Every emergency response agency should be aware of some key actions to retaining and training volunteer firefighters. Although seventy (70) percent of all firefighters in the United States are volunteers, in the last fifty years there has been a steady decline in volunteerism. The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), and the United States Fire Administration (USFA) have all released studies regarding the recruitment and retention of volunteers.
In these studies, the organizations identified similar causes for the drop in firefighter volunteers. One of the more common issues appears to be training. Not only the cost of training, and the ever-increasing training requirements, but probably the biggest obstacle of all – time. For prospective volunteers, it is difficult to find the time needed to do initial and ongoing training.
Departments must determine how to best use their volunteer’s time. Having a training program that is effective and efficient can help keep members engaged, maximize their limited time, and assist with the mandated training requirements that they need.
Create an Efficient Training Program
When developing a training program evaluate your service area and common types of calls that your agency commonly responds to. This can help guide your curriculum and identify the skills you need to focus on. Ask your members what operations they feel they need a refresher in, or that they lack confidence performing. Also, low-frequency high-risk incidents that involve equipment and or skills that aren’t commonly used are other areas to concentrate on. Using post-incident reports to gain insight, or to identify deficiencies is also an excellent way to help direct your training program.
Use Online Training to Maximize Hands-On Training
Allowing access to online training is another great way to help maximize time. Online training can be a very effective way for members to fit training around their own schedule. It can also reduce time spent in the classroom and increase the valuable hands-on time needed on the training ground. When using this “flipped” classroom or hybrid training model, members can review and verify their understanding of techniques and skills first by using online interactive training. The result? Members are better prepared for the hands-on training to come.
Fire Service Leadership is Essential
Everyone wants to feel valued and respected. Studies on employee retention have shown that when leaders acknowledge volunteers for their contribution and make them feel that they are an important part of a team, retention rates are higher. Leaders must also provide programs that support and help volunteers succeed within the organization.
Effective leadership helps to increase a volunteer’s commitment. This boils down to good supervision, an inclusive work environment, and helping to provide job satisfaction. The end goal of any fire department is to provide a level of service that best supports its community. When you can retain experienced and committed members you will have faster response times, more available resources, and fewer injuries on scene.
End Result: Retention Equals Good Customer Service & Safety for All
Time is scarce for many individuals. Some work multiple jobs, share in childcare or care for aging parents, but participating in community service remains an integral and important part of many people’s lives. It is in the best interest of any organization to create an inclusive and supportive environment to encourage volunteerism in emergency services. Providing accessible learning tools that members can utilize on their own time or while on shift can help them keep up with their mandated training. Providing good leadership, and showing respect and appreciation will also help to keep them committed. When this is done, the benefits are many; a cohesive department, improved response times, increased safety, and most importantly, the retention of valuable members.
International Association of Fire Chiefs “State of the Volunteer Fire Service Report 2018: Recruiting and Retaining the Volunteer of the Future.”
National Volunteer Fire Council. “Retention and Recruitment for the Volunteer Emergency Services.” 2nd ed. 2007. FEMA-USFA.
National Volunteer Fire Council. Volunteer Fire Service Statistic Sheet. 2018.
National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)