‘Quiet quitting’ hits volunteer fire service

Rural fire/EMS looks for creative recruiting solutions


As American volunteerism turns the corner after COVID, rural first responder organizations are struggling to find new members.

"Volunteering used to mean helping others with no expectation of anything in return," said John Bockrath, chief of the Norwood Fire Protection District (NFPD) in remote southwestern Colorado. “The 'quiet quitting' that came out of COVID, where workers do the minimum while avoiding anything 'above and beyond,' is taking a hit on volunteerism."

The trend has always been for young people to start fire service and medical careers in their home departments, then leave for more lucrative opportunities in bigger cities while older, often retired residents are left to keep their communities safe. Burnout becomes the bigger problem.

“The 'quiet quitting' that came out of COVID, where workers do the minimum while avoiding anything 'above and beyond,' is taking a hit on volunteerism,
“The 'quiet quitting' that came out of COVID, where workers do the minimum while avoiding anything 'above and beyond,' is taking a hit on volunteerism," said John Bockrath, chief of the Norwood Fire Protection District (NFPD) in remote southwestern Colorado. (Photo/Getty Images)

With fewer younger workers willing to volunteer in the traditional manner, this cultural shift is forcing rural agencies to get creative in their recruiting. Bockrath, for one, is responding to this challenge with an intuitive twist: Get volunteers on the payroll, offer world-class training to better prepare young professionals for their next career move, and even help them find that next job.

"We need to attract more people if we're going to keep up with community growth, and we need to pay them," said Bockrath, who retired from his career as a firefighter/paramedic in the Chicago area to take the chief's job in Norwood six years ago. "We have to find new incentives, and invest in people before facilities and equipment. To do this, we're leveraging our unique ability to train and prepare professional firefighters, EMTs and paramedics at the highest levels you can find anywhere, and engaging with every member on personal career-path planning from the get-go."

In addition to the top-level training and qualifications that aspiring careerists can take with them, the NFPD's strategy is designed to serve as a model for rural emergency services recruitment and incentive programs:

  • Paid-on-call scheduling: Volunteers commit to being on call, and get paid for each shift.
  • Creative contracts: Custom agreements that provide training certifications in exchange for time commitments and longer term job security.
  • Job placement: Resumé development, proactive employer identification and outreach.
  • Housing support: Buying homes and renting apartments in favor of building new firehouses with living quarters.
  • Fringe benefits: Health insurance, 401K plans, gym memberships, lots of time off.

With creative recruiting comes the need to pay for salaries and benefits, without going back to the taxpayers. As such, the NFPD is refocusing on new revenue-generation strategies:

  • Train paramedics with Home Healthcare qualifications to conduct Medicaid-reimbursed community wellness checks.
  • Facilitate tele-medicine and follow-up care in partnership with regional healthcare facilities and specialists, and supporting the continuum of patient outcomes that millennials are looking for.
  • Muster qualified wildland teams to contract on federal- and state-managed fires.
  • Develop mitigation and forest-thinning services for property owners, and biofuel energy and pulp sourcing with Forest Service productization programs.
  • Establish more sophisticated Mutual Aid Agreements to share resources with fellow agencies.
  • Promote tax-deductible donation and public sponsorship programs.
  • Apply for grants that support staffing initiatives.

With more people buying property, building homes and businesses, and more remote workers moving to small towns like Norwood, today's best-practice economic development strategies are playing out in the public safety infrastructure of the rural west. Culturally, this approach is helping to mature the younger generation by taking on more meaningful responsibilities, but on their terms.

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