Firefighter retention begins with recruitment

Firefighters leave the job for a variety of reasons, setting things in order before recruiting them can cut those losses

Last month I wrote about how to retain firefighters, even when there are other nearby departments that may offer better pay or benefits. One person commenting on that article pointed out that there is a difference between firefighters leaving to join another fire department and those who leave the fire service altogether.

He stated that this latter category of firefighter attrition often reflects on how those firefighters were recruited and hired.

Without question, retention is linked to recruitment and a firefighter's early experience in the department. Other factors may come into play as well.

Entry-level firefighters are typically screened extensively before being brought onto the department. These screenings may include various forms of testing: cognitive, physical and psychological as well as other factors such as background checks, personal references and lie-detector tests.

Given this level of scrutiny of any new firefighter, it seems counter-intuitive that a candidate might be chosen who is not a good fit for the fire service. Yet it happens all the time.

As seen on TV
How can fire departments do a better job with recruitment? The first step is to be sure that recruitment information accurately reflects the job as it is really done, not as it might be portrayed in TV or movies.

The entertainment industry often portrays firefighting as involving a dramatic fire or rescue every shift, and down time in the station spent just goofing off with coworkers. People with this image of firefighting might be disillusioned to find themselves doing fire inspections and cleaning toilets as a regular part of their work.

So be sure to talk about all aspects of the job when recruiting new members.

  • What percentage of the work is EMS-based?
  • Are firefighters involved with prevention and education activities?
  • What does a normal day in the station look like?

Another reason that an otherwise qualified candidate might leave the fire service is because of misalignment with individual skills and interests.

'Firefighters never quit'
A paramedic with the private ambulance service decided to become a firefighter, looking for better pay, benefits and job security. By all accounts he was a fine firefighter and qualified in every aspect.

But what he really loved was being a paramedic, and neither this department nor others nearby did anything beyond basic life support. After a couple years, he left and returned to working full time in emergency medicine.

A firefighter who was also a private pilot found himself increasingly drawn to working in aviation and left the department to do that full time. A firefighter who coached youth athletics realized this work was his real passion, and left the department to get his master's degree in education.

This type of attrition is not a failure of the fire service. As another commenter last month observed, "Firefighters never quit. They just move on to more important jobs where their skill set is needed the most."

Sometimes an otherwise qualified firefighter is temperamentally unsuited to the job. This disconnect may not be apparent early in a firefighter's career but may develop over time.

For example, one firefighter found himself increasingly emotionally affected by the medical calls he went on. Ultimately he left the job for work that was less stressful in this way.

Meet expectations
Outside factors and life changes may contribute to a firefighter's decision to leave the service before a full career. Changes in family status might make the firefighter's schedule untenable with childcare, for example. Some departments have looked at creative solutions to help their members with these kinds of issues.

Finally, promising firefighters might leave the fire service because the job does not live up to their expectations. Anyone can be disappointed, but this reason for a shortened career might disproportionately affect underrepresented communities within the fire service.

Women or minority men might be positively recruited and be high achievers on the job. But if people do not feel truly included on the job, or if they experience harassment or disparate treatment once there, there won't be much incentive to stay for the long term once a better option emerges for them.

What can fire service leaders do to ensure that recruitment actually attracts the best people? Start by being honest and straightforward about what the job really entails as well as what certifications and ongoing training are required.

Give candidates and their families opportunities to meet with firefighters and department representatives in informal settings where their questions may be candidly answered.

Perhaps most important, be sure that the experiences of all new firefighters — in recruit school and in the fire station — live up to the high expectations and standards that the department puts forward during recruitment drives. Make recruitment and retention part of the overall core mission of the department, and be sure that all firefighters understand their key role in these efforts.

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