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A New Paradigm for Volunteer Fire Department Recruitment

Monday, 27 February 2017 00:00 Written by  Super User
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Guest blog written by Robert Avsec for Action Training Systems

FirefighterThe fire service continues to evolve, and so do the communities that volunteer fire departments serve. Many of these changes have had a direct impact on volunteer fire departments and their ability to recruit and retain members. Just a few examples are:

• Population growth in rural and suburban communities—the types frequently served by volunteer fire departments--add to number of calls for service.
• Changes in the economy, and the way America works, requires more volunteer firefighters to work outside of the community they serve; many volunteer firefighters must work more than one job to support their families.
• The training demands on volunteer firefighters—primarily their personal time—have increased, largely because of additional standards and regulations.
• Additional standards and regulations have also increased the expected level of service when volunteer firefighters respond to calls for service.
• The introduction of new technologies for apparatus and equipment requires additional training that also has an impact on a volunteer firefighter's personal time.

Not your father's volunteer fire department

Only a couple of generations ago, success as a volunteer firefighter meant mastering the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to respond to structure fires and extinguish them. And while that aspect of being a volunteer firefighter hasn't changed, the scope of operations for many volunteer fire departments has grown to include EMS, hazmat, technical rescue and wildland firefighting.

Thus, the role of a firefighter has morphed into that of an "emergency response specialist." With evolution, firefighters must meet a greater number of mandatory qualifications, many of which require regular recertification. Many volunteer fire departments are responding to more calls that require a higher level of technical expertise, doing so with more elaborate equipment, and they're doing with the same or fewer numbers of volunteers.

Whether they believe it or not, many volunteer fire departments have become staffed volunteer firefighters with apprentice-level skills in many disciplines, but mastery of none. In a field that presents enough physical and mental stresses on volunteer firefighters, it is easy to see how this adds additional stress. Particularly for those volunteer firefighters who truly want to give and do their best.

As their mastery of the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities to do the job diminishes, so does the confidence of the volunteer. Thus, many quit responding to calls; eventually they quit altogether or worse yet, are asked to leave.

A new paradigm

Management consultant and motivational speaker, John Maxwell, said, "What got you here, won't get you there." What I've written above outlines some of the more pertinent reasons why people don't become volunteer firefighters, or why they leave their volunteer fire department. Regardless of a department's size, volunteer fire department leaders must realize that recruitment and retention of members is most likely a systematic problem and not just an issue involving individual firefighters.

Too many volunteer fire departments still recruit to fill the position of the "do-it-all firefighter." Whether it's implicitly stated or not, the message potential members "hear" is, "If you can't do everything, then sorry, we just don't have a place for you."

Here are three ways to shift that paradigm to one that says, "Here are several ways you can meaningfully participate. Which ones suit you and your talents?"

Develop mastery for your responders

Begin by developing a system to recruit or create response specialists in your department—members who can master a fire service discipline with the limited time they have available. Your intent should be to allow those members to focus on only the disciplines they have time for—structure firefighting, EMS, hazmat, technical rescue, etc. Those specialists will be the members who respond to your department's call for service.

Schedule for effectiveness and efficiency

Conventional management wisdom states that "80 percent of the workload for an organization will be accomplished by 20 percent of the people." If you want to engage more of your volunteers, you've got to give them opportunities to do so by scheduling their participation.

Every call for service doesn't require an "all-hands" response. Establish a duty crew schedule to that every member of the department can participate in responding to calls. An example schedule would look like this:
• Schedule an officer, driver/operator, and at least one firefighter to cover a 12-hour shift from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. During their scheduled shift, those personnel would respond to all calls, particularly those that can be handled by one fire unit.
• Use a six-day schedule rotation that has each crew working every six days (The crew that's on duty on Monday would be on duty again until the following Sunday, the Tuesday crew works the following Monday, and so on.
• When not responding to calls for service, the on-duty crew can complete assigned vehicle and equipment checks and maintenance and training together.
If a member has a scheduling conflict with their assigned duty night, it should be their responsibility to secure another qualified member to fill their spot, e.g., a driver/operator must find another driver/operator.

Create support members

Take the pressure off those specialists who respond to emergencies by recruiting volunteers who want to specialize in things other than responding to emergencies. In this model, volunteers can focus their limited time, whether two hours or twenty hours a month, on what they enjoy and are good at.

With fewer demands placed on your departments response specialists, they will each be better able to master the skills that closely match their goals within the limited hours they have available.

There is a national organization that can serve as a tremendous resource for your volunteer fire department to effectively engage the members of your community to find those other specialists.
It's called Fire Corp.

Started in 2004, Fire Corps has grown to 1,658 programs in 49 states helping fire and EMS departments to build more capacity by engaging community volunteers to assist in a variety of non-emergency roles.

Fire Corp's 22,170 community volunteers (as of February 10, 2017) are making a real difference for their local department, both by expanding the services a department can offer and by enabling first responders to focus more on training and response activities.

What does Fire Corps do? Just about anything that the average citizen can do to support emergency operations except for actual operational tasks. Fire Corps volunteers provide their fire departments and communities with services such as:


• Operation of on-scene Rehab facilities to support emergency operations;
• Fundraising;
• Grant writing;
• Emergency sheltering of residents displaced by an emergency;
• Teach fire prevention education classes for young and old alike (65 percent of Fire Corps programs nationwide are delivering fire prevention classes in their communities!); and
• Much, much more!

The ultimate effect of volunteer specialization is a new culture that allows volunteers to come into the organization in their free time to do the things they most enjoy for the betterment of the entire organization.

See Related: National Volunteer Fire Council—Resources
See Related: Thoughts on firefighter recruitment

For more information on Action Training Systems video resources call 800.755.1440 ext 3 or email info@action-training.com

Robert AvsecBattalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his "management sciences mechanic" credentials. He makes his home near Charleston, W.Va. 

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