The first 90 days: Why firefighters leave and how to keep them
Detailing three reasons career firefighters don’t stick around – and solutions to keep them on the team
In the first episode of the FireRescue1 podcast Side Alpha, host Marc Bashoor speaks with Fire Chief John Butler about setting department missions, engaging in strategic planning and how to avoid “quick quits” among new firefighters. Listen to the podcast here.
With the overwhelming majority of fire jobs being volunteer and part time, you’d think that career departments would have no issues with retention. For a lot of departments, this certainly isn’t the case.
While new firefighters leave for a variety of reasons, it’s important to first identify why and then discuss ways to improve retention.
Over the last few years, I’ve met with several recruits and new firefighters to get their feedback on what interested them in their current department, as well as what they liked and didn’t like about where they work.
I’ve identified three main drivers of unhappy firefighters that lead them to either move to a different department or leave the fire service altogether.
Reason #1: Poor fit
Fire departments can be tough social environments, and it’s difficult to know just how someone will interact with a new group. Whether the new recruit doesn’t get along with their new crew or a similar imbalance, sometimes it’s just a poor fit.
As we all know, the firefighter hiring process is long and arduous, and it is purposely set up like this to give departments a good idea of who they are hiring. Though the process is thorough, it does have its shortcomings and doesn’t always allow officers and department personnel to get to know recruits on a personal level before hiring them.
Poor fit also refers to the actual culture and leadership of a department. Maybe your department is plagued with poor morale and bad actors. Every department has them, but how do they affect the culture of your department?
If you’re not careful to keep these individuals in check, they can easily drive out good probationary firefighters, leading to poor retention at your department.
Potential Solution: Require a certain number of ride-along hours for recruits to be considered for the hiring process. This would help departments make a better decision as to how prospects interact with department personnel as well as the general public while on calls.
Reason #2: Better pay/job stability
Let’s face it, not all cities/districts are the same. This goes for the financial stability of each department, too.
When I first became a firefighter, I was hired at a department in which I left three weeks later for a job at another department for a significant pay raise. While some firefighters will scoff at the notion of doing that, I don’t regret the decision for a minute.
Potential solution: While dealing with pay rates and compensation can be a nightmare and, in many cases, out of the control of the leadership, there is something they still may be able to do.
In the book “Drive,” author Daniel Pink talks about what motivates us, in particular, what motivates us in the workplace. While the book wasn’t directed towards fire departments specifically, the lessons relate well to any organization, including fire departments.
Pink details three aspects to an employee’s motivation: purpose, mastery and autonomy:
- Purpose: Firefighters, like all people, need to have a sense of purpose in their work. Reminding firefighters that their work and performance matter is an important part of being a leader in the fire service.
- Mastery: Giving firefighters the ability to master a specific area of the job is helpful for providing motivation. For example, if one of your firefighters has a lot of experience with building construction, let them teach classes to the other firefighters on building construction and how it relates to the fire service.
- Autonomy: This may be a little more difficult in the fire service, as you definitely don’t want new recruits off doing their own thing. However, it’s important to remember the value new recruits bring to your department in terms of the new techniques they have learned while in the fire academy.
Departments can focus on giving new recruits more autonomy, master and purpose, motivating them to stay and grow in their current department, as opposed to looking for more money elsewhere.
Reason #3: No room for growth/not what they thought it would be
It’s no secret that there are fewer fires today than there were 20-30 years ago. With greater advances in fire prevention and fewer fires, departments have been forced to integrate with EMS in order to keep their current staffing levels.
However, firefighters are still portrayed in a way that doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality of the modern fire service. For example, where I work, all personnel are required to be paramedics before applying, as the overwhelming number of calls are for EMS.
Unfortunately, many new firefighters find this very disheartening and leave to get hired at larger city departments where they face more fires.
Also, many smaller departments struggle with the lack of opportunities for growth within their department. Typically, smaller departments employ personnel that stay there for their entire career. It’s tough to look at your future and not see even a possibility for promotion or advancement for years, and sometimes decades, to come.
Potential solution: While this may be frowned upon by many senior firefighters, consider moving your department toward more merit-based promotions as opposed to longevity-based promotions. Another option could be creating a leadership program within your department. For example, instead of having acting officers appointed based on seniority, designate a handful of promising firefighters who fill the role of officer when the normal shift officer is not on duty.
A continued retention evolution
Recruitment and retention are issues all organizations struggle with. It’s understandable considering the changing nature of the modern fire service. Hopefully, as the fire service evolves, so will the ability to recruit and retain top level talent to continue to move forward.
Editor’s Note: What strategies has your department employed to keep career firefighters from leaving? Share in the comments below or with email@example.com.