‘It’s absolutely a nationwide issue’: Lexipol director talks volunteer FF staffing shortage
Speaking to Connecticut public radio, Scott Eskwitt addresses recruitment and retention efforts, fire service culture, and pandemic-fueled stress
By FireRescue1 staff
HARTFORD, Conn. — Scott Eskwitt, director of fire policy and training content for Lexipol, was interviewed by Connecticut Public Radio on Friday about the volunteer firefighter shortage. (Lexipol owns FireRescue1.com among several other public safety news and training websites.)
Approximately 83% of firefighters in Connecticut are volunteers, according to Connecticut Public’s firefighter-focused “Where We Live” segment, which delved into topics of recruitment and retention, fire service culture, and the early pandemic-fueled stress that impacted first responders.
Listen to the segment “Volunteer firefighters are the backbone of fire service” below.
Eskwitt cited several factors contributing to the current volunteer shortage, including time constraints, the significant number of hours for initial training, and changing demographics related to where potential members live in relation to the response area. Where he lives in New Jersey, Eskwitt said, firefighters need to log a minimum of 140 hours to achieve Firefighter 1.
“That’s really tough to get that kind of time commitment out of people,” he said.
Some departments have turned to incentives to attract new volunteers, whether variations on retirement funds, free recreation activities for volunteers and their families, even real estate abatement. Eskwitt notes, however, that incentives are a small piece of the recruitment puzzle.
“What attracts you is the service, the social fabric of the organization, your part in the community, anything else is kind of icing on the cake,” he said.
Another critical factor in the volunteer staffing shortage is member retention. Eskwitt highlighted how critical it is for fire department leadership to foster a commitment and passion for the profession. This occurs, in part, through training, communication, and focusing on behavior rather than a more nebulous concept of fire service culture.
Eskwitt explained: “If I have firefighters who I’ve attracted in and I’m providing them with a good environment that is objective, where their behavior is based on established policies and procedures, I’ve got a better chance of retaining them and letting them feel like they are part of an organization that is run fairly for everybody, that is as safe as possible, that provides training that’s based on policy or procedure that’s consistent, and allows them to do their best work, rather than an organization that has no real set of rules.”
One factor that has been connected to retention issues is the post-traumatic stress associated with challenging call types. Eskwitt urges firefighters to know what they have access to and to be proactive about seeking help when needed.
Similarly, heightened stress was a particularly significant issue for many firefighters early in the pandemic. Eskwitt noted that the pandemic’s toll was significant, as members had to learn new ways to do business, adopt new protocols, and abandon the more social aspects of the job.
“The level of stress increased significantly, and we had to just deal with it because we had to keep responding,” he said.
This “Where We Live” segment of Connecticut Public radio also featured insights from Dave Lampart, a volunteer firefighter and the emergency management director in Woodbury, Conn., addressing firefighter recruitment efforts and general requirements for how to become a volunteer firefighter. Additionally, a member of a junior firefighter program in Connecticut shared his story about how he joined the fire service and what it’s like to respond to emergencies.
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