Staffing challenges: The least satisfying part of the job
Survey respondents share their experiences with staffing stressors
The wants vs. needs debate is often a hot one among the ranks. But make no mistake, FireRescue1’s 2023 What Firefighters Want survey really is about needs – what firefighters need to serve their community in a safe and effective way: staffing.
Of all the data points in the What Firefighters Want survey, the question with the most resounding agreement among the respondents related to staffing: 94% reported that their department has experienced staffing challenges in the past three years. Note: For this survey, staffing challenges was defined as any staffing-related issue that has the potential to negatively impact service delivery (e.g., mandatory overtime, not enough volunteers turning out for runs, engines running with three while four is department standard, and similar issues).
It’s no surprise then that of the more than 2,100 survey respondents, the largest percentage (57%) selected staffing challenges among their top three least-satisfying aspects of the job, with one-quarter selecting this issue as their top selection. Staffing challenges are clearly creating a significant strain on career and volunteer firefighters alike.
Identifying the “why”
FireRescue1 inquired further, asking respondents to explain their selection for the least-satisfying aspect of the job. Digging into the comments unearthed the “why” and highlighted several trends about how staffing impacts the job.
Urban vs. rural: It’s notable that the sentiment is more acute in the urban centers than rural areas. This can be attributed to several causes, some speculative. For one, many urban departments have experienced a significant number of retirements over the past three years. Although some speculate the mass retirement is a reaction to the pandemic, much of it appears to simply be a matter of timing. What is notable, however, is the recruiting challenges currently found in urban departments. For a very long time, large metro departments had fewer problems recruiting; after all, everyone wanted to work in the big city and catch a lot of work. Today, the number of people interested in this work has shrunk.
The speculative part comes when looking at the difference between rural and urban/suburban departments. A sentiment analysis of free-text responses reveals the most negativity about staffing in urban departments, followed by suburban and then rural. This may be the case because rural departments more frequently deal with reduced or poor staffing. Therefore, if your everyday circumstance is a significant staffing challenge, then it may not resonate as the worst aspect of the job because it is simply part of the background. Understand that I am not advocating that we tolerate low staffing. It’s simply an observation that many rural departments frequently endure this challenge.
Health and safety: The health and safety impacts of low staffing are noted in the survey responses. From both the career and combination ranks, several respondents noted the adverse impacts of being forced to work more than their scheduled shifts. Others added commentary on being willing to work more than their scheduled shifts, but not as much as they are being forced/mandated to work. The adverse impacts of those extensive work cycles are well known. Decreased sleep, poor diet, relationship stress, and poor work performance often follow from work beyond the norm. Current research is ongoing to determine if it is a factor in fireground injury, but not enough is known – yet.
What we do know from 2020 Project Mayday research is that firefighters working beyond their normal scheduled hours accounted for 77% of maydays over a 13-week span in 2020 (God bless Don Abbott for doing the work. RIP). Think about that for a minute. Over three-quarters of fireground maydays during that period involved fire department personnel who were on-duty longer than their normally scheduled work time. Yes, this is simply a snapshot in time, but I can’t imagine that it’s any better today.
Few doing the work of many: Several respondents noted that having less people causes the same people to do more. In the career service, the outcome from this was split. Some respondents thought it was beneficial because it gave them greater opportunity to do more and different things. Others said it added to their burden and created a barrier from improving their skills in specific areas.
In the volunteer service, this meant that an already small number of responders were getting taxed with even more. This increased demand, with an already limited workforce, can lead to more rapid burnout and separation from the service.
Generational crutches: At least a couple respondents offered variations of “the younger generation doesn’t want to work.” One noted the desire for better work/life balance – a concept many of us know far too little about. I will offer that there is nearly zero academic research in support of true generational differences. There is, however, a lot of research that discusses the impact of lifespan development. We could spend an entire article on that topic, but for now, you’d be better served by trying to understand where the people in your department are and what they need to be successful, rather than simply characterizing them by their date of birth.
So, what does it all mean and what should you start to do about it? First, be honest with yourself, the department and the community you serve.
For yourself: What are you doing to take care of yourself? A significant number of firefighters are both dehydrated and experiencing insufficient sleep. Work to be better at both of those things. (For more on how to accomplish this, watch Dr. Sara Jahnke’s appearance on the Better Every Shift podcast.) Work at being better at the position you have in the department, teach it to those members who are one rank below you, and start to learn and understand the tasks included in the position directly above you. Continuous learning and skill improvement is vital for service delivery, reduction of individual stress, and reducing the likelihood of injury.
For your department: Be honest and realistic about what your department is capable of and what it needs to improve. If you’re standing in an apparatus bay and left wondering where all the people went, you likely weren’t paying attention to the signs. It’s been said, and bears repeating, that people rarely leave bad organizations; they leave bad bosses. Work hard to not be one. If you don’t know if you are one, look around. Are you sought out for your skill, input and value on the fireground, and do you spend time coaching and mentoring new people? We can’t moan about not having enough people if we aren’t welcoming to those walking through the door the first time. A sense of belonging, particularly in community-sized fire departments, is often the key to ensuring that people will come to your department and then stay.
For your community: Be honest with the people who you serve. Far too many departments are excusing poor performance and blaming it on everything – a newer generation, no funding or no people – without a single explanation about how all of those things came to exist. You have to spend more time explaining to the people you serve why and how your department operates. What are the legal and statutory requirements and how are they applied to the department? What does it mean for them? And, likely the biggest one, what can and what can’t your department pull off on a daily basis? If you don’t think you can get an engine company properly equipped and staffed with humans who can command and extinguish a fire, then tell the community – and then ask for their help to fix it. And to be clear, that ask can’t default to “people are going to die if you don’t do x-y-z.” It has to be based on the very rational argument that fire grows at x pace per minute, and it takes us x minutes to get an effective response force on scene. Citizens need our service, and part of that service is helping them understand how we do what we do. Yes, it takes time. Yes, you’ll likely have to do it multiple times as people and elected officials move in and out of the community. But doing nothing is not an option unless you like staffing challenges taking the top spot in a list of the least-satisfying aspects of the job.
The margin is gone
The fire service has had staffing issues for a very long time. We rarely have enough of anything (money, time, people), but we have always found a way to make it work. The margin was just thin enough that the fire service prevailed. However, while there is no margin any longer, our citizens’ expectations haven’t changed.
Wringing our hands and bemoaning our condition will not solve a single problem. Attacking it – with knowledge, deference to the past, data and understanding – will forge a pathway forward.
If you are one of the 1,206 firefighters who had staffing challenges in your top three least-satisfying aspects of the job, I hope we’ve given you some direction here and throughout this special coverage series.
I look forward to the day when staffing isn’t our biggest concern.