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Declining volunteerism in the American fire service

How to manage the biggest challenges, particularly the strain on members’ time

By Jason Caughey

It’s no secret that the American fire service has seen a decline in volunteer firefighters across the country in recent years, and we need to continue to find new ways to recruit new members and retain our existing membership so that we can continue to serve our communities.

As fire chief of Laramie County Fire District #2 in Cheyenne, Wyoming – a combination department – I see the same challenges of recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters.

Recently, FireRescue1 conducted a poll asking the FireRescue1 community: “What is the biggest issue facing volunteerism in the American fire service?”

Members’ time was the most selected option with over 40% of the vote. In addition, training requirements, inadequate recruitment efforts, lack of retention incentives, and poor leadership were also cited as factors to the decline in volunteerism.

Time: Our most valuable asset

Let’s address the No. 1 concern: members’ time.

Time, for many of us, is the most valuable asset, and it’s important that a volunteer feels that the organization respects and cares about their contribution of time.

Here are four things that can help an organization maximize a volunteer’s time:

  1. Break the mold. For generations, many volunteer fire departments have used the same model to deliver training, to deliver information and to interact with the members. That model might not fit your community’s needs today, and let’s face it, it’s simple to do the same thing over and over again, but we have to assess how we interact with our volunteers to maximize our interaction time with them.
  2. Plan: We need to plan our interactions with our members. I see it in our organization. I see it in organizations all around the country: We get into this habit of we always meet at the last minute. We put together a lesson plan or a training exercise or even a meeting agenda. That’s not respecting our volunteers’ time. Be prepared. Have a good thorough plan of what’s going to be conducted for the training, what the outcomes are going to be, or the information that you plan to disseminate during your meeting. That way, the meetings can be short, concise and to the point. This is respecting the time of the members and limiting the impact on time away from the family for that member.
  3. Be efficient with time: Maximize their time by conducting multiple evolutions while you have them, addressing the bread and butter of the service that you provide your community. It’s challenging to keep training interactive or a general business meeting interactive and engaging, so be efficient with that time.
  4. Address training: The #1 consumption of time for a volunteer is maintaining certifications or state or national requirements to be a volunteer. So reformat how you train, provide virtual training online, provide vision in documentation through minimum company standards that they can do while they pull a shift or on their own time if they get a crew together to conduct training. This allows more flexibility for your members to participate. Recently we switched from one night a week training to a minimum company standards book that has to be turned in quarterly. That quarterly booklet provides the framework of training that’s required for our members to stay active and proficient with their skills. We provide a vision of what the training should look like so they watch the vision. We provide documentation of the expectations of what that training outcomes are, and then we require them to sign off that it was completed and turn it in. We follow up with online documentation, such as Google Hangouts or a Google Document where we can then judge did they conduct the training and did they follow through with the lesson plan. This allows us to maximize their time. They get to come in when it’s convenient for them, and it also builds camaraderie and teamwork because they have to bring a volunteer or two with them to conduct engine company operations. Bottom line: Evaluate training and adjust it to fit today’s society and the needs of our members today.

Putting it all together

Our members’ time is critical. We ask a lot. Through state and national certifications and licensure requirements, it becomes very daunting for a member to participate. Make it easy by being proficient, being prepared, breaking the mold of how we’ve always done it, providing new interactive ways for members to participate and, finally, care. Listen to their needs and adjust your organization to fit today’s volunteer needs.

Jason Caughey is the fire chief of the Laramie County Fire Authority in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and an adjunct professor for Laramie County Community College, where he teaches on the principles of fire behavior. Prior to arriving in Cheyenne in 2011, he was the fire chief of Gore Hill Fire Rescue in Great Falls, Montana. He also spent 10 years working for the Montana Fire Services Training School as a regional instructor and regional training manager for the state of Montana. Caughey has been an active member in the “Kill the Flashover” project, led by Joe Starnes. He is also a current technical member of the UL Positive Pressure test committee and a lead instructor for the Ottawa Project “Knowledge to Practice.” Caughey has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Columbia Southern University and is working on his master’s degree in public administration. He is currently attending the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer program. Connect with Caughey on LinkedIn or via email.