How to extinguish volunteer firefighter burnout
Fire chiefs can stimulate inner motivation through affirmation and frequent reminders to volunteers that their service is valued
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Volunteers make up 69% of firefighters in the United States.
That number, however, has declined by about 12% since 1984. Those hard numbers are backed by countless anecdotes from across the country of volunteer and paid on-call departments losing members in droves — something hard felt at the department level.
The two major factors contributing to the declining number of volunteer firefighters include increased time demands and more rigorous training requirements. This downward trend has left many volunteer fire departments short on staff, unable to recruit and retain, and has forced many to close their doors.
Some volunteers have a breaking point that ultimately forces them to walk away from firefighting. Veterans, and even rookies, have said fire department politics, the lack of community respect and appreciation, and leadership issues contribute to a volunteer’s decision to continue to volunteer or leave.
There are no hard and fast rules on how to find and keep volunteers, but there are several important factors all fire chiefs should keep in mind.
Generationally, there are a number of differences as to what motivates an individual to want a join a volunteer fire department.
Fire Chief Robert Rielage, a former Ohio fire marshal and chief officer in several departments over more than 30 years, stressed the importance of creating feeder programs for volunteer departments in the ability to recruit and retain.
“Starting early is a key factor,” Rielage said. “Smaller volunteer departments need to try to have some influence on young men and women starting at the age of 16. Starting an explorer or junior firefighter program will get those individuals interested both in civic responsibilities and in the fire service.”
Rielage also suggested that chiefs at volunteer departments consider creating a program with area community colleges. Having college students volunteer will give young people an opportunity to get some work experience while taking school classes, he said.
“What we did at my department was make space within the firehouse where these college students could continue to have computer access to work on their classes or assignments,” he said. “And they were relatively uninterrupted with the exception of when they’d have to make an emergency run.”
His department also expanded their college program by providing a dormitory for students who didn’t live in the immediate area. While recruitment is a problem for most volunteer departments, a more common complaint is that it’s hard to keep volunteer firefighters once they’ve joined.
Thomas McKee, president and owner of Volunteer Power, a leadership development firm specializing in volunteerism, has over 40 years of experience in volunteer leadership.
McKee mentioned that volunteers will not stay if they’re being micro-managed; they’re looking for leadership and competent management.
“Your job as a leader, and as a fire chief, is to create a volunteer culture that stimulates inner motivation,” McKee said.
One way of stimulating that motivation to continue volunteerism is for fire chiefs to continually provide their firefighters with feedback, he said.
While visiting a railroad museum in Sacramento, Calif., McKee asked the curator in charge what he did to keep his volunteers. He was told that all of his paid employees were given 50 blank ‘thank you’ notes at the beginning of the year, and they each had to write one note a week thanking a volunteer for a random “job well done” they had noticed during that week.
And while 50 ‘thank you’ notes may seem like a big commitment, fire chiefs could tailor this idea by giving volunteers birthday cards, sitting down and asking each member what’s important to them or even by writing an occasional personal note to one member each month.
“If someone is giving you their free time, they are going to want feedback from their leader,” McKee said. “They need to be reminded that they’re appreciated and that their contribution is valued. Volunteers want to volunteer somewhere where their presence is an asset.”
Another way to ensure volunteers are valued, Rielage said, is by publicizing what kind of contributions the volunteer department has made to help its community.
“When I was in a combination department as chief, I religiously told council how much money a year they were saving by having a department that still used volunteers,” he said. “For a community of 10,000, it was close to $2.7 million a year as to the level of service we were giving them and what they would have to do if they lost that department and switched it to a career department.”
Those numbers can be an eye-opener for any city council or community member. By making those facts public, it is something the people of your town need to know in order to give the department and its volunteers the support it needs and deserves.
The number one reason volunteers get burned out or quit, according to McKee, is that they are frustrated with their leader, or fire chief, who doesn’t know how to lead.
“It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love. It’s true for all volunteers,” he said. “Passion is the key. It’s the reason why all volunteers volunteer. If you lose that passion and drive, you become very cynical, and I think cynicism is even more dangerous than burnout.”
This is when a fire chief, he said, needs to use affirmations toward their volunteers and remind them of their value. Preventing burnout in older volunteers is more difficult, but it’s still a matter of community pride and ownership.
“No matter what time of life you’re in, there is always a job that you can do for a volunteer fire department,” Rielage said. “If an older volunteer comes to you and says, ‘Hey, I can’t get up at 2 a.m. anymore,’ you still want to retain that person if you can.”
Rielage suggested giving that older volunteer with burnout an administrative task like handling paperwork, ordering supplies or something that keeps them involved and helpful to their community.
With juveniles, you need to do things in conjunction with the parents.
“Make sure that the parents realize volunteering is an opportunity where other experienced volunteers are giving up their time to help, instruct and educate and add some maturity to those young 16- or 18-year-olds,” Rielage said.
And if they start getting burned out, you first need to find out from the parents if there is any reason for the burnout other than if the department is overburdening them with what they’re asking them to do.
“Then you have to try and work out those issues on an individual basis,” he said. “You have to keep the individual motivated to want to continue in the program. That’s an extra burden any volunteer fire department takes one when dealing with minors.”
A people business
A success Rielage has had in the past was offering his junior firefighters an incentive for their service. When the volunteer turned 18, the department would pay for them to get firefighter I or firefighter I and II certifications.
“Those certifications help open them up to a potential fire and EMS career down the road, keeps them interested and challenged, and also helps deter early burnout,” he said.
A volunteer firefighter, just like a career firefighter, battles the same stresses and strains of responding. Fire Chief Norvin Collins, with the Sauvie Island (Ore.) Fire District, recommends sitting down and talking with individuals who are experiencing burnout.
“We are in a people business, so we need to become good at talking to and truly listening to what the person is saying,” Collins said. “Many times, leaders think they know the best answer because that is what’s best for them; however, that may not be the case for everyone.”
Fire chiefs may sometimes have to be a sounding board to help eliminate burnout and retain a member who may have been on the cusp of leaving, Collins said. And in order to prevent a special kind of burnout volunteer firefighters experience, you also have to include some kind of downtime in volunteers’ schedules.
“It’s like a rubber band. If you keep stretching it all the time, it’s going to get stressed and break,” McKee said. “When you have some downtime in the firehouse, have some food, workout or play basketball together, just take some time to let off some steam.”
Applying a tourniquet to that stress today may keep us from asking the same questions about why volunteers are leaving in the next 10 or 20 years.
This article, originally published Sept. 15, 2015, has been updated with current information