It’s no secret the volunteer fire service has been seeing membership drop off for many years. Some parts of the country have been hit harder than others — reasons why are very well known. Lack of volunteerism in the emerging generation, families working multiple jobs, too much time for required training and the list goes on. We see so much on recruitment and retention for the last ten years, but the impact from those programs has been minimal nationally. We have not yet developed that one special pill to cure all our ills. When it comes to boosting or maintaining numbers nationally we must keep digging. We need to find ways and means internally to help our cause. We need to ensure we retain those we already have.
How can we do this? We need to assess how our organizations conduct themselves on the fire and the administrative side. Unchecked issues can push good people away. Most of us have been through or heard of instances where mismanagement on one side of the house or other, has been a detriment that can lead to membership dropping off. I listed some ideas we can look at internally that may have a positive effect on slowing the bleed and hopefully one day reversing this trend.
1) Leaders of the department must lead. Poor leadership reverberates at calls and in the station. Lack of leadership can be a killer to an organization. Disorganization and chaos from a lack of leadership has never been part of a recipe for success
2) All members must have a team approach and not an I approach. Selfish individuals who refuse to work as a team can suck the life out of a department. Our leaders must keep in check these members to let them know it’s we, not I.
3) Communication at all levels. The new member, to the life member, all want communication. Lack of communication can lead to assumptions as well as destructive rumors, especially on important issues.
4) Training that engages all different experience levels. Seasoned members want to be pushed to learn just like a recruit. Training also helps build trust and teamwork. If the members feel the training is of no benefit to them, they may stop showing on training nights. Everyone has to be included.
5) Everyone needs to respect each other. Do you know anyone who likes to be disrespected in any way? Especially, people, we are not paying.
6) Hold to your sog’s and bylaws. Firefighters want consistency on the scene and at the station. Why have guidelines and rules if they are not followed? Review them periodically to keep current with society and firefighting’s ever-evolving world.
7) Public perception means a lot. Function how you want to be viewed. Professionally, with pride and a sense of community. Remember the public is where prospective new members await.
8) Every interaction counts. In house or with the public give the best version of you and your department you can. You may need them to support your cause on a public vote in the future.
9) Promote your department on social media. It educates those we serve and can garner new members. Most of the younger generations get a lot of news and information from social media.
10) Leave the monthly meeting in the meeting room. To many times emotions on disagreements leave the meeting room. It does no good to litigate it in the rec room after. I never could understand those who sit silent during a meeting but had all the answers after. Say it in your business meetings, that’s why we have them.
11) Automatic alarms. For many of us, it’s the number one run every year. However, it can drain your members. Many of us run to the same addresses constantly. Petition your local government for a local law to help curb the repeat offenders.
12) Automatic mutual aid calls. Many companies are running automatic mutual aid for neighboring departments. Evaluate this arrangement once a year. Some of us are running hundreds of these calls a year. Again, it’s a call that can strain your membership. If the neighboring department has had a shift or gain in members maybe the agreement can be relaxed. My department has about a half dozen members who have bid shifts with their employment that can change every six months. It helps to Aleve our daytime staffing issues when they have a night bid. This can work out as a benefit for the fire department.
13) Busy companies with a lot of in and out calls may consider putting a duty crew on at the station, or an assigned group of members who will answer calls during certain hours. When anything heavy comes in, they can page out the rest of the department. This prevents not answering a run because members assume someone else will get up at 2 am to answer a carbon monoxide call. Thus initiating an understaffed response or mutual aid handling. More and busier suburban companies are going to bunk in volunteers. Another option when you start pushing thousands of runs.
14) Handle all issues when they are snowballs. Do not let those snowballs turn into a blizzard. Blizzards are crippling.
15) Required training. Push for your state to get more of it available through e-learning where applicable. We can read all those hours of lecturing at home, at our convenience. I know some states have started down this path.
16) We need to ensure our fire service organizations are truly representing our interest at the state level. Make sure they push your agenda. We all understand how unfunded mandates burden our budgets. Especially in very rural areas. They should advocate for us like unions do for the paid brothers.
17) Vote for those in public office that support the fire service.
18)If you hear the term “it’s always been like that” throw that member out. Just kidding, that phrase can kill any organization. Try hard to eradicate it from yours.
19) The list started with leadership and ends with it also. We want leaders to lead and push the organization and membership to be the best we can be.
These are starting points that can be looked at and acted on fast if some of these are issues in your department. Each point we could expand on immensely. It is not the end all be all, but some very obvious points in my opinion, that can be considered. The volunteer fire service is under immense pressure from increased runs, requirements and a lack of newcomers. We need to continually be vigilant to the forces pulling at us. It’s a good practice to review runs, staffing, and other response needs on a regular basis. Also, utilize historical data to help forecast where the department may be run wise in the future. This along with how fast you lose and gain members can help you stay ahead of the needs curve. Start a 2025 committee and set benchmarks. Ensure your department will be relative and healthy in 2025. Keep goals realistic and meet regularly.
The fire service has adapted over the history of our country to the needs of our communities. This is a situation where we may need to bang heads hard to put forth ideas and solutions that get us that elusive magic pill to cure our ills. The volunteer fire service will survive. We are tasked to define what it will look like, and how it will operate in these rapidly changing times in society, and the fire service. Please share your comments to keep the discussion alive and on the front burner. I hope to get enough feedback to do a follow up on this subject. This list can grow with all of us sharing ideas. Your idea may help another department. A side note, we are currently working on a follow up on knowledge-based testing for volunteer chiefs. That article generated tremendous attention and conversation nationwide. Look for that in May. As always stay safe.
-Ed Dolan is a 29-year member of the Catskill Fire Department in New York. He has served 16 years as a chief officer. He contributes to the Leather Head Mafia website and facebook page frequently. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org