Recruiting volunteer firefighters and EMS providers in the United States is a complex issue because of the number of fire departments and the fact that there is no single model for organizing fire departments.
Each of the 50 US states has a different legal model for organizing fire departments. In most states, fire departments are strictly a local government concern. Each city, town, village, or other district has a great deal of latitude about how their fire department is structured. In some states there is no requirement that the local government provide for fire protection, and whatever fire protection is provided has little or no state oversight.
The provision of EMS is more structured, particularly when the fire department is providing for ambulance transport services. Fire-EMS tends to be licensed at the state level, and highly influenced by federal Medicare funding rules.
Of the approximately 30,000 fire departments in the United States, 15,000 of them are in communities with populations of less than 2,500 people. These departments are overwhelmingly staffed by volunteers. These small-town and rural departments are generally stand-alone entities with no formal connection with neighbouring stations, and for the most part they lack any kind of state oversight.
What this means when you start to look at the volunteer firefighter recruitment and retention situation in the United States is that there are only a few over-arching principles that might apply industry wide, and tens of thousands of local issues that impact volunteer staffing.
The more far-reaching issues that most in the American volunteer fire service would agree have an effect on recruiting and retaining volunteers are leadership issues, demographic shifts, lack of awareness by residents of the need for volunteers, increasing or new department missions, and an increase in emergency call volumes. Communities that have learned to identify and to manage these issues tend to have the greatest success at recruiting volunteers to staff their fire and EMS departments and keeping them as members for longer periods of time.
It starts with leadership
Research by the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) indicates that poor leadership is among the most cited reasons that volunteers leave their departments. This is not just a retention issue – it also impedes recruitment. People who left because they had a poor experience with the leaders of the local volunteer fire department are out in the community saying bad things about the department. This damages the reputation of the department and discourages new volunteers from joining.
In 2020, the NVFC surveyed former volunteers to find out why they left their departments. The biggest reason, which was cited by 22% of respondents, was a department atmosphere full of cliques and groups that exclude others. Eighteen percent cited department leadership that doesn’t focus on or support the needs of members. These two points are both symptoms and signs of toxic or ineffective leadership and indicate that volunteer fire service leadership is one of the biggest reasons for departments failing to recruit and retain volunteers.
In order to combat toxic leadership issues, the volunteer fire service needs ‘professional’ management and leadership. Professional, in this case, does not necessarily mean paid. All too often, fire chiefs are chosen for understandable but wrong reasons. The best firefighter is appointed chief, not always the best leader/manager. While this person might be great on the fireground, he or she may lack the skills to deal with people in between emergency calls, which represent about 95% of the job. Sometimes, the chief gets the job because he or she is the only person in town who will take it, or they have the time or availability to do the job. Sometimes, the job goes to the person with the most loyalty to local political leaders.
While these leadership issues are easy to recognize, they are difficult to solve because it requires action from a large number of people across the large number of very small communities. Change has to come from the bottom up, as there is no state or federal mechanism (or desire) to effect change at this local level.
The population of the United States is shifting from rural/suburban to suburban/urban. Urban areas are growing in population and experiencing economic growth. At the same time, rural areas are losing population or have stagnant populations while experiencing fewer economic opportunities for residents. The 15,000 departments serving towns and villages with fewer than 2,500 residents are taking the brunt of this demographic shift. (There is some anecdotal evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a shift from urban to rural in the United States, but it is too soon to determine its extent and if it will last.)
Further complicating small-town demographics is a shift in some regions of the United States to older, retired populations. As younger people move away to urban areas, retirees are moving into rural communities. Studies of state ambulance transport data indicate people over age 60 utilize emergency services – fire and EMS – at a much higher rate than other age groups.
For instance, in Massachusetts, about 18% of the state’s population is over age 60, but people over age 60 require about half of all ambulance transports to the hospital. So, while a town’s population may remain the same or even decrease slightly, it can experience an increase in emergency-call volume as the community shifts to an older population demographic.
This impacts the volunteer fire service in two ways. First, it increases emergency calls and puts pressure on volunteers to handle more and more incidents. Second, there are fewer people living in the community who are available to serve as volunteers. Most retirees see themselves as too old and lacking in the physical ability to serve as firefighters. How a community with 30–40% of its residents over the age of 60 provides for volunteer fire and EMS hasn’t been solved. Departments are struggling to figure out an effective role for older volunteers where younger volunteers aren’t available.
In order to recruit enough volunteer firefighters to meet local needs, communities need to analyse the demographics of their community and create fire departments around the human resources that exist. This means breaking down traditions. Some communities have dropped residency requirements and will accept volunteers from neighbouring towns. The recruitment of women requires a great focus because they are the largest underrepresented group in the volunteer fire service. Few departments have greater than 10–15% women in their ranks, and when you only have 1,000 or 1,500 residents to recruit from, they can no longer afford to ignore 50% of those residents.
Community awareness is key
It is easy for those of us inside the volunteer fire service to think that everyone in town knows we have a volunteer fire department and that we need people to volunteer. However, the NVFC has found that public awareness of this kind is generally poor. We in the volunteer fire service struggle to see what our communities see. We tend to recruit among ourselves, and our outreach to other audiences has been weak.
To help departments tackle this barrier and raise community awareness, the NVFC has developed a national online programme called ‘Make Me A Firefighter’. This programme allows local fire departments to profile themselves and their need for new volunteers on the campaign web site, and then generate recruitment materials such as social media, mailings and other outreach to drive local residents to the site, where they can apply to join their local volunteer fire department.
About 29% of all or mostly volunteer fire departments in the US are using the site, and since its launch in December 2015, over 20,300 people have submitted applications through the site to join their local department.
The types and volume of calls
The volunteer fire service also struggles with recruitment and retention of volunteers because of the changing nature of emergency calls. The mission of the local volunteer fire department has expanded greatly over the past 40 years. At one time, most fire departments limited their operations to fire suppression. Now EMS represents 70% of the emergency-call volume. Other new missions such has hazardous materials mitigation, community health and safety education, a greater need for complex inspections and code enforcement, technical rescue needs, drone operations, homeland security roles and now pandemic responses that include the operation of testing and vaccination sites have all conspired to make the job of volunteer firefighter busier and more complex.
There is a limit to how many times a month, a week, or a day that you can expect volunteers to drop what they’re doing in their civilian life and rush off to deal with a community emergency. It’s unclear what the limit is, and it varies greatly from community to community, but those with smaller forces, fewer resources, and poor leadership are struggling the most with expansion of mission and increasing call volumes.
One approach that these smaller departments might consider is limiting their missions. This is culturally an ‘about-face’ for the American fire service. The culture has greatly bought into the ‘can-do’ approach and has been reluctant to say ‘no’ to a mission. But, at some point, departments will have to be blunt with the communities they serve and say that they don’t have the resources to meet all of these missions, all of the time. Departments must adopt clear, written standards of cover that spell out what citizens should and can expect.
Another option is to recruit volunteers for specific types of missions. Departments need to overcome the idea that every volunteer has to be trained in every capacity. Some volunteers simply want to participate in fire suppression and related activities. Others may only want to run EMS calls. Still others can be recruited as drivers, or to respond to traffic incidents, or to assist the department with non-operational duties. By limiting the types of calls and training that are required of each volunteer and allowing them to focus on the areas that interest them, departments can better utilize their members and promote better retention.
While there is no magic solution to the recruitment and retention challenges felt by US fire and EMS departments, making positive changes in the areas of leadership and community awareness, adapting to demographic changes and recognizing the limits of mission expansion are factors that will help departments improve their recruitment and retention efforts.
For more information, go to www.nvfc.org