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Recruit the Best and Retain Them Longer

It’s no surprise that the recruitment and retention of volunteers has become a hot topic and one that many fire departments are constantly trying to overcome. As departments face tight budgets, a decline in overall volunteerism and other factors, recruiting new members and retaining seasoned individuals is growing as a challenge.

How are you, as a fire-service leader, affecting and addressing the same problem that many others face?


Thoroughly consider the steps and time required in onboarding each new member. Does your department require a background check, interview or ride-along? Could any of these steps be adjusted? Do you have another person in charge of the process?

By giving someone else the responsibility of new members, your time is freed up to get to know them. Ask them what their goals are and about their skill sets; take interest in their day-to-day lives. Making sure you recruit the right people ensures you’re getting a more diverse and inclusive environment.


However, don’t emphasize diversity for diversity’s sake. Focus more on inclusion, an environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to your department’s success.

Are you recruiting people you need with the skill sets your department requires? These can include administrative personnel, auxiliary members or individuals with trade or professional experience, including mechanics, financial advisors and lawyers.

By ensuring you have volunteers who want to be there and have differing skill sets, diversity will naturally follow. However, this can’t happen without a strong leadership team.


As the chief, you set the example for your department. Educate yourself by taking and offering leadership courses, such as VCOS’s training courses

  • Beyond Hoses and Helmets
  • Fire Rescue Organizational Guidance for Volunteer Leaders (FROG)
  • Symposium in the Sun
  • Symposium in the West

Get to know each department member, ensure your officers know their firefighters and empower all members.

You’re just one person and can’t do everything efficiently. Succession planning is about trust and training. If something were to happen to you or someone on your leadership team, would your officers and members be able to handle the responsibility? This specifically carries into staffing, especially if your department has significant turnover.


Having a clear succession plan and setting members’ expectations lead to better staffing abilities overall. Don’t assign individuals to teams for the sake of it; look at members’ skill sets and ask them if they feel appreciated. If they don’t, ask them why and what could be done to solve the problem.

Regularly communicate with each department member about current goings-on. This type of communication is vital for the success of any department.


Without a doubt, clear communication is the best retention tool in any organization. Learn how members want to be communicated with, whether via email, phone or text.

Share current department events and operational updates and regularly express how greatly you appreciate both your officers and line firefighters.


Of firefighters polled, 60% said personal motivation would grow if officers showed appreciation by saying thank you. And in general, motivated people help a department develop a sense of pride that equates to solid retention.

However, remember that recognitions don’t have to be award-based. Try posting “Firefighter of the Month” or “Thank you!” on social media and tagging your members. These small reward systems are a simple way to show gratitude and develop the department’s presence in the media!


The media is a great tool to show off your department to the public. By regularly communicating with local papers and radio and television stations, you can generate interest in your department. Focus on major calls your department has recently responded to and highlight any upcoming recruitment events.

Don’t rule out social media either! Ask a trusted member skilled in social-media communication to help run the account. For information on social media, check out the Volunteer Workforce Solutions’ Social Media Handbook and Digital Toolkit to Help Your Department’s Do-More-with-Less Dilemma (an archived webinar). 

These resources provide in-depth looks into how to use and manage some of the most popular social-media sites. This type of media also leads directly back to your onboarding process: you can directly ask the public to volunteer for your department.

In conclusion, you can have a major effect on your department. Almost every function of recruitment and retention is cyclical and leads into another by default. Ensure you’re doing your best as a leader to dedicate focused time to each of these or create teams to help you along the way.

Recruitment and retention isn’t a one-and-done event; it’s a preventative-maintenance issue. If your department is waiting until staffing becomes an issue, you’re already late in getting your program in place.


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