August 23rd, 2011
By Al Rufer, MBA
This past Saturday I taught a 4hr session of Backpacks 2 Air Packs at the Monroe Fire School in Monroe Wisconsin. Backpacks 2 Air Packs is a volunteer recruitment and retention course that focuses on educating fire service leaders on the best practices for recruiting members. ( see classes under services). We had a great group representing the three primary generations of today’s fire service – Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers, and Gen Y. Everyone participated and by the end I felt confident that I had proven that volunteerism is far from dead. Although I concede the point that some departments are struggling; I believe this is an isolated problem rather than a wide spread problem that is threatening the existence of the volunteer fire service like some out of control west Nile disease.
Fast forward to Monday night – August 22nd, 2011. I get home from a long day at work and look at my emails (of course the fire service ones get priority) and there it is – “Fond Du Lac County chiefs cope with drop in volunteerism” – REALLY – right on the top line of the Daily Dispatch, written by Russell Plummer from The Reporter – you can read the article here http://www.fdlreporter.com/article/20110821/FON0101/108210395/Area-fire-chiefs-cope-drop-volunteerism?odyssey=nav%7Chead
I read the article, although I pretty much knew what I was going to find, blah, blah, blah, we are short members, blah, blah, blah, no one wants to volunteer, blah, blah, blah, the economy is killing us, blah, blah, blah, we are going to have to consolidate and response time will be slower, houses will burn, and the quality of patient care will suffer as a result. Whatever! Don’t fire service leaders ever get tired of playing the same old song. Do they really think the tax payers are buying this mumbo jumbo. What about those that have been without a job for the past year or longer, do you think they care that your down 10 members and you can’t afford to buy a new $500,000 truck.
No more Volunteers – REALLY? Isn’t it a bit ironic that you have the volunteer departments talking about how difficult it is to recruit members while at the same time the career departments are being threatened with staff reductions either through attrition or layoffs? Perhaps we have finally reached a point where the two sides will join forces and create a single voice.
Let me be clear, this is not an attack on the Fondulac County Chiefs or Mr. Plummer. These articles are being written across the Country on almost a daily basis. No, my criticisim is pointed directly at the fire service. The fire service, both career and volunteer – needs to wake up and see that they can no longer operate the way they have in the past. I don’t advocate reducing staffing on career departments as a trade off for keeping stations open. The safety of our people must not be compromised for response time. The public must understand that there is a trade off for saving money by reducing overhead. Its simply cause and effect. Each community will need to define what is acceptable.
The volunteers need to stop talking about how bad it is and start doing something about it. We (the volunteers) must except the fact that we can no longer run our departments like a social club. We need to adopt a business model and that includes human resources and marketing. You need to have a recruitment and retention plan and if you don’t have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to do it in-house then you should begin tapping your network to find some help.
People go to winning organizations. Articles that portray a department or the fire service as being in dire straights do not help recruitment efforts. What are we thinking? Do you believe that people reading these articles are going to suddenly feel sorry for us and run down to volunteer. Hell no – they are more likely to think “that’s not a well run organization”. The only articles you should be putting in the paper are ones that portray a positive image.
So stop talking about how bad it is out there and start developing a plan to improve your situation. The volunteer fire service is comprised of the most honorable, resourceful, and resilient people I have ever met. Let us not lay down our helmets but pick up our boots and make our profession stronger than ever before.
August 23rd, 2011