From the time I was old enough to go to the fire station, it has been obvious to me that there is a connection between firefighters, regardless of where you are from or where you serve. It is because of the things we have seen and done even if we aren’t on the same department, we all have similar experiences. That makes us a family.
Family, it seems to me, is the key to successful recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters. I’m a storyteller, so let me explain what I mean using a story of recruitment and retention from my home state of Kansas.
Last summer I was in Galena, Kansas, to teach a class at a regional fire school. The town’s fire chief, Bill Hall, is a good friend and mentor of mine in the fire service. Galena is about an eight-hour drive from where I live, but it was well worth the trip for the education I got. Wait a minute – I thought I was the teacher! And yet I’m the one that got the education. A good instructor will tell you they get as much out of teaching a class as the students.
First, a little background. Galena is an old mining town. Yes, I said mining. This part of southeast Kansas is known for lead and zinc mining. The mining has long since ended, leaving behind an environmental mess that is finally getting taken care of. Galena currently has a population of 3,000 and is a bedroom community for nearby Joplin, Missouri, meaning that most of its residents commute to Joplin for work.
When I arrived for the fire school, Chief Hall was at the fire station to greet me. He is in his early 80s and has been on the department for over 50 years. A young man came into the station while I was visiting with the chief. He needed a burn permit. The chief took out a book and wrote out the permit, all the while talking nonstop with the young man. Before the permit was handed over, Chief Hall knew everything you could know about this young man and his family. After just those few minutes, this resident of Galena felt like Chief Hall was an old friend and would have done anything that Chief Hall had asked. Making personal connections and always considering everyone he encounters as a potential recruit or new connection is a hallmark of Chief Hall’s recruitment success.
He also proudly promotes the volunteer fire department within the community. The fire station in Galena is a sight to behold. It is located just behind the main business district on the famed Route 66. In big (I mean big) letters that proclaim GALENA VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT, there can be no doubt to the people of the community that it is protected by their neighbors who drop everything to respond to calls.
These tactics work. Chief Hall told me that they were considering going to their city council to increase the maximum number of volunteers allowed on the department because they have more people wanting to join than they have slots available. Chief Hall is not a young man and yet he connects with the young firefighters that join his department. A month or so after I got home from Galena, Chief Hall sent me a picture of a new baby of one of his firefighters swaddled in clean turnout gear, asking if we could get that in our state fire association’s newspaper. Well of course we can, Chief Hall.
So, what is the key to recruitment and retention? Is it to have a Chief Hall on every department? I guess that would be ideal, but that probably isn’t going to happen. The key, though, is to learn from leaders like Chief Hall. His firefighters are his family. Of course, he actually does have a son who is the assistant chief, but all of the firefighters of the Galena Volunteer Fire Department are more than just a work force to him – they are his family. Chief Hall will readily admit that his firefighters are his best recruitment tool.
A critical factor in recruiting and retaining volunteers, as I see it – and as I saw it in Galena that weekend – is to make sure that people are appreciated. Appreciation does not take the form of money in Galena because the volunteers aren’t paid on any basis; appreciation takes the form of how much a firefighter is worth in the eyes of his or her fellow firefighters and the command staff.
So that’s the story. Let’s put it into practical application. For most, this will not be an easy process. Chief Hall has an easier time of recruiting because he’s been doing it for 50 plus years in Galena. If you’re starting from scratch, you can’t expect any magic to suddenly pop up and bless you with a full complement of people knocking down your doors. This is a long-term project.
First and foremost, you have to let the public know that your department is staffed by volunteers and that you need help. I live in a town half the size of Galena, and the citizenry will often ask where the beds are in the fire station because they think we live there. You have to tell people that this isn’t reality. We respond from our homes. We respond from our businesses. We drop everything when the call for help goes out. Galena makes a big deal out of a sign that has big letters on it that says “VOLUNTEER.” The lettering on the trucks also say “VOLUNTEER,” and while it isn’t quite as big, you can read it! I am convinced that there is an inherent gene in the human body to want to volunteer, but if people don’t know of the need, they won’t volunteer. They also need to know that if someone doesn’t volunteer, then fires, wrecks, and EMS calls won’t get answered.
Second, when you get new volunteers, you have to do something with them. I know call volume in many small towns is low. Many departments don’t even get 100 calls a year. The lack of activity can cause people to lose interest. That’s where training is a factor. If you train to handle every incident that the world can throw at you, you build their confidence. You also build the command staff’s confidence in their abilities. This means that you have to train in-house as well as send people to schools or fire academies out of town; promote training at every possible opportunity. When you have people who want to learn, give them something to learn. Even more so, be a mentor – not just to one young firefighter, but to the whole group of them.
Third, get to know these people that you have recruited. You need to know their names, their spouses, their kids, their grandkids, their health conditions, the type of vehicle they drive, and the kind of food that they like. Within just a few days of that baby’s picture appearing our state newsletter, I got a call from the daddy who was so proud – and wanted to tell me what being a member of the Galena Volunteer Fire Department meant to him and to his family.
Why can’t we recruit? Why can’t we retain the people we have? We’ve heard the same stories over and over again. Our rural communities have a downward population trend, parents are both working, we don’t have the time, young people don’t volunteer, I don’t fit the firefighter stereotype, I didn’t know they needed help, no one works in this bedroom community, and on and on and on. Excuses, not solutions. I’m here to tell you that someone forgot to tell the Galena VOLUNTEER Fire Department that there was a recruitment and retention crisis out there. They just go about their lives, ready to drop it all in a moment’s notice, because they know that’s what they need to do. Not everyone is cut out to be a firefighter or EMT – but shouldn’t we all be extremely thankful that there are men and women out there that do this job, day in and day out – in places like Galena and all over the world.
I’ve taught fire classes in Kansas for 20 years now and attended fire classes longer than that. I did not start with the bucket brigade. I’ve seen the ups and downs in recruitment. Overall we are struggling, but I will venture my own opinion that it is what we are doing that is having this effect, rather than the people that we are trying to recruit. The best fire departments are those that have old and new firefighters in the training room. The younger ones have the physical stamina and strength to get the job done, and the older ones keep the younger ones from making the same mistakes that they made. That’s what family is all about.
In the past few months I have watched a steady increase in the number of new recruits all across our state, which I hope is a trend. Recently I was with my 3 ½ year old grandson in the grocery store. He was pushing the shopping cart, which was bigger than his little body. He nearly hit a display until I grabbed the cart. I said, “Emmett, you almost hit something.” Emmett replied, “They keep putting stuff in my way.” That’s a pretty good metaphor for the fire service – they keep putting stuff in our way. But the guiding hand of older firefighters taking younger ones under their wings and being a mentor to them will make all the difference in the world.
Galena has the deck stacked against them. It’s a small town that has little industry. It is a bedroom community. Its members lead busy lives. BUT their secret weapon was and is Chief Hall and the pride he instilled in those that are there – to be a part of the fire service family in little old Galena. It continues to thrive not entirely upon his personality, but upon what he has made of the ones that make up his fire crews. Realizing this was a “WOW” moment for me.
For more information, go to www.nvfc.org