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‘Anything would be an improvement’: How FDs can move the needle on staffing challenges

Firefighters get real about one of the biggest issues facing the industry and how to fix it


Firefighter recruits from Career Recruit Firefighter Class #S29 stand at attention during their graduation ceremony that was held at the Department of Fire Services Firefighting Academy in Springfield in October 2022. (Don Treeger/ The Republican)

Don Treeger/MCT

It’s no surprise that recruitment and retention remained one of the top pain points identified in the What Firefighters Want state-of-the-industry report in 2023, with 94% of respondents admitting to staffing challenges as their organization. Of the more than 2,100 firefighters surveyed, 57% considered staffing challenges to be one of the top three least-satisfying aspects of the job.

In the WFW report, respondents offered their thoughts on the challenges facing departments and what leadership could do to move the needle on hiring. (And check out the news and resources to help put these comments into action.)

What firefighters are saying


“Those who want to volunteer should have a VOLUNTEER incentive of NO income or property tax payment with proof of 5 years or more service nationwide.”

“Offer help with childcare and increase pay incentives for specialty assignments.”

Incentives in action:


“I think we need to be in this for the long haul, which means reaching out to youth at younger ages and seeking more diverse membership by conducting outreach and development to areas in our community where firefighting careers may have not even been considered. It’s long term because we may not see the candidates for 5 to 10 years depending on the intended audience.”

“Get out into the community and have active discussions about what their fire department does for the community.”

“I think we should host more open house events and find ways to be more visible in the community. I also think that offering some medical or retirement benefits would be helpful.”

“Engage in different ways to educate the community. There must be ways that can be developed to increase awareness that many departments are volunteers or combination but still need help with staffing. Many programs generated from the municipal and state level focus on recruitment of police officers, nurses and teachers.”

Outreach in action:


“Give a pension to new members. The departments in our area with pensions don’t have a staffing problem. The ones that don’t have staffing issues. It’s not hard to figure out.”

“Benefits have been severely diminished thru the years. People simply are less and less willing to do what we do for the wages and benefits the municipality is willing to compensate for those services.

“Increase salary, committees, more vacation days, better benefits, better health insurance, better retirement plan, more training.”

Pension plans in action:


“Raise starting pay to compete with McDonald’s!”

“Pay people a wage worth the education they’ve pursued to obtain the job and serve the community.”

“I think they should increase wages. I think there is an “old guard” in the department which deters some new recruits. The time commitment is also increasing, which deters new members.”

Pay raises in action:


“Recognize employees to show they are appreciated and a valued member of the organization.”

Recognition in action:


“Fix the personnel issues from within. The disrespect and drama is causing lots of stress, and the community can see it and doesn’t want to work here.”

Personnel problems and solutions in action:


“Do more advertising and increase our junior firefighter program.”

Junior firefighter programs in action:

“Attempt to understand the needs/wants of the newer generation; admin is out of touch and their planning assumptions have missed the mark.”

In action:


  • “Basically, anything would be an improvement. We’ll start with some sort of communication.”
  • “I think the department should always be ready to run a test or, better yet, always have an active list. I also believe they should be more involved in the line staff and be able to forecast retirements.”
  • “A study to identify the root cause, research what others are doing and develop a plan. Lack of planning is a problem for our organization.”
  • “I’m not sure there is anything they can do. People just don’t want to work for the government anymore.”
  • “More attempts to hire proactively rather than reactively. Consider the impact of multiple concurrent special event details and increased call volume on willingness/ability of members to work voluntary OT.”
  • “Establish a strong volunteer cadre to provide surge capacity.”
  • “Add to the training/safety division as well as to the overall manpower of the department.”
  • “It’s taking longer to hire good recruits, start now for the future. We are always behind. We wait for people to leave or retire before filling a spot you know will be vacant.
  • “Be willing to make changes when someone is having a hard time working in sync with others on their shift.”
  • “The challenges seem to be beyond what the department can do. It seems to be the attitude of the general public that it requires more time and involvement than they wish to give. Also, a limited amount of personnel to draw from.”
  • “Start with accountability for the chief officers. Public announcement of change in culture. Public announcement of commitment to provide assistance to neighbors and mutual aid requests. Increase in salary and benefits to at least median of region. Commitment to increase personnel to meet national and regional standards.”
  • “Make some portion of career firefighter pay dependent on volunteer recruitment and retention.
  • “Many of our recruitment and retention programs, although with great possibilities, are kind of half implemented.”

What Firefighters Want: More from the Series

Rachel Engel is an award-winning journalist and the senior editor of and In addition to her regular editing duties, Engel seeks to tell the heroic, human stories of first responders and the importance of their work. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communications from Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, and began her career as a freelance writer, focusing on government and military issues. Engel joined Lexipol in 2015 and has since reported on issues related to public safety. Engel lives in Wichita, Kansas. She can be reached via email.