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7 factors that affect firefighter retention – and how to fix them

From showing appreciation to explaining the “why,” there are several ways to help minimize attrition rates at your department

Back in the early 1980s, hundreds of people would apply for just a couple of open firefighter positions. In some cities, you had to camp out in line for days just to have the opportunity to take the test. These circumstances were often true for both fire and law enforcement positions.

Fast forward to the present, and things have changed dramatically. In some places, barely enough qualified candidates test for available positions. Some police departments have double-digit attrition and officers are stretched to the breaking point with long shifts and mandatory overtime.

In such challenging times, organizations must work harder to retain the trained and experienced people they have. Here are seven factors that contribute to attrition, and some ideas on how you can do better in each area.

  1. A lack of appreciation. I knew some fire officers who took this to the extreme – never saying a supportive or positive word “because doing the job right is what you’re supposed to do.” But everyone needs positive reinforcement, recognition and a sense of belonging. Everyone wants to be seen as an individual and feel that they have support from others on the job. This does not need to be excessive to be effective. Just acknowledging good work or sincerely asking how someone is doing if they seem down can make a huge difference.
  2. Unfairness and favoritism. In any organization, there will be those who seem to naturally excel and those who have a harder time. Sometimes these expectations are developed as early as recruit school, and that “halo effect” can follow someone, for better or worse, for an entire career. Officers must try to be objective when evaluating those they work with, and endeavor to give everyone a clean slate. They should try to give everyone equal opportunities to contribute both on and off the emergency scene.
  3. A lack of autonomy over one’s work. This is an easy trap for fire officers to fall into. The fire service is hierarchical, even paramilitary, and scene safety requires strict adherence to orders and protocol. But that does not preclude giving people autonomy in what they do. You can tell someone to ventilate the roof on the southwest corner of a structure without telling them the exact dimensions of the hole or standing over them while they make the cut. Even the newest firefighter can be given some responsibility – to take the lead on a public education program or research a new rescue tool, for example. Telling firefighters to “show up to work on time, follow orders and otherwise keep your mouth shut” is a waste of resources and a good way to lose good people.
  4. Showing no interest in employees’ passions. This relates to the first point about recognition and appreciation. If you don’t know what a person’s interests are, how can you utilize that person to the best advantage for the organization and the community you serve? An average firefighter might have a passion for technical rescue and be invaluable in that role. But if you don’t know they even have an interest in that area, that potential resource will be lost.
  5. Generic forms of appreciation. All feedback should be specific. Sure, it’s nice to say “great job” after a tough fire, but that feedback will be much more meaningful if it is linked to specific actions. “The fact you noticed that rear entrance allowed us to make a much faster attack on the fire and saved property” and “Your compassion with that child calmed his fears and made it easier for us to get him the medical care he needed” are two examples of how pointing to specific actions makes feedback more resonant and increases the chance it will have positive future effects.
  6. A lack of meaning. This should never be a problem for emergency responders, but sadly, it often is. Some of the work we do is not exciting and not especially rewarding or appreciated at the time. Sometimes there are bad outcomes even when the best effort is given. Good leaders know that they must think big even when they are acting small – always remember and reinforce the larger mission and sense of purpose even when individual situations may be frustrating or unfulfilling.
  7. A lack of fun and play. Again, this should not be a problem for firefighters. One of the best things about the job is that you work with people who have not forgotten how to play. But sometimes officers can go to extremes in this area, either allowing the fun times to get crazy and even unprofessional, or being so controlling that people feel they are walking on eggshells. Managing the fun/play element is a balancing act for any leader – taking steps to ensure behavior remains appropriate, that everyone is included, and that the “fun” is not just for some at the expense of others.

Retention reflects organizational health

Retention is a practical matter – it is much less costly in time, energy and money to keep an experienced, trained member than it is to recruit and train a replacement for that person. But retention is also a matter of ethics and values.

  • What do individuals really mean to the organization?
  • Do all members feel they are equally valued and given a fair opportunity to achieve?
  • Do they feel a sense of personal mission in what they do?

If the answer to these questions is no, it might be time to reassess your organizational approach to retaining the most valuable resource you have.

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This article, originally published on April 13, 2023, has been updated.

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.