Volunteer Departments Can Improve Retention through Specialization: Command Leadership

Volunteer Departments Can Improve Retention through Specialization

Nationwide, volunteerism is dropping to an all-time low; as you know, this trend affects the volunteer fire service as well. We hear it often: “I would love to volunteer but I just don’t have the time, ” or “I would like to help but I can’t be a firefighter, ” or “I can no longer volunteer all these hours; I have a family and a career that I’m neglecting.”

Changes in the fire service and in our communities have put unprecedented pressure on the position of the volunteer firefighter. A few examples:

  • A greater population adds to call volume;
  • More standards and regulations in every aspect of the fire service add to training demands and response standards;
  • Technology has moved out of clinics and laboratories into the field, requiring firefighters to constantly learn new technologies and tools; and
  • Public perception puts us at the top of the list of the most trusted profession. Volunteer firefighters don’t want to jeopardize that reputation by not being able to commit enough time.

Firefighting Has Changed

What it means to be a firefighter has changed, particularly in the past 30 years. Firefighters used to be people who mastered the art of responding to a structure fire and extinguishing it. Of course we’re still responsible for fire extinguishment, but being a firefighter now encompasses many more things, such as emergency medicine, hazmat, technical rescue and wildland firefighting. You name it; we seem to get involved, simply because if not us who? We feel we can just require firefighters to do it all.

The firefighter’s can-do-attitude has complicated the fire service as each of these disciplines were slowly added to our mission. Since firefighters have grown into “emergency response specialists, ” we must meet a greater number of mandatory qualifications and recertifications. We respond to more calls, at a higher level of technicality, with more elaborate equipment, with the same or fewer volunteers, who in today’s society have less time available to give. Before we knew it, whether we want to admit it or not, we have become apprentices in many things and are having trouble mastering anything.

You can feel the stress building, especially on the volunteer firefighters who truly want to give and do their best. As mastery of the trade diminishes, so does the confidence of the volunteer. As a result, many quit responding to calls; eventually they quit altogether or worse yet, are asked to leave.

Something must give; it will either be the volunteer or the system itself. This serious choice is now in our hands as leaders of these volunteer organizations.

A Fresh Approach

Whatever the reason for the decline in volunteerism and mastery of our trade, I feel it’s more a system issue than an issue with individual volunteers. Maybe it’s time to take an honest look at the system and modify it for the needs of today’s volunteers.

People in all walks of life truly want to volunteer to help in some way. It’s up to current fire service leaders to make sure that the limited volunteers out there want to or can volunteer for the fire department. “It’s the way we have always done it” just might not work anymore.

Most departments recruit to fill the position of the “do-it-all firefighter.” If you can’t do everything, prospective volunteers are told, then sorry, we just don’t have a place for you.

Solution: First design the department in a way to allow recruiting volunteers to fill the need of specialists who can master a trade with the limited time they have available. Let the volunteer focus on only the disciplines they have time for—structure firefighting, EMS, hazmat, special rescue, etc.

Second, take the pressure off of the specialists who respond to emergencies by recruiting volunteers who want to specialize in things other than responding to emergencies. These non-response volunteers work behind the scenes, much like roadies for bands, but they’re equally important, because they enable the response specialists to focus their time to perform at a higher level. Drawing on the roadie analogy: If musicians had to set up their own stage sets, they would perform less often and/or get burned out more quickly. Likewise if the roadies were forced to perform on stage, the group would quickly lose its fans.

In this model, volunteers can focus their limited time, whether 2 hours or 20 hours a month, on what they enjoy and are good at. With fewer demands placed on the individual responder, they will each be better able to master the skills that closely match their goals within the limited hours they have available. This benefits the public we serve, along with enhancing the confidence morale and integrity of the individual volunteers. Note: In many cases we can recruit volunteers who have already mastered the skills we need be it rope rescue budgeting building and maintaining the department Web site or creating PowerPoint presentations for council meetings and for training.

Could It Really Work?

By now, you might be asking yourself whether such a system could work in your department. It can, if department leaders broaden their mindset and have the courage to try something new.

My department, Durango Fire and Rescue in southwest Colorado, has slowly implemented this type of program over the past 6 years to assist with recruiting and retaining volunteers. Currently, we have volunteers who specialize in EMS, structural firefighting, hazmat, fire investigation, high-angle rescue and wildland firefighting.

Examples: One of the members of our hazmat team is a retired college chemistry professor. He doesn’t have a tremendous amount of time to volunteer but the time he does offer is invaluable. The high-angle rescue team has taken a few volunteers and specialized them in these high-risk, low-frequency events, using their limited time to attain mastery of the trade through high-quality training and drills.

Durango Fire no longer requires its volunteers to be firefighters and EMS providers. They can do either or both depending on their time available to volunteer. We also have volunteers working in the Fire Prevention Bureau for both inspection and investigation purposes. The list goes on and is growing each year.

How It Works

Through our experiment with this new approach to volunteerism, we’ve discovered a few keys to success. The first is to design the department to maximize personnel skills and assets and guarantee accountability at all levels. No one position is more important to the final mission and values of the department than another, whether it be emergency response personnel or non-response support staff.

Second, visualize the department as consisting of several integrated teams each dedicated to a specific skill set or duties. Each team member is accountable to themselves their supervisor and their team. The team itself is accountable to the entire organization. Likewise, each team expects high-quality performance and professionalism from the other teams and the organization that manages it.

Such a system features built-in flexibility based on the availability of the volunteers and the current needs of the organization. Each team member is allowed to participate in as many pieces of the organization as they wish as long as they can dedicate enough time to master each skill/trade.

This model is designed for easy expandability and contractibility. A new team, such as the Web Design Team, can easily form and begin work while teams that are no longer needed may easily dissolve. The system must remain flexible enough to allow for change.

Career ladders can be built into each team to help manage them which also motivates volunteers. Pride of ownership at individual and team levels leads to a well run professional organization.

Ongoing team and individual evaluations must occur to ensure that job descriptions and departmental goals are being satisfied. If the volunteer falls behind in one discipline or their time availability changes they can pull back to focus on fewer things for a while instead of being asked to leave the organization.

The ultimate effect of volunteer specialization is a new culture that allows volunteers to come into the organization in their spare time to do the things they most enjoy for the betterment of the entire organization. When the Wildfire Team tackles a large wildfire, when the Dive Rescue Team rescues a person in a lake, when the Web Design Team launches the new training intranet, or when the ISO Team’s efforts result in lower insurance rates district wide, the entire department can take pride in the results.

A Call to Action

Combination and volunteer departments nationwide that implement a system of volunteer specialization will open their doors to many new and exciting opportunities. They can once again become the focal point of their communities as they were in the past, because so many more of their residents will be involved in the department in one way or another. With more people participating in the many different aspects of the fire service, the community will feel as though the department is truly theirs and they will work to protect and support it.

And this shift may bring enhanced political influence as well. Politicians would quickly move to support an organization that so many of their constituents are involved in. They would need us to survive as well as us needing them.

The “way we’ve always done it” had to start somewhere. Maybe now is the time to create a new way of doing things one that provides volunteers from all walks of life a satisfying meaningful way to volunteer for their fire department.

Clarion UX