Retention starts in the fire chief’s office. If you as leader of the organization fail to recognize the volunteers as equal and vital members of the team, they’ll be drafted by the organization that does. Without those volunteers, our communities are left without critical services, and a departments’ survival may be in jeopardy.
If volunteers are the lifeblood of your organization, it’s your duty and obligation, as the leader, to keep them there.
Today’s volunteer faces many challenges and obstacles to serving in your department. They have increasing demands on their time from work, family and personal obligations. And let’s face it—it’s a sacrifice for the firefighter and for his family too.
So how do you as a leader make sure that time is well spent and they’ll come back month after month and year after year to serve with your department? What do they gain for themselves and for their families by volunteering those few precious hours they can spare to your department?
It’s your job as a leader to ensure their time is well spent.
Today’s volunteer also has different motivations for joining the fire department than in the past where continuing a family legacy or community service may have been a primary objective. While you will still find these influencing the decision to join, you’ll also find that building a resume and testing out a potential career move have equal or greater importance to many volunteers.
Are you providing them with an experience that is important and valuable? Are they challenged to grow and move forward? Are they provided the opportunity to test skills and learn new ones?
It is your job as a leader to ensure there is opportunity for personal growth.
As a leader, it is your job to know what motivates your volunteers, what they value and what’s worth spending their time on, and then to encourage them to do so. A volunteer will not spend time serving the department if it isn’t well run, not well respected by the community, doesn’t provide some value to them, doesn’t encourage them or allow them to grow professionally. Your motivation is as important as theirs is; surprised? Your excitement and enthusiasm for the job, and the respect you show to others in the department matters.
It’s your job as a leader to provide a good example; lead by doing and they will follow.
Your personal level of involvement in the organization also matters. Your active participation and involvement acknowledge that you care—about the community, about the department and about the personnel who make it all possible. Are you holding down a desk 9-5, or are you around when they train, when they’re in the classroom or on calls or when critical issues come up? Volunteers need leadership that is visible and accessible to them. This is particularly true when they may only serve one shift per week or month. If a problem surfaces, they want to know they can talk to someone who will be responsive.
If you as the leader are not responsive and accessible, they’ll go to someone else who is—for better or for worse.
The bottom line is this simple—retention starts in the fire chief’s office. Volunteers don’t have to stay with your department; they don’t have time to waste and they certainly won’t make sacrifice what time they have unless you make it worthwhile for them to stay and acknowledge the value they add to your organization.
Kenneth Richards is chief of the Old Mystic (Conn.) Fire Department. Cynthia Cox is the program manager for the IAFC’s Volunteer Workforce Solutions program.