What makes people want to be who they are? As members of the fire and emergency service, we’re part of an elite group of people that other people want to be a part of.
I don't say this with an inflated ego about our place in the world; any survey about professions that are among the most admired will place firefighters at or near the top. In fact, instead of this information giving us a swelled head and a sense of entitlement, it should make us very aware of the tremendous responsibility we have.
As members of the fire service, we have what many people never get in their whole lives; we get to be part of an organization that gets to serve others. As a fire chief, I have the opportunity to address new recruit classes on their very first day as a member of the fire service. I remind them that they have just won the lottery—but not just any lottery.
They get something regular lottery winners will never have and can't buy despite their new-found millions. They get to be a part of the fire service. They get to serve with some of the finest people on the planet. They get to provide aid, comfort and solace to people in their communities at a time when they most need a helping hand.
So given that we have a job that’s so admired, why do we have a recruitment and retention issue in the fire service?
Many challenges face us in this area, but volunteer recruitment challenges are a near constant discussion topic as I travel around the U.S. and the world for the IAFC.
We know that the Training requirements to maintain minimum standards are very difficult to manage when you volunteer and have to support your family at another job at the same time.
Next, the type of calls we respond to have changed dramatically over the years as our mission has expanded from just fire response to emergency medical calls, hazmat, tech rescue and virtually anything else you can imagine, raising the bar further on training requirements and call volume.
In addition to the added operational complexity, there’s a marketing challenge that paid departments may also have. Helping someone back into bed simply isn't as exciting as responding to a structure fire, and the volume of such calls has raised the number of times volunteers have to give to the department instead of to their families employers or even find some rest and relaxation for themselves.
Finally, many employers are less likely to let their employees drop everything and run to an emergency than when most businesses were small community-based businesses. To many businesses, the bottom line is more important.
To solve some of these issues we need to try to address the causes. I don't believe that watering down requirements that were developed over the years to make us safer and more proficient while performing our jobs as firefighters is a good solution.
Perhaps having responders trained in specific areas only would help, but it might require a larger force to meet the needs of the community, which exacerbates the problem.
Another option is to combine forces with our neighbors. This is a tough topic, but I believe it’s relevant. If a community can't support an effective force of trained and able members, they should consider combining with as many neighbors as it takes to accomplish that goal.
We should be long past a mindset that says, "This is our community;" we should be able to take a longer view to do what is best for both those who receive and deliver response. The quantity of departments begins to take a back seat when the quantity of responders (and therefore the eventual quality of service) can’t be sustained. In underserved communities, we must remain focused on responding to the future rather than preserving the past.
The fire and emergency service should be very proud of who we are, but if we want to stay at the top of our game, we have a responsibility to our members and our communities to constantly ask, “Who are we? Who do we want to be?”
Recruitment and retention is a complex and multilayered issue that I will continue to come back to. Other areas I think we need further discussion is continued recruitment of women and minority candidates and retention and development of future leaders. I don’t profess to have all the answers to the fire service’s recruitment and retention challenges; rather, I hope to provide food for thought as we continue to answer these questions together.
Chief Al H. Gillespie, EFO, CFO, MIFireE
President and Chairman of the Board