Leadership’s Impact on Recruitment and Retention

By Thomas A. Merrill 

Reprinted from the NVFC’s 2021 Firefighter Strong publication  

You don’t have to be in the volunteer fire service to be aware that there is a serious problem when it comes to recruiting members. It seems like every day there are news stories highlighting the plunging membership rolls in America’s volunteer fire departments. It’s a serious problem, and there is a lot of time, energy, and money being put into the recruitment effort. Perhaps an even bigger factor in the staffing shortage is the challenge of keeping new members after we successfully get them on board.  

I recently presented a class focusing on the problem of members leaving their volunteer fire department. I did quite a bit of research and found that department leadership has an impact on both recruitment and retention. Now certainly, there are some things that are out of the department leaders’ personal control when it comes to losing members. For example, they can’t prevent a member from relocating due to employment opportunities. But there are many things that are under the leader’s control that can help to bring in new members and keep the ones they have. 

All Members are Recruiters
First and foremost, leaders need to ensure they are delivering the message that the department’s entire membership are recruitment ambassadors. Sure, there may be a committee that puts together advertising campaigns or organizes membership drives, but every single department member has the potential to bring in additional members. Simple actions such as how they behave can serve to entice people – or dissuade them. Who wants to join an organization filled with mean spirited or belligerent members? Just the same, members who behave appropriately and demonstrate respect and proper decorum with those they come in contact with certainly serve as better recruitment ambassadors for the department. 

Members should be encouraged to speak positively about the department and be careful not to paint a doomsday scenario. Who wants to board a sinking ship? Remind members to talk about the many positive attributes that come with the membership such as the great training, the second family they become part of, and the bonds of friendships that will last generations. Leaders need to remind the membership of their impact on the recruitment process and at the same time, need to understand they are held to the same standards themselves. 

Create a Recruitment Mechanism
Sometimes departments lose members even before they have them, and strong leadership can make a difference here. There was a 20-something who spent a couple years with my department before his wife’s job took him several hundred miles away. He was a certified interior firefighter and an EMT, and any one of our department members would have given him a glowing recommendation. Who wouldn’t want a new member of this quality? 

 Well, he stopped at his new local firehouse one night and the members there didn’t know how to get an application into his hand. He stopped back a second time, and they took his phone number, but no one called him back. So, he went to their web site to try and find contact information for anyone who might be able to help him become a member only to find the web site hadn’t been updated in years. When he emailed one of addresses listed, it bounced back. He finally gave up and never joined. This volunteer fire department lost a member before they even had him. This is a failure of leadership on many levels. 

 This is also a pretty easy fix for department leaders. They should spend a little time ensuring that everybody in the department is well versed in the recruitment process. All members should know where the applications are kept and what to do and say when somebody expresses an interest in joining. At the very least, leadership should instruct them to get the interested person’s name and phone number so a department representative can call them back. And then make sure there is a designated person who follows through and does call candidates back.  

Keep Information Up to Date
A very simple expectation people have today is that a company’s web site and social media pages are kept up to date with accurate information. Leadership should designate a person to be in charge of this because people will go to these sites seeking membership information. If the information isn’t there or isn’t up to date, they will move on to other things. These sites also need to be monitored in case a community member asks for membership information. If they are not contacted in a timely manner, it’s easy to lose them. Think how upset you probably have gotten when a company’s business web site was unorganized and outdated. You probably didn’t form a very favorable opinion of it, and in our case, it will cost us members. 

Onboard New Members
While putting together the presentation, it amazed me how many members left the organization after only a very short time. Further analysis indicated this was often the result of poor onboarding that left the new member confused and disengaged. Again, strong leadership putting together strong programs can help here. A well-organized onboarding program will start a new member out in the right direction. Done correctly, they are kept informed and involved and made to feel like an important member of the team from the start. Think of any job you may have had that had either a poor or really good onboarding process and how it impacted your impression of the organization. Gone are the days of simply throwing gear at a member and telling them to just start going to calls. That approach can leave them confused, disenchanted, and even unsafe. 

 Many leaders fail to realize just how important good onboarding can be when it comes to keeping members. Employees who participate in a structured onboarding program are 69% more likely to stay with an organization for three years. A formal orientation program is a great way to start new members off in their volunteer firefighting career, and leaders should ensure one is in place in their department. 

Set the Tone
Leaders do not have to be everybody’s best friend, but they certainly need to treat everybody with kindness and respect. Leaders set the overall organizational tone and that tone is palpable to the entire membership. If it’s negative and filled with conflict, or members feel as if they are not valued, they will not be very motivated and may even choose to leave. Leaders also set the tone for accepted organizational behavior. It’s the 2020s and the volunteer fire service needs to be accepting, diversified, and inclusive. Bullying, harassment, and discriminatory actions cannot be condoned, and leadership sets the example that others will follow and emulate. 

Leadership Development
Leaders need to be honest with themselves about the impact they are having on their organization. In one of the surveys I reviewed, 70% of current department leaders recognized that retention was a big problem for their agency, but the majority believed that members were leaving because they were having trouble juggling the time commitment for being a volunteer with their personal life. In the same survey, former members reported they left due to poor leadership. Wow! 

Leadership training is paramount to learn how to better work with, understand, and motivate members. As members progress through the ranks and take on leadership roles, they need to continue to receive leadership education and training. Remember, not all leaders are officers. No doubt, we want strong officers to develop into strong and effective leaders, but true leadership is not defined by any collar insignia or fancy title. Any department member can be looked up to as a leader. And leaders can impact the retention of members in a very good way, or a very bad way. 

The recruitment and retention of new members is of paramount importance for the long-term success and survival of any volunteer fire department. Agencies have spent a lot of money and put forth incredible effort in attempts to slow the membership bleed. The fact is, strong department leadership can be the most important link when it comes to not just bringing new members in, but keeping them as well. 

Tom Merrill is a 38-year fire department veteran and serves with the Snyder Fire Department in Amherst, NY. He served 26 years as a department officer, was chief of department from 2007-2012, and currently serves as fire commissioner for Snyder Fire District. Tom has conducted various fire service presentations throughout the country and is the author of the series of articles “The Professional Volunteer Fire Department” which is featured on Fire Engineering’s web site. He hosts a Fire Engineering podcast as well.