and research on volunteer firefighter retention and recruitment is therefore critical to the system’s survival.
The next article in this series will explore political obstacles, employee requirement and retention, and increasing call volumes, which tied for the third most prominent and influential challenges to combination departments.
About the Author: Brad Davison is an engineer/paramedic in Indianola, Iowa. In the fall of 2017, Brad completed his Master’s degree in Public Administration, with a concentration in Emergency Management from American Military University. Beginning his career as a POC firefighter, Brad has a passion for combination fire departments. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. To receive more articles like this in your inbox, please sign up for In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.