Recruitment and retention seem to be top of mind for fire service leaders and firefighters everywhere—and for good reason. Staffing shortages abound in virtually every industry amid the “Great Resignation,”, and without proper staffing levels, the critical services provided by fire departments become unsafe or impossible to perform.
In past generations, quality applicants would flock to the fire service as a profession with good benefits where they would be able to make a difference and serve their communities. As incoming generations have shifted the working world, that’s often no longer the case. “In 2022, if people don’t like where they work, they’re going to leave,” says Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder. “People are not going to work where they’re not happy.”
How can agencies address the priorities of incoming candidates with an effective recruitment strategy? A recent Lexipol webinar, “Facing the New Recruitment Reality: Career and Volunteer Strategies That Work,” brought together a panel of expert fire service leaders who have experienced these challenges firsthand and implemented recruitment strategies that work in their career and volunteer departments.
Millennials were not like the generations that came before them—and for years, the fire service has had to determine how to reach and lead Millennials. “Now, the Millennials are leading,” explains U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell. “So, what is the next generation and what does that mean for the fire service? As we prepared for that evolution, one of the things we never considered is that they may not come.” Generation Z, the next incoming generation, has made it apparent that their priorities are unique. “People are not flocking to the fire service any longer,” Chief (Ret.) Dan Petersen says. “They have to be recruited; they have to be found.”
Fire service leaders must understand what’s changed in the priorities of these potential recruits and address them at all levels of the department. “We may need to make some changes in our organizations to make sure we truly get good people,” emphasizes Deputy Chief Goldfeder. So, what does matter to the next generation entering the fire service? Work-life balance, flexibility and autonomy are increasingly important to those entering the workforce. Additionally, potential recruits search for professions that give them dignity, opportunity and fulfillment—all of which the fire service naturally provides.
“People are not flocking to the fire service any longer. They have to be recruited; they have to be found.”
But ultimately, explains Dr. Moore-Merrell, “It’s how we think about these things and relate them from our interpretation of what they are and that of those we are trying to bring in.” It’s not enough for the fire service to provide an opportunity to serve. Fire service leaders must be able to communicate that opportunity effectively, reaching the eyes and ears of potential recruits. Understanding generational evolution and its effects on the workforce is critical in determining where recruitment efforts can fall short.
The staffing shortage in the fire service goes beyond recruitment. We must take a hard look at retention and determine why people are leaving the fire service. “If we deal with retention before recruitment, I think that’s a better way to go,” offers Dr. Moore-Merrell. “We need to deal with: What is our environment? What is the attraction?” A big part of both recruitment and retention is culture. Establishing a successful culture starts at the very beginning, in the recruitment and onboarding process: “Get them engaged from the day they join,” urges Chief Hugh Jacobson. And that effort should continue through every stage of a firefighter’s career.
“When you have that positive culture, your members are happy to be there and they are your best recruitment tool,” explains Chief Jacobson. Word-of-mouth can be a powerful recruitment strategy for both career and volunteer departments. Organizational culture must have a continuous, positive impact and encourage sharing among personnel and their peers.
Fire department culture also reaches out into the community. As Chief John Donnelly explains, “We are out there every day educating people, we are leaders…we not only look toward the future, but we build on our tradition of service and share that with the community.” A positive reputation in the community can make community members themselves top recruits. And when we look and act like our community, “we serve our community best,” says Chief Petersen.
A successful and effective culture can look different in different departments. But across the board, it must start from a place of respect—including respect for new recruits. “Respecting the new people that come in and the fact that they actually do bring value to the organization on day one” is critical, explains Chief Petersen.
Understand where this respect originates (hint: it starts at the top) and how candidates are brought into and included in the department. “We have really strong traditions and policies about how new recruit classes are handled,” says Chief Donnelly. Dr. Moore-Merrell highlights “consistency of leadership from the top down” as an integral part of department culture. A habit of respect that starts with the fire chief and trickles down through company officers is one of the biggest things a department can do to effect cultural change.
Recruitment strategy in both career and volunteer departments is often heavily influenced by the presence (or absence) of initial training capabilities. “If the requirement is to be a Firefighter I, then you’ve just cut your pool significantly down,” explains Chief Petersen. While departments can’t and won’t lower standards, they can provide the initial, necessary training for Firefighter I and EMT certifications rather than requiring recruits to possess them up front.
Recruitment is in large part about finding good people who want to do the job well. “We can train them to be firefighters, but we don’t have enough time in our academy to re-parent anybody,” says Chief Petersen. “We cannot spend the time to teach them values if they don’t come with them.” So, put simply: Focus on finding good people who share the department’s values and meet physical fitness standards, then train them to be good firefighters.
Training challenges don’t stop there. Departments must also consider how they train leaders and company officers to handle recruits once they’ve joined the department. This goes back to the issue of retention. “You, as the fire chief, have invested a whole lot into bringing these new people in,” says Deputy Chief Goldfeder. “What training or guidance or policies have you provided to your company officer to make sure that when you deliver them this new employee, they’re treated the way the organization wants them to be treated?”
The key to keeping new recruits once they’ve been onboarded is providing them with strong leadership that embodies the culture of the department. “That’s where we have sometimes failed in the fire service: In growing our leaders emotionally, in their emotional intelligence to understand dealing with people and leading people,” explains Dr. Moore-Merrell.
The challenges facing fire departments in recruitment and retention strategy are significant, but they are not insurmountable. Addressing generational, cultural and training issues at their root with creative solutions can help departments find and keep good people. To learn more from experienced fire service leaders about their recruitment strategies, watch the on-demand webinar, “Facing the New Recruitment Reality: Career and Volunteer Strategies That Work.”