How to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters

Chief Kenneth Richards shared his advice and successes on keeping volunteers on a combination fire department at FRI

DALLAS — That we're having a harder time attracting and keeping volunteer firefighters is nothing new. Statistics showing their dwindling numbers across the nation are easy to find.

The solutions to these problems are not so easy. Kenneth Richards, fire chief in Old Mystic, Conn., offered some workable solutions during his presentation at this year's International Association of Fire Chief's Fire-Rescue International conference.

Chief Richards, who's spent 21 years as chief of the combination department, told the near-capacity crowd that successful recruiting begins with the officer leading that effort.

"Pick a recruitment officer with people skills," Chief Richards said. Those skills need to extend to all types of people, and the officer needs to show recruits that the department is a winning team.

"The officer should paint a good picture of the department for them, but be honest," he said.

That honesty involves letting a candidate know what the time constraints and expectations are to join the department. On the backend of that, he said, is the need for establishing and maintaining high standards for being a firefighter.

Those high standards means that not everyone recruited can be retained. A chief cannot keep everyone and it is a mistake to give those the benefit of the doubt who cannot meet the same standards as the rest of the department.

Chief Richards relayed the story of one firefighter that his gut told him to let go, an instinct he didn't follow and would pay for. That firefighter set out to bring down the chief, which took years to sort out and took a toll on his health.

But the good ones need to be retained. In fact, he said, when those we want to keep leave, we have failed.

Chief Richards urged all departments to develop a retention program and offered by way of example that his department spends $184,000 per year to retain its 35 active volunteers. That money goes largely to paid-on call salaries, recognition banquets and other activities.

There's no cookie-cutter retention program that will work for all departments; different departments have different needs, he said. The key to a successful program is to ask the members what is important to them.

In Old Mystic, an annual awards banquet is important to members and that district spends about $5,000 per year on the banquet — money, the chief says, is well spent.

They also asked members which they'd rather have: pay per call or a retirement fund. The overwhelming choice was pay per call.

Retention also comes down to the little things chiefs and officers can do. For example, Chief Richards sends a handwritten birthday card with a short personal note to each member. It is easy and goes a long way in boosting firefighters' sense of belonging.

The chief also makes sure to attend and participate in recruit training and respond to some of the less-exciting calls — like the routine medical runs to a nursing home.

With all of the competition for volunteers' time and energy, a well-thought out and well-executed plan is essential.

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