'It’s time to declare a staffing mayday': 21 ways VFDs can break the mold

Volunteer leaders must dare to do something different in the recruitment and retention of fire department members

We have been saying for years that we have fewer volunteers today than in the past. That is a true statement. But what have we done about the problem? We sure talk about it a lot. Some programs have been created at both the local and national levels. But what have we really done about it?

I would suggest that we have done very little other than complain.

It is time to gear up. It is time to declare a staffing mayday. After all, we cant continue to operate our departments in the ways of the past – ways that have ultimately resulted in an inadequate number of volunteers for today.

It's time to dare to take a different approach if we want to successfully onboard, and retain, dedicated volunteers.
It's time to dare to take a different approach if we want to successfully onboard, and retain, dedicated volunteers. (Photo/John M. Buckman III)

The root of the problem

I know some fire chiefs have implemented automatic aid for emergency response, but that is not addressing the real problem, particularly as staffing through automatic aid often arrives 15-20 minutes into the event.

The real problem can be boiled down to a simple phrase: The world has changed. People no longer have the free time to devote to becoming a volunteer firefighter and/or EMT. Many would rather give money to the volunteer fire department than their time.

Is this the fire department’s fault? I dont think so, but we must acknowledge reality: Expectations of members have changed but, in many cases, fire departments staffed with all volunteers are still trying to operate following the model of the past.

A typical day

Let’s take a realistic look at what it takes to be a volunteer firefighter – and how that fits into a common schedule.

For many, serving as a volunteer requires a minimum of 8 hours per week. Here’s the breakdown of an average citizen’s 24-hour day:

  • 8 hours sleep
  • 8 hours work
  • 2 hours meals
  • 2 hours commute
  • 2 hours family time
  • 2 hours discretionary time

If you consider how to prioritize your values – faith, family, friends and work – then add in some discretionary time, how much time do you have for additional responsibilities?

Many older members joined the volunteer fire department as our one discretionary activity. Many younger individuals now have multiple discretionary activities. That is not to say this approach is better or worse; it is just different – and it means we are competing for their time.

Dare to do something different

Many organizations that are experiencing staffing problems are stuck in a rut, doing the same old thing over and over. Stop the old way of thinking and doing. Be bold. Look around and see what other volunteer organizations are doing that help make them successful.

There is no one simple solution, but there are multiple opportunities, and each department will have to try different approaches to find what fits best. Following are some ideas, in no particular order:

1. Change leadership: Maybe, just maybe, the individuals in leadership roles are not the right people. It may be just one or it could be multiple levels of leaders. Sometimes one leader over time can change the direction of the ship and take an organization off course. A toxic leader who has nothing good to say about the organization or the members will kill an organization faster than almost any other single aspect. A toxic leader can infect other leaders and the next thing the organization discovers is the leadership is sick figuratively.

2. Reduce the number of officers: Too many cooks can spoil the soup – a phrase all too appropriate for many of our organizations that have fewer people. Who is really qualified to fill the officer spot?

3. Reconsider your officer selection process: Are you still using the good ol’ boy” promotion system? If so, is the system giving you the quality of leaders you are seeking? If not, what are your options – appointment, elections, a promotional process that includes testing both written and performance? Ensure that you are getting the qualified person to promote.

4. Give application bonuses: Yes, money! Look around your community. There are businesses paying bonuses just to get someone to come to work. Could this work at the VFD?

5. Reduce service: This is certainly not a popular option, but it is an option. Perhaps we don’t have to respond to every EMS call when an ambulance with paid staff will also be responding. When you reduce service, you also reduce training expectations.

6. Use selective dispatching: Depending on the size of your department, when you get that call for grandma fell and cant get up,” do you need to activate 20 or more pagers? The reality is that you only need two people to respond.

7. Develop and implement an active recruiting program: The IAFC and National Volunteer Fire Council offer programs to help recruit new volunteers. Take advantage of these free resources in your community.

8. Market your VFD: Use flyers, brochures, yard signs, banners, social media, bulletin boards, website, anything, to tell the story of your VFD. Send articles, photos and videos to various media outlets. Look to the church for an opportunity to share your message.

9. Apply for a SAFER grant: The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant can be used for a variety of recruitment and retention activities by career, combination and volunteer departments.

Some components of the SAFER application carry a higher funding priority. Departments that match these factors are funded more frequently:

  • Physicals for new applicants
  • Annual medical exams for all members
  • Training of applicants to the NFPA FF II level and as EMTs
  • Hiring a retaining and recruiting coordinator

The hiring component of the grant supports applications to hire new firefighters. You might also consider changing the status of your compensation plan for existing volunteers.

10. Offer referral bonuses: Pay a bonus to current members who recruit a new member. The bonus would be paid when the new volunteer comes off probation.

11. Increase benefits for existing volunteers: When was the last time you looked at your benefits program? The bigger concern is those of you thinking right now, “What benefit program?” Remember, however, that there are both tangible and intangible benefits. Have you defined these benefits? Are they posted in the fire station? Is the benefits explanation a part of the application process?

Here are some tangible benefits that may already exist in your department:

  • Health insurance
  • Workers’ compensation
  • Award programs
  • Uniforms
  • Protective clothing

Some of the intangible benefits may include:

  • Camaraderie
  • Friendship
  • Reduced stress
  • Increased self-confidence
  • Sense of purpose
  • Social activities
  • Happiness
  • Advancement of personal and professional career goals
  • Improved leadership skills
  • Improved problem-solving skills
  • Improved ability to work with others who might be different than you
  • Satisfies a need to contribute and/or make a difference

12. Develop a duty system: Get volunteers to commit to staying available and make responses for a specific day from a specific time to time.

13. Pay per response: Compensate for responding for calls. This has not been a strong motivating factor in my experience. The volunteer would still decide when to respond based upon their availability. It’s somewhat like treating being a volunteer firefighter just like a part-time job, but in reality, it is often far more than a part-time job to be actively involved as a volunteer firefighter.

14. Pay for training attendance: This can be a motivator, but only if the pay is adequate.

15. Hire part-time members: Start by covering daytime shifts on weekdays. Two people on duty at the station could handle more than 85% of your emergency dispatches.

16. Pay for duty time: This would require the volunteer to be on station, immediately available for response.

17. Retool your training: Ensure that training is relevant to the job you expect your member to perform, and that it is well planned and executed. Dont waste the volunteers time with bad training. Further, ensure you’re able to answer the following questions related to training your volunteers:

  • What will the volunteer gain from training?
  • Is the training in alignment with the fire department goals?
  • How will the training be conducted?
  • Who will teach the training?
  • What is the budget for training?
  • What training materials are necessary?
  • What are the logistics of conducting and completing the training?

18. Share your concerns to elicit help: Inform the elected officials and the public of the staffing problem and the consequences. It is not the sole responsibility of the fire chief/fire department to provide fire protection services. Put the problem in the hands of the elected officials and the public. Engage the community in exploring possible solutions.

19. Compensate the fire chief/assistant chief with a stipend: This funding would be for these positions to take care of the administrative functions and plan training, schedule vehicle maintenance, etc.

20. Compensate someone to do general administrative functions: This involves the paperwork required to manage a professional organization – response reports, training reports, tax filing, funding, spending of budgeted funds, maintenance reports and meeting management. Make sure that every meeting has an agenda along with an expected outcome. Does the person leading the meeting have the right skill set to manage the meeting in an efficient manner? Running a meeting is not just about approving the minutes. Running a meeting requires someone who can guide the discussion so that everyone has a chance to share their viewpoint and make a decision.

21. Look for simple ways to motivate your members: Here’s a list to get you started:

  • Make it fun
  • Be happy
  • Show appreciation
  • Be nice
  • Listen
  • Be social
  • Accept life balance issues
  • Dont waste the volunteers time
  • Reduce firehouse drama
  • Be realistic about your volunteer expectations
  • Establish realistic and achievable goals for the organization
  • Establish realistic and achievable goals for the membership
  • Invest time in developing a validated training program
  • Develop a personal relationship with your volunteers
  • Respect your volunteers' values
  • Leaders should be accessible to the volunteers
  • Expect success
  • Eliminate unnecessary or dumb rules that dont have a positive outcome

Time to embrace change

When Ben Franklin formed the Volunteer Fire Company in Philadelphia in 1736, they had two missions – provide fire suppression and fire prevention activities. The model we are using today for staffing a volunteer fire company feels pretty similar to the now-centuries-old model Franklin employed. Using the same staffing model is simply not appropriate for a modern-day delivery of fire protection services.

Once this reality has been accepted, it’s up to change agents to lead the department in a different direction. These individuals must understand that change management is a long process that requires a significant amount of resilience to continually monitor the progress. Also, there will be people who resist the change, no matter how it will impact them. Remember, the organization did not reach its current condition overnight, and to change an organization and modernize the thinking and operational aspect may take several years.

It’s important to involve all stakeholders in the change process. Find the doers” within your organization. Also, look for people with integrity and strong values to help communicate the message, and those who have a passion for excellence. They will help the organization focus on improved service delivery. They will help break the mold.

If we are going to transition our organization from where we are today to where we need to be tomorrow, then we need to prioritize – and embrace – change.

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