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2 ways to fight volunteer burnout

Volunteering will take everything you offer and more, which is why controlling burnout is critical to keeping firefighters engaged

There comes a time when you have just had enough and may need a break or to retire; volunteer firefighters burn out. This is not necessarily because there is anything wrong with the member or the department; sometimes we just have had enough.

There are techniques that can help you determine when someone is burnt out and help prevent burnout.

Volunteering will take everything you are willing to give. It will even take things that you are unwilling to give. Many do not look at volunteering like work but see it as a way to relax, even though they are putting their heart and soul into it.

The truth is that volunteering as a firefighter is not the same as volunteering once a year to clean up your neighborhood or paint a house. Volunteering as a firefighter is a 24-hour commitment and one that can cause us to lose focus, resulting in burnout.

Striking a balance
I will never forget my mother sharing a story about when she met my father. My father explained that the firehouse will always come first, and she will come second. At that point that, my mother said, she realized that it takes someone special to love a firefighter, and she was right.

Although I may not agree with my father that the firehouse always comes first, it often does. The result is that we end up having to sacrifice everything to help others, and may not have support at home. Then again, this was the way I was raised, as were many others.

In thinking back to when I started in the fire service, maybe my chief had it right. He said that family, church and work always come first, then the fire service. He may not have known it at the time, but my wise chief was talking about finding a balance.

Yes, we do have to sacrifice for others, but not at the cost of who we are, our family and our life.

Giving too much
It is too easy to get burnt out in the fire service, and very rarely is it due to fires. Burnout occurs when members sacrifice themselves too much.

You know the members who always do all of the work. You know the members who are at every fundraiser. You know the members who practically live at the department.

Chances are they are on their way to being burnt out. Their hearts are in the right place but they may be sacrificing too much.

They often believe if they don’t do it, no one will. This type of burden can burn out anyone.

When we don’t deal with burnout, it comes out on its own. This is the moment when the member starts fighting about everything. We have all had members quit over silly fights, and the truth is that it wasn’t the fight, but that the member was burnt out long before.

Relief valves
Fortunately there are a lot of tools available to help prevent burnout. The first is sharing the load. This may be as simple as relieving someone from flipping pancakes so that person can eat breakfast with his or her family. It may be as difficult as finding others to step up to officer positions so that others can take a break.

The goal is to help bring down the stress level for a period of time, which may even require a vacation from the firehouse.

We also need to build in stress relievers into the department every year. It can be the good old wet-downs, BBQs, family picnics or anything you can think of.

Here is a twist, how about asking for a day for a mutual-aid company to cover your department so that you can all relax? You can even trade days. This way everyone can take part in the fun and not worry about the bell going off.

A day off, a day relaxing, a day partying and a day with family can go a long way toward preventing firefighter burnout.

Volunteer fire departments face a unique set of challenges. Learn how to manage or serve on a volunteer department with Jason Zigmont, founder of, in his FireRescue1 exclusive column, ‘Volunteer Professionals.’