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Recruitment and retention: Pay, benefits, training top firefighter wish lists

Firefighters speak up about how fire departments can better manage the staffing crisis to reduce stress levels

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Download the What Firefighters Want digital edition, detailing survey results and digging into issues of staffing and stress. And check out the on-demand webinar, which further explores issues of recruitment and retention, scope of work, and work and personal stress solutions.

Recruitment and retention issues continue to impact fire departments of all shapes and sizes. While these critical components of fire service sustainability and growth have traditionally been associated with the volunteer fire service, the 2023 What Firefighters Want survey clearly shows these challenges are no longer problems limited to volunteer agencies.

More than 2,100 of our fire service brothers and sisters completed the survey, all either currently employed or actively volunteer with a fire department. The majority, nearly 62%, are members of a fully career department. Combination department members account for about 22% of respondents, and volunteer and paid on-call members represent about 17% of the survey participants. Most participants serve departments that are considered urban or suburban, hold the rank of company officer or above, and have been in the fire service at least 10 years. These numbers will be important as we take a dive into some of the recruitment and retentions issues that emerged from the survey results.

Proactive, reactive or no action?

Nearly 55% of survey respondents indicated that their department is proactively working to manage or prevent staffing challenges. That’s a solid start, especially considering that most respondents are decision-makers or ranking members of their department. Unfortunately, the follow-up questions show the crux of the struggle. More than 52% indicate that their departments do not have a strong recruitment plan; similarly, 51% report their departments do not have a strong plan to retain membership.

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We know staffing is a challenge, and we know recruitment and retention are both challenging. But how can departments be considered proactive in managing those staffing challenges while having weak recruitment and retention plans? The short answer: They can’t.

Departments that are truly proactive when it comes to staffing aren’t just creating incentives to work overtime and implementing fancy staffing software. They’re figuring out ways to keep their personnel from getting burned out, whether by changing traditional response plans, taking their opinions into account when determining shifts or helping to improve their work/life balance in other ways.

Proactive fire service leaders understand that the staffing conundrum doesn’t just appear one shift. Staffing issues usually start small and build. Proactive departments don’t wait until they have vacancies to begin their recruitment efforts. Rather, they’ll develop things like cadet programs, internships and summer camps to create recruitment pipelines to increase interest in working in the emergency services. Proactive department leadership will ensure that there is always an active list to use for hiring new personnel. Truly proactive recruitment efforts will produce fully trained personnel to fill positions before those spots are vacated through retirements and resignations.

Salary and benefits challenges

What is having the biggest negative impact on recruitment since 2020? Salary and benefits was the top selection, with 37% of respondents highlighting this issue. While increased scope of work came in a distant second at 16%, together these factors account for more than 50% of respondents’ selections.

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Considering that approximately 84% of respondents represent fire departments with full-time paid staff, protecting mainly urban and suburban populations, these are concerning results. Couple those numbers with the fact that most survey participants have more than 10 years in the fire service and serve as company officers or higher in rank, we get a bigger picture. These are departments that have traditionally represented an aspiring member’s “dream job.” We aren’t talking about people not being attracted to the fire service because they don’t have the time to complete the required training to be an active volunteer. We’re talking about what’s always been considered a steady job with solid security and decent benefits. So, what’s changed?

Some of the recruitment efforts can be attributed to the economy. Removing recent months from the equation (post-survey), the U.S. economy has been strong. Beginning in spring 2009, the S&P 500 enjoyed a bull market run that lasted nearly 11 years. There was only about a month of a bear market before it took off again. How does that impact recruitment in the fire service? The fire department tends to attract more people during more challenging economic times.

When the economy is doing well, jobs are plentiful. Sometimes, as we’ve seen post-pandemic, there are so many jobs that employers have to offer myriad incentives for prospective employees. Private companies increase pay and benefits. But the fire service is primarily a government-run operation. The government budgeting process doesn’t really allow for sweeping changes to happen mid-year. Some incentives that private employers offer simply are not available to the public sector.

On top of that, we see multi-year contracts in many departments that lock in a pay and benefits scheme until the next round of negotiations. All these things combine to make the private sector more attractive to new recruits. For a prospective member who has always wanted to be a firefighter, these might not be detractors. But others are much less likely to apply due to the many other professional opportunities that pay more, have a less stressful workload, and don’t involve missing important family events due to a duty schedule.

Another factor at play: Many public sector retirement plans have gone from the very predictable defined benefit plan where personnel know exactly how much they will earn in retirement benefits each month to the relatively variable defined contribution option where retirement income is anybody’s guess. When the public sector followed private employers and began moving to defined contribution plans, it lost a key recruiting tool. If we’re offering the same basic plan as the private sector, but aren’t paying the same wages as the private sector, where is the incentive to come to the fire service?

This can also hurt when it comes to retention. With a defined benefit retirement plan, employees must stay a certain number of years to become vested to earn their pension. In most cases, it doesn’t make sense for the employee to leave the employer before being vested. By the time vesting happens, the member may have been promoted and is much less likely to leave the department for greener pastures, as most people don’t want to start over from square one. However, the defined contribution retirement option is very portable and can be moved from employer to employer. If a member sees another opportunity with better pay and a more manageable call volume, the retirement plan is not going to keep them stationary.

What firefighters want: Staffing

Survey participants were asked, “What do you believe your department should do to prevent or address staffing challenges?” Close to 75% of the survey participants completed this optional free text section. Of the more than 1,500 responses, one company officer from a suburban department of 25-99 personnel and one chief officer from an urban department of 350-1,000 personnel felt overtime was a viable solution for adequate staffing. Let that sink in for a moment. Two out of 1,500.

Remember what I wrote about truly proactive departments? Overtime is not the answer to staffing problems. The survey feedback clearly supports that conclusion, yet it is the go-to choice for many departments.

Mandatory overtime exists across the fire service. While the extra money is nice for a period, personnel are only willing to be required to work overtime for so long before they view it as a punishment. When that happens, personnel start looking for other options, whether moving to neighboring departments or even leaving the fire service all together. Eliminating mandatory overtime was mentioned repeatedly by survey-takers.

So, overtime is not the answer and may even exacerbate the staffing problem. What else can be done to alleviate the overtime needs and help reduce staffing problems? Some common themes emerged from respondents – better pay, improved benefits, increased hiring, better training and leadership changes.

Pay and benefits: Not surprisingly, pay was a top trend in the responses, but interestingly, nearly all the survey participants that mentioned pay also mentioned benefits. A sample of responses:

  • “Pay increases across the board beginning with entry-level positions.”
  • “Better pay, and the state needs to fix the retirement system that is lacking compared to other states.”
  • “Increase pay and benefits. That’s it. We have lost over 100 firefighters to other departments that pay 30% or more than we do. We just cannot compete.”
  • “Pay firefighters a comparable salary to neighboring departments that are taking staff. Also, evaluate more built-in time off (mental health days).”
  • “Offer the same benefits when I was hired.”
  • “Bring back a defined benefit pension or increase the amount they contribute to our 401k, offer 100% paid healthcare for members who retire.”

The comments about improving benefits were telling. Many participants mentioned retirement. One respondent stated that the benefits should be the same as when they were hired. Multiple comments referred to implementing a defined benefit retirement plan to both recruit and retain members to alleviate the staffing problems. Still others emphasized the need for retiree healthcare as a benefit improvement. These are all things that were commonplace in the fire service a few decades ago. They were common when many of the survey participants were first starting. For many, those benefits are what attracted them to the fire service in the first place.

Of the top trends revealed in the free text responses, improving benefits would go a long way in addressing the issues. Benefits aren’t going to solve training or leadership problems, but better benefits will attract more people and help with retention. More people means a greater collective voice that can push for increased pay.

Increased hiring: Hiring was also a top theme among survey respondents. Some responses highlighted conditions at their own departments, while others were general in nature:

  • “We still have hundreds testing but routinely hire classes of 8-10, when we need classes of 30!”
  • “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.”
  • “Over-staff in preparation for retirements. Deal with paramedic requirement to get hired. Test more often.”
  • “Need some type of cadet or explorer program. Need to relax the firefighter certification requirement and train them on the job or after being hired.”
  • “Add more positions.”

These responses clearly show that departments are not being proactive when it comes to hiring. While adding new positions can be tough in many jurisdictions, keeping the current rosters filled seems to be just as challenging.

Better training: A big challenge that is often discussed when it comes to volunteer recruitment and retention is training and the amount of it that is required. Here’s what respondents had to say:

  • “Hold in-house recruit classes, which provide basic training for hiring.”
  • “Have more hands-on training.”
  • “Make obtaining required training easier. Provide better and personalized gear.”
  • “We need to develop a better training academy so we can begin to improve on the academy itself. … The academy does not have enough staffing to truly be able to weed out personnel, so we have kept our standards higher. If we could develop a more robust academy, then we could relax our standards and push more people through the process and give us a larger pool to select from.”

Interestingly, on the career side of the fire service, it looks like the quality of training is at the forefront of the conversation, with a push for local departments to have more control over the training process.

Leadership changes: It seems leadership will always be a top response when times are challenging. Here’s how it showed in the context of recruitment and retention:

  • “Leadership of the officers is the key to recruiting and retention.”
  • “Top leadership needs to reduce/stop micromanaging and allow members of the department to take on meaningful assignments (not just complete tasks under close scrutiny). Allow them to take ownership in the organization.”
  • “Change the leadership to one that’s for the guys and is willing to go to bat for us.”
  • “Leadership that provides vision and recognizes the dangers we face.”

Interestingly, 100% of the respondents who wrote about needing leadership changes to address recruitment and retention issues were from suburban departments. Many times, high-ranking personnel from urban departments are hired to lead suburban organizations. Could there be a disconnect when an outside chief from a larger department is hired?

Turning ideas into actions

The fire service needs to do a lot to solve its recruitment and retention crisis. The results of this survey show that company and chief officers have some great ideas for addressing the staffing challenges they face every shift. Now it’s up to the administrative chiefs and decision-makers to listen to them. Company officers can be the most influential people in the department. Their opinions and ideas need to be considered seriously if the fire service is to survive the current staffing dilemma.

Jon Dorman is Director of Content – Fire for Lexipol. He has more than 25 years in the fire service in both combination and career departments, retiring as the assistant chief of operations and deputy emergency manager. Dorman also has more than a decade of experience teaching in the Fire Science and Emergency Management program at Purdue University Global (formerly Kaplan University). He has a bachelor’s degree in fire protection science from SUNY Empire State College, a master’s degree in employment law from Nova Southeastern University, and a master’s degree in homeland security and emergency management from Kaplan University. Dorman can be reached at jdorman@lexipol.com.

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