OK, we have all heard that joke hundreds of times, in many different formats. However, this post is not a joke. It is the reality of today's Fire Service.
Five or six years ago, we recorded a round-table discussion regarding the volunteer fire services dearth of new members. Having been a volunteer firefighter/EMT back in the late 1970's through the mid-1980's, even though I was working 60-70 hours per week at my Educational Director's job. My wife was working three-quarters time and we had not started our family yet. And, though never having a firefighter in the family, my previous exposure began when I was seven, when we had a small brush fire in the woods behind our home. While the adults and other kids ran into the woods to watch the extinguishment, I walked down to the engine and stood there looking at the Driver/Engineer and that pump panel. He gave me a lollipop and explained what he was doing. I was hooked!
From that moment on, I was enthralled with firefighters, even though I did not want to be one. I made my parents drive me to visit the firehouses in our town (now, a city!). When I was older and had a good bike, I would ride to these firehouses and those in some of the surrounding towns. Once I had my license, I visited firehouses in many of the Greater Boston communities. By my junior year in high school, I had earned my Red Cross Advanced First Aid and Senior Life Saving certifications and was on my way to my Water Safety Instructor's certification. On my way home from a date in a neighboring town, I came upon a severe MVC, stopped and grabbed my First Aid kit. Another driver stopped and I asked him to find a phone and call the fire department. I was tending to one of the seriously injured patients when the first engine arrived. They took over the care, but not before thanking me and telling me what a good job i had done. It was seven years or so later, that I walked into a fire station outside Greensboro NC to see their apparatus and walked out with an application in had. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, back to my story. In planning this round-table podcast, I was referred to Chief Anthony (Tony) Correa, who had been a fire and EMS chief. When I told him the theme of this episode of the round-table discussion, he said to me, "Steve, we should not call it, "Recruitment and Retention. We should say, "Retention and Recruitment." I asked him why? What the hell is the difference? And the Chief replied, "Because if we cannot retain the people we have, how the hell can we expect to bring in new people!" It finally sunk in.
Fast forward to today's post-pandemic society. Not only is the volunteer/part-pay/paid-on-call force in deep trouble in many states, but we are seeing the reality of career departments "bleeding" staff and having significant difficulties in refilling their rosters.
On every podcast, we air one of two PSA's (Public Service Announcements) for the volunteer fire service. However, we are but one pebble in an "ocean." Now, we are seeing local, regional and even national conferences devoting a great deal of time and attention to these issues.
Let's be honest. The vast majority of men and women in the fire service love the "job," even if there are those calls we hate to hear over the speakers when the alerts are sounded. Nevertheless, we respond and do the very best we can do. And no matter what background we bring with us, the departments are ready to train us to do what they need us to do.
Are the calls so different today than in my day? It some ways, yes! Today, due to materials used in homes, furniture, etc., the timing on the incipient stage is significantly shorter than my time. What is burning also matters and is part of the change in timing. Homes, apartments, commercial structures are closed-up, to keep the ambient environment out and the manufactured one in. There are other factors, as well, but they all lead to what is a more involved and even, difficult job today than in my days.
If you are reading this post, there's a damn good chance you're already a member of the fire service in one manner or another. That's not just good....that's great! Why? Because YOU are the people that Chief Correa is talking about! If you really enjoy your job or duties with your department, you could be an excellent recruiter for your department. Sure, every department has issues, but that does not have to mean that it's a toxic environment; it does mean that we are all human with our talents and foibles! I've been working for over fifty years. Some jobs I loved and some sucked, big time. And in the middle are those that were pretty good and provided me with decent work.
In this day and age, we cannot just sit back and say that it is the department's responsibility to find, attract and hire or enroll new members. Sure, many of your friends are already in the fire service, but not all! And you are probably wise enough to know that some folks are just not cut out for this job and especially, some of the crap we see! Nevertheless, you can help bolster the ranks, if you want to.
Or are you willing to sit back and let others do the work you should be doing? If so, what do you tell the people in your response area when only two people are on the first responding apparatus for a ripping house fire? "Oh, sorry about your home. We don't have enough people. Have a nice day!
Founder & President of 5-Alarm Task Force Corp. and Creator & Host of the "5-Alarm Task Force" podcast.