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 Volunteer Firefighting Recruitment and Retention

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Date last updated: Thursday, January 4, 16:27 PST

Bringing Members Back to the Fold

It is natural throughout our time as volunteers to phase in and out of the department. As our family and work schedules change, our time commitments change. When once we lived at the firehouse, we now find ourselves looking in from the outside. Members and the officers within a department need to do their best to understand the natural cycles and do their best to bring members back to the fold.

One of our members made a great point to me... He said its tough to get back into firefighting once you've been out for a while. He is absolutely right. When you are active in your department it is natural to wake up at 4am for the fire alarm. Once you've gotten out of that habit, its is unnatural and you are less likely to respond. There is always a reason why you can't attend... You have to work in the morning, not feeling well, don't want to wake the family, etc, etc, etc...

The first step is of course the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. In previous articles I have spoken about valuing your members time and allowing them to use their time as to be productive rather then just 'busy'. We need to prioritize the time commitments we place on members. If your department needs responders to their calls then you may have to let your members slack on their fund raising duties.

I know that the concept of letting a member slack on their duties may cause fires within your department, but would you prefer to have a member who puts what they can in, even if it is limited, or loose a member? The front of the building does say “Volunteer” after all. This is not to be misconstrued to say that members shouldn't have requirements, but the department needs to recognize that family and work commitments come first.

Once a member has gone inactive, they are not gone... They are a resource that can be tapped at a later date as long as they are kept in the circle. Sometimes members just need a break. The challenge is to figure out exactly why a member has gone inactive. We have already talked about time commitments, what about the other ancillary issues?

The first question is whether or not the member left secondary to a personality issue. Firefighters are by nature aggressive people with strong opinions. Whenever you have a bunch of alpha dogs together, fights are going to happen. Ideally we would be able to head off these problems but they happen. It is a shame if it should happen between a firefighter and an officer, but it happens. In this case a third party mediator may be needed.

Having an active Chaplain can help a department in many ways. I titled this column “Bringing Members Back to the Fold” because it has a double meaning. Chaplains often have that special touch that it takes to smooth out problems between members and between members and their department. Too often members are lost due to a small issue that grew. Maybe they didn't get a card when they were sick, or weren't asked to help out on a project, or who knows... A good third party mediator can often get to the truth and fix the problem.

The second reason why you may loose a member is due to stress or outside factors in their life. Stress comes from many sources but most dangerous stress sources may come from the day to day calls that may be overlooked. Critical incident stress can cost departments members and in the worst cases cost lives. We all know that members need help after large incidents, but it is not always the MCI that causes critical incident stress. Everyone has the call that haunts them, but the key is not to let it take us over.

Whenever a member stops coming around, someone should at least stop over and do a welfare check. We are a brotherhood, and a family. Concern for our members comes first and foremost. It may be a personal problem or family problem, but we can be there for them.

Once the member has gone inactive, the best way to bring them back is to keep them involved and informed. This means inviting them to all of the social events and making a special call to them from time to time. The key is to let the member know they are still welcome and the department will be there when they are ready to come back.

Another option is to do a department newsletter to keep past and inactive members informed. Your department goes through changes everyday. A quarterly newsletter can be used to boost company morale and show how the department has changed. Sometimes a small change can entice members to come back.

How about throwing a 'old timers' party? Schools throw reunions every 5 years. Having a get together or reunion even does not have to be extravagant, just a reason to get members into the building. Invite the members families and make an event everyone can enjoy. Once you have them in the door, they may remember what it was like and be hooked again.

Now that you have the member on the hook again, the challenge is bringing them back without alienating them. This requires work from both the officers and members of the department. Sometimes the joking around that we do can drive a member back out. Officers need to set an example of open arms and not give the member a hard time for their time away from the department.

The key is to be careful not to scare the member away during their transition period back to becoming an active member. If at all possible, training requirements should be spread out over time so that the member doesn't have to commit a huge amount of time up front. We want members to remember the 'good' things about being a member before we push requirements on them.

I know that much of this article may challenge your department's normal way of operating, but it is much easier to retain a member then recruit a new one. Add that to the fact the your member has experience and you will see why it is important to bring members back to the fold.

By: Jason Zigmont,

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