Having a Real Discussion on Recruitment and Retention

Shortly after becoming a volunteer firefighter, I attended an all-day class on volunteer recruitment and retention at the Connecticut Fire Academy’s June School fire training program. This all-day seminar shed light on the mounting challenges facing America’s fire service on attracting talent and keeping it. The statistics were alarming and departments across the country were sharing similar stories about declining volunteerism, increased service demands, and the challenges of managing a modern-era fire service. At the conclusion of the class, I was provided a book titled, “Retention and Recruitment in the Volunteer Fire Service: Problems and Solutions.” As a young, newly-anointed firefighter, I was eager to attack this problem head-on. After all, we are the fire service and we can solve any problem! The year was 1998.

Fast-forward over twenty years and many of the discussions are still occurring around the firehouse apparatus floor. Sadly, in some cases, department’s have closed their doors after succumbing to the challenges of recruitment and retention. I’ve talked to many chiefs that are beyond struggling to recruit firefighters. Recent data released by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimated that there was a significant drop in volunteer firefighters in recent years. Kevin Quinn, Chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) states, “We know many volunteer fire departments are struggling to maintain adequate staffing. However, the scale of the loss of volunteer firefighters estimated in this report is really disturbing and something that we need to work as a community and a nation to address.”

The volunteer fire/EMS/rescue service in North America is in a major and measurable crisis…not “gonna be in a crisis”…it IS in a crisis and few want to genuinely fix the problem. Now, when we say fix the problem, I mean fix it so when whoever dials 9-1-1, they hear fire apparatus sirens a few minutes later.

Chief Billy Goldfeder, The Secret List – The Butcher, Baker, and Candlestick Maker are not Coming

We are a problem-solving oriented culture; after-all, we often get called to problems that no one else was able to resolve. I can honestly say that America’s fire service has tried probably every possible strategy to address this problem and it still isn’t getting any better; in fact, the data shows it’s getting worse. While there are exceptions and great success stories about department’s that aren’t experiencing these challenges, by-and-large, it remains one of the most significant challenges facing the fire service across the country and in our own state.

As the data suggests, the past practices and models of the fire service are not working, specifically with regard to recruitment and retention. This deserves greater discussion with fire service leadership and a broader investment into fire protection across the state with the hope of achieving a better ranking than 45th in per-capita spending in one of the most essential public services.

The MSFCA, along with our fire service partners, have been actively engaged on statewide initiatives to help local departments – including cities – on fire service issues. For example, fire protection districts were introduced as a measure to help two or more units of government in creating a more effective and efficient fire service model. A fire protection district would allow for greater flexibility in meeting the long-term public safety needs of a community while still maintaining local control. This is one of many examples in which the MSFCA along with our fire service partners are working collaboratively to help the entire Minnesota fire service.

Despite our best efforts to enact positive legislative change at the state level, we continue to struggle to advance initiatives such as this because many do not see our current system as needing repair or changes.

I am incredibly thankful and appreciative to the working groups, committees, and task forces that have been advocating for the Minnesota fire service. This is a broad representation of fire service stakeholders. As President of the MSFCA, I have full trust and faith in our appointed representatives in the great work they are doing and for carrying our initiatives forward.

I encourage every MSFCA member to get involved – your voice matters. I realize that many chiefs may find themselves in a difficult position to speak on the challenges their communities face. If you want to share your story, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly at President@MSFCA.org. We need to hear from you!

Note: this article appeared in the Spring issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

Additional commentary attrituted to Chief Billy Goldfeder at FireFirefighterCloseCalls.com, home of the Secret List.