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IAFC Goes to New Mexico to Teach Recruitment & Retention

The IAFC has some great programs and we often hear about how they are helping on the national level. That strategic overview is extremely important, especially when tackling the large issues facing the fire service. Often though, this doesn’t allow for the personal stories to come forth and they can truly bring to light how our programs impact communities at the individual level.  Sometimes putting a face to those solving their community’s problems at the local level builds passion for our own work. This is one of those times and San Juan County, New Mexico, is the backdrop for some amazing progress.

Before we discuss San Juan, some background info is necessary. In 2016, the IAFC won a SAFER grant to develop training that helps volunteer departments with their non-operational issues. Many departments don’t have a municipal finance director or an HR specialist. Many are 501(c)(3), non-profit organizations that need be run as a business. The idea behind the grant was that no one wants to join a department that is failing as an organization. If you cannot pay your bills, if you have corruption in your administration or financial activities, or if you don’t know how to recruit and keep quality people, a volunteer department will never succeed. To do this, the grant built the next generation of VCOS’ Beyond Hoses & Helmets leadership class, developed an online instructor course, created 10 hours of e-learning on the business of running a department (the Volunteer Administrative Leadership Series) and produced a two-day, certification class for Recruitment and Retention Coordinators (RRCs). 

Remember that big picture we were discussing? Well here is some hard data from the grant deliverables:

  • 1,205 people have started the on-line courses since their opening in April 2019 
    880 have completed the on-line courses
  • The new Beyond Hoses & Helmets rolls out its first class in the beginning of 2020
    IAFC now has an on-line “Instructor I” course that will allow consistency with its educational deliveries in the future
  • Delivered 14 in-person RRC certification classes in 11 different states
    153 people were certified as Recruitment and Retention Coordinators; the only professional certification of its kind.
  • Of those 153, we now have RRCs in 25 states: Virginia, Maryland, Washington, Texas, New Mexico, Oregon, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Minnesota, Connecticut, New York, Ohio, Alabama, Oklahoma, Georgia, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, Colorado, Indiana, Montana, Arizona, Idaho, and Alaska.

Aren’t those stats exciting? Don’t they get your blood pumping? The best part is yet to come!

This is the story of San Juan County Fire Department in New Mexico. San Juan sits on the Northern border of the state and is extremely rural. The fire department covers 3,200 square miles, protects 33,000 people and answered over 8,000 emergency calls in 2018. The county department is composed of 10 different fire districts, each one a link to their individual community. Until recently, the county had a booming economy built on oil and natural gas resources found in the area. About three years ago, the “bubble” burst in that industry locally and their tax base has decreased 30% in the last three years. 

In 2018, the fire department went from a $15 million budget to a $5 million budget. There is no capacity to hire paid firefighters to do what their volunteers accomplish. To maintain a minimum level of emergency service capability for their citizens, they must continually work to keep the quality members they have and reach out to gain more.

Division Chief Jordan Richards, the county’s officer in charge of volunteer recruitment and retention, came to an RRC certification class in Austin, Texas, last March. When he arrived, he was at a loss. “I know we need to recruit more people. I know we need to keep the people we have. I just don’t know where to begin and what I have tried has not been successful. Because of the distances involved in our locality, it almost seems hopeless.” When he left, he had a clear plan on how to move forward and was energized. 

We contacted Chief Richards again in July and asked how things were going. “They are going well, but it is difficult. Basically, I need someone like me at each station. Because of the distances involved, each community needs someone who is working to recruit and retain people from that area. I need to coordinate the big picture for the whole county and they need to handle the day-to-day tasks at the local level.”

Fortunately, the grant allowed us to bring the certification class to San Juan and we were able to train more people to handle recruitment and retention at their individual station. Chief Richards came to the class and before we left, he talked to each of the new RRCs. That Sunday, while we were cleaning up from the class, they formed an unofficial committee and agreed to meet the following Tuesday in person and via Skype. 

As of this writing, the San Juan County Volunteer Membership Committee is an official part of their department. They work together to address issues at the county level, but also to help each other solve the specific problems they face at the local level. They are working on a strategic plan to address their needs and are pooling resources for maximum efficiency.

San Juan’s story is not a solitary one. There are many other communities across the country that are being helped by our program and it is a powerful, educational tool for positive change. 

It was previously stated that it is important to put a face to those solving their community’s problems. We want to leave you with a glimpse of the people who are making a difference because of the IAFC programs and here is the San Juan Recruitment & Retention Committee with some of their backstory. 

Top Row: 
Liz Bradshaw and Holly Facka. This duo serves in District 1, Valley Fire. District 1 is the busiest of SJCFD’s fire districts with over 1,200 calls for service per year. They have about 40 volunteers and are very active within their community. 

Gary Frey is the RRC for District 2, Flora Vista. They have about 25 members and run about 650 calls per year. Gary is a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot who was looking for a way to help his community.

Chris Opperman is both the RRC and District Chief for District 4, La Plata. They have 15 volunteers and run about 300 calls for service per year. Chris heard about the RRC certification class at 6pm on the night before the class started. There is six hours of prework for the course and he worked overnight to complete it so that he could be there the next day!

Lyndon Gingerich belongs to District 5, Blanco Fire and is only 19 years old, but does amazing work. They have about 10 volunteers and run about 450 calls per year.

Middle Row:
Tristen Swartout is fairly new and belongs to District 7, Center Point. Even though he is a senior in high school he is already very active in the department and loves sharing it with others. They have about 15 volunteers and run about 500 calls per year.

Jamie Wagoner is an experienced, human resources professional and volunteer firefighter. She and her husband joined the department and went through the academy together. She belongs to District 8, Hart Valley. They have about 20 volunteers and run about 750 calls per year.

Mike Freeman is a captain with his district. He belongs to District 9, Sullivan Road. They have 10 volunteers and run about 325 calls per year. 

Bottom Row:
Eric Mohler, while he does not belong to SJCFD, is an integral part of our R&R community. He is a captain with Bloomfield, a town in San Juan. He has already made big plans working with Bloomfield High School and created a Fire Department Day for a home game. Bloomfield Fire Department has about 20 volunteers and three paid response staff. They run about 1,300 calls for service per year.
Jordan Richards is the Division Chief of Recruitment and Retention for SJCFD and is charged with growing the volunteer ranks of the fire department. He is off to a great start!

For more information about the Volunteer Administrative Leadership Series, including how to take the online courses and about the RRC certification class, please go to www.iafc.org/vals.


Keith Brower is the past Fire Chief of the Loudoun County (Virginia) Combined Fire and Rescue System. After a successful career of 45 years, he is now failing at retirement. He continues to support volunteer and combination departments through instruction.

Spencer Cheatham is a program manager for the IAFC on the Volunteer Workforce Solutions team. He is the former chief and past president of the West Point (Virginia) Volunteer Fire Department where he is still a firefighter/EMT and their Recruitment and Retention Coordinator. He is also a previous career chief with New Kent (Virginia) Fire-Rescue.

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