Part 5 – Firefighter Retention
Jerry L. Streich, Fire Chief/Emergency Manager (Ret)
The past four articles on Effective Firefighter Recruitment have provided ideas to consider when recruiting new firefighters for your team. Each step of the process requires a plan that starts with the end in mind. Select a time when you anticipate the need for new hires to be prepared to respond. Then set up the steps, working backward, to develop a timeline of processes to meet your goal. Once the planning phase is in order, you can use it again moving forward. When I meet with fire officers, I like to ask them how many hours they spend per week on recruitment and retention. Not to my surprise, most do not even spend an hour planning for the most critical element of their department, people. To be effective in maintaining a roster of well-trained firefighters, you must make recruitment and retention a priority. It is that simple. We will spend more time planning for a new set of hydraulic tools than ensuring our lockers are full of the type of people we need to succeed.
Once you have your new hires onboard, it will be essential to ensure they have a path for growth. Initially, being at the fire station will be like going to China for the first time. The language (lingo) is new, all the equipment is scary, and finding your way around will be like a map of unknowns. New people need guidance. When they enter the fire station, they will need 100% supervision. As time goes on, less supervision is required until they are finally on their own. If you have new hires leaving your department within the first year, find out why. Sit down with them to ensure you are getting the truth. Were they exposed to something that scared them? Is there a bully in the house? What could it be? Leaving within the first year is not normal. Dig in!
Now let’s talk about retaining the people you have on your team. They have proven themselves by passing tests, meeting objectives, participating in events, and helping the community in times of need. Losing engaged firefighters is a tragedy, but life happens. However, there are things you can do to help your current staff find a balance between their home life and the fire department. The first recommendation is to understand that TIME has become the new money. And respecting other people's time is very important to retaining firefighters. As a Chief, I have had outstanding firefighters leave the service due to their need for more time. And looking back, I had complete control over some of the “requirements” that, if changed, may have saved that firefighter from resigning. So how do we help them find balance? First, take a notepad, write down all that you require of your firefighters, and rank them by priority. Determine how many hours are needed by week and then month to remain in good standing with the fire department. Then look at your policies and determine what is genuinely required. Too often, someone comes up with a good idea to raise funds, such as a pancake breakfast, and then expects everyone to participate. It rarely works, but the pressure is placed on those who cannot attend by the seven who always do. Those not in attendance are then judged for not participating in things that are not required. I get it; we should all do as much as possible, but are we asking too much? Do we think we can operate a full-service fire department with people hired to only respond to emergency incidents? Are we creating too many committees, public events, and extracurricular activities? Remember, extra initiatives place stress and judgment on those who need to be with their families. If firefighters meet the requirements you set based on your community's needs, that is likely what you told them is required of them on day one. Again, if they are not meeting those requirements, steps need to be taken to motivate change. This holds true for your relief associations as well. What requirements do you have for distributing state aid money to the firefighters? Do they have to attend the corn fest, bingo night, and waffle breakfast? Or are they required to make whatever idea comes up? Many times, the “requirements” change over time. You told the firefighter one thing at hire, but now there is a new expectation years later. If that was not communicated, it could create stress on your firefighters. People want to participate, but family takes precedence. If that stress adds up and creates conflict at home, you may soon find a resignation on your desk.
To find balance, you need to understand the number of hours you require of the firefighter and what the organization defines as “participation.” Most fire departments define good standing by a percentage of calls responded to and training attendance. So, what does the percentage model mean? To determine the percentage that works best for you, you must select the average number of firefighters you want to the station for any given call. Many choose that by considering what seats need to be filled. An Engine may require five for a full crew, and a Tender may need two to support it. That is seven people just to get the two primary trucks on the road. If you have 25 firefighters and need 7 at the station (on average), your good standing participation number is 28% (7 seats/25 members = 28%). If you want more personnel at the station, the percentage needs to increase. Recently, I had a fire officer tell me they “lowered their percentage” because no one was showing up. I asked, “Why?” “Because too many people could not make the percentage requirement.” Let’s talk about that.
At some point in time, someone decided that a group of trained personnel is needed to respond to emergencies within your community. There is currently no law that requires your fire department to exist! We are the fire SERVICE, driven by the vote of our community leaders. To serve, we must have an appropriate amount of staffing to assist the community when in need and protect one another. The only person who can help you when in trouble is another firefighter. People need to show up! So why are the participation numbers so low? Several common factors include leadership issues, burnout, lack of purpose, and staffing shortages. But it would help if you determined that on your own. Once you decide the issues, work to correct them. If your department is responding to many low-priority calls, such as alarms and bleeding tattoo scabs, that may be the slow death of your roster. The veterans on the team remember a quieter participation level and your newer crew could not even imagine the type of calls they would respond to once they completed training. Our core mission is to respond to fire-related incidents. Focus on that and find a way to reduce the rest. If your community is demanding you respond to medical calls, limit those as much as possible to protect your staff’s time. When was the last time no one showed up for a major incident? People are not coming to the low-priority calls because they know their time at home is more important than what could occur during the incident. That makes sense to me.
And finally, look at your training schedule to see if your training is practical. I have lived in a world of progressive training throughout my career and still made errors. Chances are that your largest event will be a residential structure fire, so focus on getting the basics perfected 90% of the time. Find ways to allow for online training so people can stay home to learn and consider proficiency testing. If your firefighters can show you how to deploy, lock in, and maintain a ladder, do they need to learn it several times a year? Let your staff prove they know how to operate within your operation and level them up to new training topics. The key is to offer flexibility today and not waste their time. No one likes coming to training after a long day's work only to be bored by PowerPoint slides. Get off your butt and train!
The retention of firefighters is one of the essential roles of a fire chief. Your firefighters have invested a lot of time and energy into becoming a vital part of your organization. And your community has invested a lot of time recruiting, hiring, training, and equipping them to perform their duties. Keep in touch with them regularly and conduct STAY interviews on an annual basis. Build a winning environment that people want to remain become part of. Ask them what it will take to keep them with you and include their family any time you can. During a recent recruitment and retention class, a fire officer stated they hold an annual event just for the significant others to thank them for their support. I think that is brilliant!
This series was meant to provide you with ideas to recruit and retain firefighters better. You can have the nicest equipment in the world, but it means nothing without qualified people who can operate it effectively. I believe many people would love to earn the title of a firefighter if we can build it into their daily lives and support their active families. I wish you the best in your recruitment and retention efforts.