Volunteer Firefighter International

How Academics Can Help Retain More Volunteer Firefighters

These four communication tactics will boost your firefighter retention

By Rick Markley

Volunteer firefighting has become more sophisticated in nearly all aspects of the job. The new equipment, when we can afford it, is state of the art. Fundraising has gone from the pancake breakfast and fish fry to direct mail and Go Fund Me — even the pancake breakfasts are now heavily promoted across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Recruiting and retaining firefighters is no exception. As those tasks became crisis-level difficult during the last recession, groups like the National Volunteer Fire Council stepped forward with how-to guides based on best practices learned by other industries that use volunteers. In fact, NVFC was recently awarded a $2.8 million SAFER grant from FEMA to develop a volunteer firefighter retention component over the next four years to work alongside its Make me a Firefighter recruitment tool.

One area that’s not widely tapped for volunteer firefighting is communication, and not the communication that relies on broadband or 800 MHz. It’s the person-to-person communication, which includes everything from swapping lies in the day room to formal SOGs to social media posts. When you peel back the layers of what a volunteer fire department does, communication is often at the center.

At the time of this writing, I’m midway through teaching a university class on interviewing. One of the common mistakes interviewers make, and I often catch myself doing it, is talking too much. The point of the interview is to let the interviewee talk most of the time — 70 percent to 80 percent is the target. That same advice applies to all of communication and especially when that communication centers on volunteer fire departments. Volunteers, whether fighting fire or delivering meals to home-bound seniors, are motivated to continue working when they feel they have a say in how the organization operates. In other words, they want to know they are valued for their minds as well as their grunt labor.

Obviously, not everyone on the department can be the fire chief. But everyone can have meaningful input into how the department is run so long as there are proper systems in place to let that “from the bottom up” communication take place. When that’s done right, volunteers are more committed to the department — read 3 a.m. smells and bells response rates — and the department leadership benefits from having more eyes watching for potential problems and identifying solutions.

To get started, communication has to be safe. That means each firefighter must have the confidence that anything he or she says will not later be used against them. It’s a trust issue. Violating that trust not only damages the relationship between that firefighter and the leadership, it lets everyone in the department know that communication is not safe and they will not risk doing so honestly in the future if one of the other members got burned for it. One thing is certain in communication: the grapevine — your dayroom table — is the fastest, albeit not the most reliable, way communication travels. If trust isn’t there, nothing else will help improve upward communication. If trust is there, here are some ways to get members’ feedback flowing upward.

Have an open-door policy where any firefighter can talk to any officer about any topic at any time — of course, not in the middle of a three-alarm burner. Again, this only works if the member trusts that what is said will be confidential, treated seriously and without retribution.

Create a suggestion-feedback box where members can anonymously offer comment. This helps overcome the fear of speaking truth to power. Have a disinterested person — family member, college intern, town secretary, etc. — type all the suggestions to mask members’ handwriting. The chief should read and address all the comments at regular meetings. Yes, you will get some ridiculous comments from those either mocking the process or trying to be funny. But those will fade once the newness of the suggestion box wears off and the members see the leadership taking the comments serious.

Appoint one of the members or officers to serve as a firefighter liaison. This person can serve as a go-between and bring issues from individual or a several firefighters to the administration. While this person won’t have the pull of collective bargaining rules that a union representative would have in a career department, they can still be impactful if that person has the trust of both the rank and file and the leadership.

Conduct an annual, anonymous survey of all the members on the state of the fire department. There are online tools like Survey Monkey or interns from university communication programs to help pull this together. The value of asking everyone the same set of questions allows the department to accurately measure — with real numbers — where the department is at that moment in the eyes of its members. And when done each year, it provides a tool for monitoring progress, regressions and trends.

Keeping volunteer firefighters engaged and active may be more challenging now than it’s ever been. And while there is no magic dust that we can sprinkle on the department to make that challenge disappear, solid and honest communication tactics will go a long way to improving your department’s culture and, consequently, its retention.

This article originally appeared in The Backdraft Magazine

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