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Perception, Politics and Professionalism in Volunteer Departments

The focus of every department is getting new recruits in the door. Get them in, get them trained, get them on the street and then move on to the next ones. But what happens to volunteers after their recruitment process ends? Are we paying enough attention to those who have been serving our department for years or even decades?

It’s an unavoidable fact that there will be some level of attrition within the volunteer fire service and for reasons that are often beyond the control of the department. We have no control over life changes that affect our members. Whether it’s a new job, school, marriage or a child being born, events take place that take priority over a volunteer position.

For the most part, being supportive and flexible is the best way to prevent any additional stress. The more positive the experience a member has in dealing with their department during a life change, the more likely they are to return when available.

What about the things the department does have control of? In a survey conducted by Dr. Kevin Curtain of George Mason University, it was found that there are key factors the department does affect. A primary factor is leadership. In Curtain’s survey of 1,805 firefighters, over one third of respondents stated that poor leadership was a major cause for members leaving the department. This was especially true in firefighters with 6–10 years of service. Members with a shorter amount of service tended to see leadership as less of an issue.

Conversely, a study done by the IAFC’s Volunteer Combination Officers Section stated that out of almost 1,000 fire officers across the nation, only 8% of those surveyed believed department leadership was a factor in members leaving their departments. This is a stark contrast in perception between officers and firefighters, so what can we do about this obvious disconnect?

Department politics also play a strong role in the decision to leave. While politics is a rather broad topic and something that is inevitable in the course of doing business, it can get out of control at times. When things get personal and out of hand, you’ll drive members away and cause discord among those who remain.

While easier said than done, disagreements need to stay professional. Personal attacks and grudges don’t solve problems; they only create more. There has to be trust that everyone is working towards a common goal: the betterment of the department. People won’t always agree on how to get there, but calm and rational discussion with a little bit of compromise can accomplish great things. A smoothly operating and professional department is a happy department.

Finally, are tenured members filling the roles they need and want to be filling? As all volunteer fire service members know, a gentle balance must be maintained between the firehouse, family and career. Some may feel overburdened by responsibility at the firehouse while others may wish to take on a larger role and become more involved. Being aware of your firefighter’s personal goals and needs can help you determine roles in which they’ll be the most useful and ultimately the best fit for the department.

Bringing in new members is essential to the volunteer department, but not at the expense of neglecting the veterans who still have vital roles to fill. These tenured members are the ones who possess the training and experience essential to the development of new firefighters, and keeping them around is imperative to the survival of any volunteer company. A balance between development of new recruits and retention of current members is the key to a successful department.

Stephen Boensel is the program coordinator for the IAFC’s SAFER Volunteer Workforce Solutions program.

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