Best Practices In Fire Department Sustainability

Roundtable on Fire Department Sustainability. L-R: Dr. Candice McDonald, Chief Joe Maruca, Brian Foley, Matt Aalto, and Tiger Schmittendorf

The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) held a special Roundtable on Fire Department Sustainability during its spring meeting on April 7. A panel of experts discussed key challenges regarding sustainability along with best practices to help fire departments retain members and meet staffing needs.

The roundtable was moderated by Dr. Candice McDonald, Firefighter/Public Information Officer with the Sebring (OH) Fire Department and Firefighter/EMT with the Winona (OH) Fire Department. McDonald recently completed her doctoral research on retaining volunteer firefighters in the U.S. The panelists included Matt Aalto, Firefighter/EMT and recruitment and retention coordinator for the Gaston (OR) Fire District; Brian Foley, Lieutenant for the Princeton Junction Fire Department in West Windsor Township, NJ; Joe Maruca, Chief of the West Barnstable Fire Department on Cape Cod (MA) and NVFC board member; and Tiger Schmittendorf, Deputy Fire Coordinator with the Erie County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, volunteer firefighter, and fire service recruitment and retention specialist.

The following are key takeaways from the panel discussion.

Finding Solutions to Sustainability Challenges

Most volunteer fire departments are well aware of the challenges to sustainability. Many communities are seeing an aging population with less younger people to potentially volunteer. Departments are losing volunteers to the career service or because members move out of the community to find better job opportunities. People generally have less time available to volunteer now than in decades past. In addition, many communities are providing less financial support to their local fire departments, creating a strain when it comes to training and equipping volunteers.

Sustainability is critical for a volunteer fire department. When a department is not able to retain an adequate number of personnel, it has the obvious impact of affecting the services a department can provide to a community. But losing members also has significant impact on both the financial aspect of a fire department and member morale.

There are solutions to recruitment and retention challenges; however, departments limit themselves if they are unwilling to change and adapt. Also, departments have to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for sustainability. Each community has to assess their needs and identify the solutions that work for them.

Best Practices for Sustainability

The panelists identified a series of best practices and tips departments should consider as they work to meet their sustainability needs. These are grouped together below by their common themes.

Be willing to adapt/change.

  • If current recruitment and retention methods are not working for a department, reassess to come up with different solutions.
  • Create more opportunities for people to volunteer with the understanding that they have less free time to give.
  • Recognize that members of today’s younger generation are individuals and a one-size fits all solution does not work with them. Leaders need to get to know their volunteers and their families.

Foster tomorrow’s leaders.

  • Give thought to how the organization survives the next decade.
  • Officers need to look forward to the next generation of fire service leaders. Senior management needs to make plans now for when they retire.
  • If the fire department’s system of management is antiquated, it is not conducive to getting young people to move up the ladder.
  • Mentor new recruits and work with them to create a roadmap for success and how they can accomplish their goals.
  • Work on creating effective communication between generations.
  • Be willing to let go and equip the next generation to become leaders.

Make the department a place people want to be.

  • Leadership is key in all areas of recruitment and retention, including making these priorities for the department and in making the department a place people want to belong.
  • Encourage diversity, and be inclusive to everyone who wants to volunteer, regardless of age, gender, race, or ethnicity. A department’s volunteer pool should reflect its community demographics.
  • Focus on the environment of the fire department and provide benefits that the members want.
  • Mental health is a barrier to retention. Provide support and resources to help members who are struggling with behavioral health issues.
  • Make sure members are able to maintain a good work-life balance as well as feel job satisfaction.
  • In communities with low structure fire call volume, find other ways to engage and motivate members. Firefighters can get bored or burn out if they aren’t challenged or used enough. Find other activities they can do for the department, let them know about events and training opportunities locally or state-wide, and work with other area departments that need additional assistance.

Make it personal.

  • Recruitment takes a grassroots, face-to-face approach.
  • Understand that the younger generation is used to instant information – if someone expresses an interest in volunteering, get back to them right away.
  • Provide benefits community members want and communicate these to potential volunteers. In Princeton, NJ, the township pays for an associate’s degree for people who agree to volunteer with the department one to two days per week. The department members get out into the community, such as high school sporting events, meetings, and community events, to tell potential volunteers how volunteer service can help them go to college.
  • Set up expectations early so new recruits know what they are getting into.
  • Get new volunteers involved in traditions early, and get their families involved.
  • Recognize and reward new firefighters when they do something good.

Keep recruitment at the forefront.

  • Remember that recruitment is ongoing. The goal is to get to the point where the focus is on quality candidates rather than the quantity of candidates.
  • Social media is a great way to reach the next generation of volunteer firefighters. The department can use social media platforms organically to increase interest in volunteering, and can also place inexpensive paid ads to reach potential volunteers. Successful ad campaigns on Facebook can cost just a few dollars a day.

Broaden the scope.

  • Don’t discount volunteers who are looking to move to the career service. They can provide several years of volunteer service before they move on, and some may even continue to volunteer on the side after getting a paid position.
  • Consider opening up recruitment to neighboring communities.
  • Establish mutual aid agreements with nearby departments to help meet call volume needs.
  • In order to better protect the department’s investment in training new members, the department could require that if people do not complete a minimum length of service, they get fined or have to pay back training costs. The department could also set a minimum time people need to volunteer before certain benefits kick in, such as school assistance, and/or have more benefits kick in the longer a person serves.