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How to keep firefighters from quitting

Financial compensation is a small piece of why firefighters stay or leave a department; here are the bigger reasons


I recently read an article about a large fire department’s concern regarding retention of its members. This department is in the process of hiring 75 new firefighters to replace members who have left the department in the past year.

Other fire departments of all sizes are facing the replacement of significant numbers of firefighters in the coming years.

You don’t often hear about retention as a critical issue for career fire departments. When a thousand people show up for every entry-level test, it is easy to think that the department will never have a problem with retaining members.

But retention, especially among under-represented communities, has always been a problem for fire departments. This problem may not be obvious if departments do a decent job with recruitment.

For example, for a long time my own department prided itself on having a larger than average percentage of women among its members. However, this percentage represented something of a revolving door as women left before full careers and were replaced by newer women in a subsequent hiring process.

Is it the money?

What makes firefighters want to leave their departments? Even more importantly, what motivates them to stay?

When it comes to career firefighting, it might seem insane for a person to voluntarily leave the job. Good jobs are hard to find, and there is wide agreement that being a firefighter is a very good job.

But what makes it a good job? Is it money, benefits, time off?

Obviously these factors are not the same for all departments. As one union official stated, “It’s easy for other departments to pick off our members because they can attract our members with higher salaries and better benefit packages.”

Money is important. People have to make a living, support their families, pay their bills. But money isn’t everything, particularly when it comes to retaining members.

When it comes to retention, fire departments might look to volunteer agencies for some insight. By definition, volunteer firefighters are not paid or are paid very little for their participation and work.

3 ways to compensate

To better deal with the challenges of retention, departments would be better served thinking about compensation in a wider sense versus just pay. Compensation can come in many forms. Money is one of them. But there are many more ways people can be compensated or feel rewarded for their contributions.

Beyond money, compensation comes in three general forms for firefighters: respect, inclusion, and empowerment or opportunity.

Firefighters serve their communities. The vast majority of community members value and openly appreciate that service. Look at the way communities rally around firefighters who have been injured in the line of duty.

Over and over in national surveys, firefighting is near the top of the most-respected professions.

This respect and trust mean a lot to firefighters. Feeling that your work is valued is highly motivating. Knowing that your coworkers, leaders and community respect you will go a long way toward reinforcing retention.

On the other hand, if that respect is absent or lost — if one member breaks trust with the community so that all firefighters are suspect, or if leaders disregard and disrespect those who work with them — members will likely look elsewhere for making a long-term commitment.

Outsiders go outside

Inclusion and a sense of belonging are critical for retention. Fire departments are traditionally thought of as families, and this family sense can be a strong factor for people choosing to stay with a particular department.

But what if a member feels like an outsider? What if that person is routinely excluded from the social and professional networks that exist within the department? What if no effort is made to include someone as an equal member because that person might be different in some way?

When people feel that they don’t belong, they will always be open to moving on. And no amount of money will change that feeling.

Finally, retention is enhanced when members feel that through their participation they are creating new opportunities for themselves. They need to feel empowered through training and education, through inclusion in decision-making processes, and through opportunities to move into leadership roles.

If these opportunities are abundant, people will tend to stay with an organization. When they are absent, they will look elsewhere for that fulfillment.

Notice that the factors discussed here have little to do with money. The fact is that all fire departments cannot pay the same. Some cannot pay at all. But all fire departments have within their power the ability to provide meaningful compensation and reward, and protect the valuable investment they make in all their members.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.