I’m one of the few – and maybe the only – consultants regarding volunteer engagement that regularly delves into the subject of volunteer firefighters. I’m not sure why most DOVIAs and other associations of managers of volunteers avoid the subject. Surely the fundamentals we volunteer management experts believe are essential to success in involving volunteers also apply to involving volunteer firefighters? Yet, go to a conference on volunteer engagement and you will find few, if any, workshops related to engaging and supporting volunteer firefighters. Go to a web site with resources about volunteer engagement, and you may not find any information about the particular environment of volunteer firefighting. Likewise, walk into a fire station which is staffed fully or partly by volunteer firefighters, and you probably won’t see any books related to volunteer management, in general, and few managers of volunteer firefighters attend DOVIA-related meetings or conferences.
This gap really bothers me.
I’ve been interested in the reasons fire stations involve volunteer firefighters, and the challenges faced in recruiting and retaining such volunteers, since 2001, when I started dating a volunteer firefighter in Germany. He’s now my husband (and now a volunteer firefighter in the USA). It’s been fascinating to compare Germany – with the highest number of volunteer firefighters, per capita, in the world – with the USA. Both are facing similar challenges regarding volunteer firefighters – and both have far more people complaining about “the way things used to be,” rather than addressing the realities of the day and leveraging our times many strengths to recruit, involve and support volunteer firefighters. Earlier this year, I compiled research and case studies regarding recruitment and retainment of volunteer firefighters & justifications for involving volunteer firefighters that do NOT relate to “money saved”. It was my tiny effort to get stations that are staffed wholly or partly by volunteers to quit complaining and start changing so they can flourish in the world we live in now.
I also try to track issues related specifically to volunteer firefighters that are talked about in the news. Recently, a colleague passed on two articles to me:
Without volunteers, rural fire districts wouldn’t exist, laments the lack of volunteers in several rural areas of Oregon, and blames the problem on the attitude of young people, with comments like:
- Young people don’t believe in an expectation that they will volunteer for their community
- “Most of the younger folks say, ‘We don’t have time,” or ‘We’re too busy with class,'”
- “It’s hard to get the volunteers to show up (to calls)…It seems like on training night they have something else better to do. If it’s in the middle of the night, the younger guys would rather sleep, so it’s just two or three of us that show up on a regular basis.”
- “They want to be firemen and (then) they see something they don’t like. Like a wreck.”
The article never interviews any current or former volunteers, to find out why they have volunteered, challenges to their volunteering, why they left, etc. It never interviews young people to find out their attitudes about volunteerism and community service – it just takes the word of a couple of guys that do not represent that demographic. And those comments wouldn’t make me want to volunteer there if I were in my 20s or 30s, as they obviously don’t like people from that generation – they say so!
And in the same publication is this: Coos Bay trying to buck trend of declining volunteer firefighters. It attributes lack of volunteers to:
- the community’s aging population
- economic problems
- stricter standards for volunteers regarding their training
- lack of monetary compensation
- busier lives
- lack of social interactions – it’s just work to do, no fun aspects, like there used to be when you could drink alcohol in the stations
Again, no current or former volunteers are interviewed.
These articles also leave out some other factors that are, no doubt, affecting the numbers of volunteer firefighters:
- Firefighters don’t fight fires all that much. They don’t even do rescues all that much. The vast majority of their calls are medical calls. They do far more ambulatory/paramedic work than they do true firefighting work. Ask your volunteer firefighters, current and former, which calls they find most appealing – most will tell you fire fighting. Perhaps it’s time for the USA to look into the German model, where a separate, dedicated agency handles emergency medical calls? That greatly reduces training costs for firefighters – as well as equipment costs – and means firefighters get to be, mostly, firefighters.
- The national union for career firefighters has stated it is against volunteer firefighters and would like to see all volunteers eliminated and replaced with paid people. A career firefighter in a big city is not allowed to be a volunteer firefighter in the small rural area where he or she lives, because of union rules as well. Volunteers feel this animosity from some career firefighters, and it creates a very unwelcoming environment in many stations. Unless this animosity is addressed, and statements about volunteers being valued because they save money stop, the number of volunteer firefighters is going to continue to drop.
- Firefighters haven’t changed how they recruit. AT ALL. A sign out in front of a station that says “Volunteers needed” just isn’t going to cut it anymore. If there are young people in your community, there are potential volunteer firefighters, and you have to go where THEY are. You also have to have an ONLINE volunteering application. You have to be posting videos on Facebook and YouTube and Twitter of your firefighters in action, and reminding people via social media what volunteers do, how to do be one, and WHY to be one. And you have to reach out to people that speak languages in addition to English to make sure they know about volunteering opportunities and how to qualify.
- Many stations do a substandard job of responding to inquiries aboutvolunteering, and applications from potential volunteers. Are you sure that EVERY person that calls or emails the city, the county, or your station about volunteering as a firefighter is getting a prompt, courteous, encouraging response? And are you sure every application is being responded to rapidly? Read Volunteers needed, but are they wanted? and Fire station turns away volunteers – & how it could be different for more on this subject.
As for the lack of a social aspect among firefighters today, that is HUGELY important for volunteer firefighters, particularly those that are not volunteering as a part of career exploration/advancement. Those volunteers hear all about all the work that needs to be done – but without some kind of social aspect, they aren’t going to last long. Also, social gatherings help to build cohesion among firefighters that can have benefits later during crisis situations. Could your station have a regular, unofficial meetup at a favorite pub once a month for all off-duty firefighters to play some darts, shoot some pool and just hang out socially? Would leaders at your station organize firefighter-only gatherings in their homes, such as potlucks or lawn games, even just twice a year? Would someone organize a rafting trip or a day trip to do bungee jumping for any firefighters interested in such? Creating a social aspect for your firefighters is tricky: activities have to be entirely unofficial, entirely voluntary, and regularly done in order to cultivate the kind of brother and sisterhood you want among all of your firefighters, volunteer and career. But without making a consistent effort, your volunteers will most certainly drift away, tired of being asked only to provide labor, and receiving no real value in return.
There ARE potential volunteer firefighters out there, even in your small town. You might be hearing a lot about how people are preferring microvolunteering, where they volunteer for only a few minutes or hours once, and have no requirement to ever volunteer again, but the reality is that there are also a LOT of people who are hungry to connect, hungry for a deeper, more substantial activity that connects them with the community and causes they believe in. Volunteer firefighting can have a great deal of appeal to today’s young people. But if you don’t have a welcoming environment, if you aren’t trying to reach them where they are, if you aren’t using social media, and if you are just talking about all the work that has to be done and the obligations to be fulfilled, those young people are going to go elsewhere. And that’s a shame, because they have a lot of energy, talent, ideas and strengths from which your fire station could benefit. Are you ready to evolve to involve them?
Of course, the only way to know for sure about the challenges for volunteers in any one fire department or association is to survey both current and departed volunteer firefighters – and perhaps those that applied to volunteer but never completed the process. And this kind of survey should be done at least every other year. Make a list of questions you want to ask these current and former volunteers, and then have journalism students from the local high school or management students from the local college or university ask the questions of the current and former volunteers – volunteers are much more likely to speak freely if it isn’t to the fire chief. Have the students compile all of the answers, and share it freely, openly, and welcome comments from everyone on what is offered. That’s your starting point.
- Research and case studies regarding recruitment and retainment of volunteer firefighters & justifications for involving volunteer firefighters that do NOT relate to “money saved”
- the firefighter union in the USA is anti-volunteer
- pro vs. volunteer firefighters
- Volunteers needed, but are they wanted?
- Fire station turns away volunteers – & how it could be different
- Unions & Nonprofits: Commentary from the Nonprofit Quarterly
- Do NOT say “Need to Cut Costs? Involve Volunteers!”