4 Ways to Increase Firefighter Retention
Among the many things that keep a fire chief up at night, retention of quality fire fighters most likely ranks at the top of the list. With an average turnover rate reaching upwards of 10-20%, it is more important than ever to retain your best people, make it worth their while to stay, and help them advance and mentor newer recruits.
The challenge of retention is even more daunting for fire departments entirely or mostly comprised of volunteer firefighters, representing almost 85% of the industry. Volunteer firefighters face many of the same requirements and risks as career firefighters without the same benefits, forcing fire departments to develop more creative ways to add incentives.
Firefighter retention impacts almost every aspect of department readiness and operations. Beyond the most obvious aspect of situational awareness and expertise when responding to calls, veteran firefighters are vital in moving your department forward in training, mentoring newbies, passing down historical knowledge and processes, and building on community relationships. As one recent article put it, a high turnover and attrition rate keeps a department “stuck in first gear.”
So with budgets being increasingly limited and resources tightened, what can fire departments do to improve firefighter retention? With a little proactive outreach and planning, you can directly enhance your retention factor and keep the staff you have happier and healthier for years to come.
1. Open Lines of Communication
In numerous surveys on this topic, firefighters consistently list their leadership’s support as an essential job satisfaction factor. As the saying goes, “People don’t leave companies; they leave managers.” This is an excellent opportunity to take a serious and honest look at the dynamics between your firefighters and your department’s leadership. What are the strengths, and what could be done better? What are legacy ways of communicating keeping positive change from occurring?
Perhaps there’s too much red tape for working through a problem (for example, it takes weeks to replace a helmet, or team members have to fill out paperwork for every single request). Maybe some higher-ups are unwilling to listen to new ideas or are perceived to be uninterested in helping firefighters learn from their experiences. Perhaps there is an underlying management issue that needs to be investigated.
Once you’ve worked to clear out these existing roadblocks, you can move on to new, proactive forms of communication. For example:
- Engagement Surveys: Regular, brief surveys can help you get a pulse on what your team is interested in, what might put them at risk for leaving, and other areas for improvement.
- 1:1 Conversations: Schedule regular appointments (and keep them!) for one-on-one conversations with each member of your team. These can be brief, but the key is that each employee feels they can communicate directly with management when needed and that their input is valuable. Take this time to learn more about him or her, what interests them, and what will help them get the most out of their experience as a firefighter. Encourage them to take more ownership in their career and help them brainstorm ways to become more involved, from heading up training activities or helping lead a CRR program.
- Exit Surveys: When someone does choose to leave your department, before schedule time before their last day to conduct a brief interview to understand their reasons for leaving (info you can later use to see what might be done to help others stay). It might be helpful to have a third party conduct the interview if needed so that the employee feels they can share openly and freely. Exit interviews are used regularly in most commercial businesses, and examples can be easily found online.
2. Make Training Engaging and Relevant
The number of training hours required to become – and remain – a firefighter can be very high and sometimes lead to burnout or people exiting the service (estimates are around 600 training hours to become a firefighter and approximately 240 hours of continuing training annually). While no one can deny that training is paramount to keeping a firefighter safe, fire chiefs can do more to ensure training is engaging and perceived as truly valuable (rather than a waste of time). For example:
- Customize: Localize training to what your specific department needs versus simply trying to adopt a national curriculum. For example, if you live in a mountain region, you likely don’t need training on tornadoes. Or, if you notice an uptick in cardiac arrest, look for training to satisfy that need.
- Mix It Up: Use a variety of media to conduct training. Don’t get stuck in the PowerPoint loop. Instead, use video, on-site training, and other formats to keep people engaged. Communicate with your team for new ideas and consider assigning various team members to head up various training scenarios. This can help improve ownership and excitement about training hours.
- Leverage Technology: Consider implementing an online learning management system (LMS) to make training accessible and easy for firefighters to use. This helps your team tackle training at a time, place, and pace convenient for their schedule. For example, ESO’s EMS1 and FireRescue1 Academy combines online record keeping, certification management, and more than 900 training courses aligned to CAPCE and NFPA standards. Videos, quizzes, and other tools help ensure your team develops vital skills while the system automatically tracks and reports.
3. Foster Community Connection
The culture of your fire department is critical in your employees feeling satisfied with their job. Studies show that people with friends at work were 27% more likely to consider their role important and that teams – even when fatigued – made fewer errors when working under pressure with those they felt comfortable. 56% of workers felt more loyal to a company with an empathetic culture, meaning that keeping a positive, cohesive team can directly improve your retention.
While your team’s culture can at times face challenges beyond your control, you can take some practical steps to foster a strong community.
- Mentors: Consider partnering new hires with a mentor who has been in the organization for several years. The new hire can benefit from their mentor’s knowledge of SOPs and the department. In contrast, the mentor will have more opportunities to interact with newer team members and create more camaraderie within the department.
- Add Some Fun: Recognize the value of fun and annual traditions such as awards ceremonies, game nights, or other events that allow people to socialize outside of the context of working together. Giving positive publicity within the community – from press releases, heroism awards, and banquets – can foster more pride and a feeling of being appreciated.
- Schwag: Build “team spirit” by providing your team with customized hats, t-shirts, decals, and other small but fun ways to show their association and pride in their department.
4. Invest in a Smarter Process
Just like most other industries, the fire department is moving into a more technologically advanced time. There are many new “smart technologies” that make fire fighting safer and more efficient. This is also true for operations within the fire station, and embracing technology to manage your team can make life more enjoyable for all involved. Additionally, younger firefighters – the industry’s future – are typically more open to new technologies and the improvements they can bring. In fact, one recent study found that 40% of the employees surveyed reported old technologies making their jobs more difficult.
Fire departments are regularly tasked with recording a wide range of data points and reporting to various local, state, and national organizations. Quality improvement and assurance programs depend on clean, historical data to see exactly what is going on in a department and learn more about its needs and community. Employees are often asked to participate in data entry, and there’s no better place to implement new, proven technologies than in the record-keeping of a fire department. Software designed specifically for fire departments –known as Fire Record Management Systems (RMS) – not only make data entry less painful, but improve the quality of data, simplify training, and make it easier to pull and share reports.
Beyond data entry and reporting, Fire RMS software can automate a wide range of department tasks, including:
- Automating NFIRS state submissions
- Managing personnel and training courses
- Maintaining, updating, and staying informed on hydrant status
- Tracking and issuing permits, logging expirations, and tying permits to properties
- Documenting non-call activities, creating recurring tasks, and keeping your station organized
- Tracking property history and changes, visually document inspection details, and sharing pre-plans
- Creating flexible scheduling plans for your crew and integrating scheduling with payroll
Using technology to make your operations more efficient not only saves all involved time and headaches but lets them focus on their training, team-building, or much-needed rest and recovery. Technology gives department management a cleaner view into operations and allows for benchmarking and real-world improvements.
Fighting attrition in the fire department is a real and serious battle, but one that can be approached with smart, practical steps and open lines of communication. Creating environments where all team members feel appreciated, more fulfilled, and more connected results in more effective teams where firefighters want to spend their time for years to come.