Although volunteers make up the majority of the U.S. firefighting workforce, the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters has long been a challenge for chiefs looking to build their ranks. Limited extra time, coupled with a sometimes negative perception of the hazards associated with the job, can deter potential recruits from signing up to be a member.
But as Chief Charles “Chuck” Flynn points out, departments must do a better job focusing on the positive aspects of the job, as there are many: the commitment to teamwork, the family atmosphere and the satisfaction of neighbor helping neighbor.
Chief Flynn is the chief of department for the Suffield Fire Department, a combination department in Connecticut, where he oversees career and volunteer members. He is also the chair of the Volunteer and Combination Officers Section (VCOS) of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), so he is well versed in the recruitment and retention challenges facing the fire service on both the career and volunteer front.
Fire Chief connected with Chief Flynn about some of the hurdles departments face in their recruitment and retention efforts as well as what they can do to overcome those challenges in order to build the ranks with the next generation of firefighters.
Fire Chief: What do you see is the biggest hurdles recruiting the next generation of volunteers?
Chief Flynn: Some of our biggest hurdles include the need to streamline the application process while maintaining the applicant’s engagement in our organizations, and to open up our membership to meet the diversity and culture of our communities, while understanding that the time commitment of prospective members is less than it was even 10 years ago.
We have to change our messaging and branding. We need to show that all different skills sets are valuable to the department, whether in operational firefighting roles or administrative roles doing website development, project management, fundraising, etc. We want and need firefighters, yet we talk about the dangers of the job and the threats of cancer exposure and post-traumatic stress like it is inevitable. Every job has occupational hazards, so we need to emphasize the commitment to teamwork, the family atmosphere, and the satisfaction of neighbor helping neighbor.
What would you say to a prospective volunteer member to help them determine if being a volunteer firefighter is the right path for them?
There are great opportunities, not only in fire and emergency services but as a way to advance your personal goals and strengths. Prior to becoming a chief in Suffield, Connecticut, I worked several years in the telecommunications industry and as a union education coordinator. The skills and training that I gained while advancing through the volunteer fire service greatly enhanced my ability to meet the challenges of my telecommunications and union careers.
How do you address the myriad other responsibilities – or even distractions – that might prevent the next generation volunteer from taking the leap into the fire service?
There is value in whatever way someone can give of their time, energy and commitment to our organizations. We need to understand that a three- or four-year commitment will help us to maintain the volunteer fire service. By accepting and encouraging inclusion by members who may not want to be interior firefighters or provide emergency medical services, there are opportunities to assist us in public education, retention and recruitment, fundraising and the other aspects of operating the business of our fire departments.
Our military has protected our freedoms and way of life for decades with volunteers who commit from anywhere from 2 to 6 years before extending their commitments, most utilizing the skills they learn to enhance their careers, similar to opportunities for volunteer firefighters and our support personnel.
Are today’s volunteers more, less or about the same in tune with the safety then volunteers in the past?
I believe today’s firefighters are more cognizant and educated to health and safety issues, and our senior members take it as their responsibility to make sure everyone goes home.
How can volunteer organizations best safeguard their members in the organization from today’s unique threats (e.g., terrorism, active shooter, hazmat calls)?
Training, training, training, I believe it’s about educating our members to situational awareness of their environment and how to protect themselves and the public. We know these types of incidents can occur anywhere, and we need to be prepared; however, in reality, most of us will go our entire career with limited exposure to these unique threats.
How is VCOS addressing issues related to recruiting the next generation of Volunteer firefighters?
VCOS, along with its Volunteer Workforce Solutions team, has been successful in obtaining a number of AFG SAFER grants. Studies have been conducted in various states, including Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and my own state of Connecticut, as well as a national grant specific to diversity and inclusion. The data and information gathered during these studies is shared with our members through various kits and toolboxes containing policies, recommendations, posters, public service announcements and other resources. Along with our peers at the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and other organizations, we are committed to continued research and development of effective retention and recruitment resources.
What are some steps that you recommend for volunteer organizations looking to recruit the newest generation of members?
Look at the various resources available and try different approaches. Each organization is unique to its community and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to recruitment. However, look within and engage your entire organization in the recruitment process. Your members are your sales force and ambassadors. If they are committed to your organization, leadership and the opportunities afforded to them, they will become your greatest recruitment tool.
How do your current recruitment efforts (with the newest generation) differ from recruitment efforts for past generations?
Departments that actively recruit are looking at every opportunity to reach potential members. The use of social media and public service announcements have given us a much wider and a greater opportunity to reach potential members.
Once you are able to recruit the newest generation, what should the volunteer fire service focus on in terms of retention efforts?
Early and effective engagement, understanding that time is a value, and their eagerness to learn and be accepted all drives their level of involvement. Every new member has different desires, expectations and experiences that can enhance our organizations. Ask what they want and expect from the organization, encourage their enthusiasm, and provide opportunities and guidance to be an inclusive organization.