EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation — September 26, 2007

Retention and Recruitment
for the Volunteer Emergency Services
Challenges and Solutions

Dr. William F. Jenaway
Executive Vice President, VFIS
CEO, VFIS Education, Training, and Consulting

Avagene Moore
EIIP Moderator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A raw, unedited transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org

[Welcome / Introduction]

Avagene Moore: Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum! Amy Sebring, my associate, and I are pleased that you are here today. We also note that Lori Wieber is with us as well. We appreciate Lori's assistance with each session.

Our subject today is a recently updated USFA report, "Retention and Recruitment for the Volunteer Emergency Services." Although the report is focused on the fire services, the findings and recommendations have relevance for other types of volunteer organizations involved with disaster and emergency response.

We are very pleased to introduce our speaker today, Dr. William F. Jenaway, Project Manager for the USFA report he is discussing today. Dr. Jenaway is employed as the Executive Vice President of VFIS, and serves as CEO of their Education, Training, and Consulting subsidiary.

Among Bill's many affiliations are Chairman of the Risk Management Standard for the NFPA, Chairman of the NFPA Standard on Providing Emergency Services to the Public, President of the Congressional Fire Services Institute, Commissioner of the Commission on Fire Service Accreditation, as well as a Past President of the Pennsylvania Fire & Emergency Services Institute.

Bill is also the author of more than 200 articles on fire, safety and management-related topics, and has written six texts on fire and safety discipline. Please take the time to read Dr. William Jenaway's bio and check out the links to related materials on the background page after our session. Please help me welcome our guest speaker, Bill Jenaway, to the EIIP Virtual Forum! Thanks for being here today. I now turn the floor to you, Bill.


Bill Jenaway: Welcome fellow emergency service personnel to today’s discussion on the Recruitment and Retention of Volunteers in today’s world.

Let me ask you--Do you have enough members? Are they the right members? Do you have jobs that need to be done, and no one on the staff that can do them? Are you losing more people than you have joining each year? If so, you are not alone!

Recruitment and Retention has become a major concern of the volunteer emergency response community in America. The numbers tell the story. Only a decade ago, there were over one million volunteer fire fighters. These numbers have dropped to just 800,000 and the bleeding continues.

For some time, the United States Fire Administration has had a document available regarding Recruitment and Retention of Volunteer Firefighters. However, as time goes on, changes in how you approach recruiting and retaining members must be undertaken. Recognizing this, the USFA provided a grant to the National Volunteer Fire Council to revise the referenced document, create an educational program and provide training to America’s Fire Service in these new issues.

For those of you unfamiliar with the National Volunteer Fire Council, the NVFC is a non-profit membership association representing the interests of the volunteer fire, EMS and rescue services. The NVFC serves as the information source regarding legislation, standards and regulatory issues.

The new document entitled "Retention and Recruitment for the Volunteer Emergency Services: Challenges and Solutions (Second Edition)" is now available from the United States Fire Administration. This can be accessed from the USFA website. Simply access the website, click on "Order Publications" and the document appears in the featured publications section.

I was named the Project Manager of this initiative. Research was conducted in 2005 and in 2006 training was conducted in twelve venues and the text was revised, edited and finalized. The research resulted in three key "findings statements" that one must understand before approaching the issue of recruitment and retention.

  1. Recruitment and Retention is a local problem. - The needs, leadership, and challenges are all local
  2. Recruitment is MARKETING, and you must market ALL THE TIME - A needs assessment is critical to making sure you invest your time appropriately.
  3. Benefit programs require you to know what your members want, before they become incentives.

In addition, leadership became a prominent issue with regard to why people stay or leave. Leadership became characterized as an art, science, and a style. It is a third dimension, going beyond doing things the old way. Effective leaders were found to look beyond the numbers and set the direction for the organization. He/she integrated the business of doing business with the why’s, what’s, where’s, how’s, and when’s.

The project and text features research conducted by Philadelphia-based St. Joseph’s University’s Public Safety and Environmental Protection Institute, which is a part of their Graduate Program in Public Safety. The research highlighted a better definition of the reasons people no longer volunteer their time to organizations, such as volunteer emergency service agencies.

Make a quick comparison. If your members are leaving, is it because of:

  • a lack of time
  • poor leadership
  • health and medical problems
  • family responsibility
  • the volunteering is no longer relevant to the member
  • the volunteer has moved away
  • other interests have become more prominent
  • competing demands (work, family, school, sports, etc.)
  • a problematic organization
  • no one asked them to stay

In fact you may have to poll members who have left to determine the true reason they have left.

What makes people stay involved? Much of the ability to retain people centers upon motivating members to based on shared VISION. Research found that this is facilitated effectively in many cases by the emergency services organization being able to:

  • accommodate individual needs;
  • provide rewards and recognition;
  • have adequate supervision and leadership; and
  • challenge members.

Retention issues are not only individual, they can be by "group," and may be local issues. While volunteer emergency responders typically join to help others, however, over time other factors enter into why they stay. In fact, today, benefits play a significant role in why and how long members stay.

Again, research from St. Joseph’s University found the following types of retention programs to work, however, what worked in one community, may not work in a neighboring community, reinforcing the issue that recruitment and retention is a local issue. Some of the techniques used successfully as "benefits" include:

  • a simple thank you;
  • direct monetary incentives e.g. pay per call, length of service awards, and retirement programs;
  • indirect monetary incentives e.g. passes to local functions, events, and activities, meals, gift certificates, trips, conventions, event participation paid for; and
  • recognition, e.g. news articles, uniforms, and awards, to name a few.

Again, you will need to poll local personnel to determine local reasons people no longer volunteer.

One of the interesting findings of the research was that the emergency service recruitment and retention challenge is similar to the recruitment and retention challenge of all volunteer groups. More importantly in many cases we are seeking members from the same pool of people who have less total time available than a decade ago, with more groups seeking their involvement.

As two-income families, longer commuting times, longer work hours, and a tighter dollar all expand, so will the challenges in recruiting and retaining volunteers. The competition for volunteer time has never been more aggressive and in most cases, the volunteer of today will take the path of least challenge, conflict, and demand, to fill their personal need to volunteer.

However, it bears repeating that the organizations who have effective leaders that find a champion for recruitment and retention efforts, build a continuous year long, year-in, year-out plan are successful. These proactive leaders who build diverse teams (including all ages, men and women, a group that reflects the community) instead of running a dictatorial club have success not only in recruitment and retention, but in funding, community support, and relations with elected officials.

Let me conclude by stating that a consistent, positive message regarding recruitment is critical to making people aware of your needs and how they can benefit from participation in the volunteer emergency service organization. The message must be clear, must state the expectation of the volunteer and the commitment of the organization to the volunteer.

No one wants to volunteer their time and be treated improperly, taken for granted, or not even "thanked," yet many emergency service leaders today still believe the community will come to them and want to be a part of the group. That only works if the emergency service organization is an integral part of the whole community that all other groups recognize as a well-run, value serving organization; and then you still have to ask people to join.

As noted earlier, today, volunteers must be recruited from all groups in the community population to assure the organization reflects the interests and values of the whole community. Also important is the understanding that there is a future in volunteering be it a potential career, development of a valued community service, building relationships with other community organizations, and so on.

Some one thousand fire service personnel have been exposed to this revised recruitment and retention approach, with the resultant product now available for use by America’s fire service. For further information on the related products, you are directed to the National Volunteer Fire Council at www.nvfc.org, or 1-800-ASK-NVFC (275-6832) and the USFA website.

I thank you for your attention and am available for questions. I turn you back to our Moderator.

Avagene Moore: Thank you for your fine overview of the report, Bill. It is time now for the Q&A segment of our hour.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Roberto (Rob) Lucheme: Union antagonism is becoming a problem. A lot of the departments I represent complain that if career firefighters in nearby cities seek to volunteer in other towns where they reside, nevertheless the career firefighters in both towns haze them. On the positive side, programs that bring in "Cadet" or "Junior" firefighters at age 14 have a huge retention rate, even among the college-bound. Back to the union problems, we also see a lot of disinformation spread about workers compensation issues, with the goal of keeping career firefighters from volunteering.

Bill Jenaway: Very good point Rob and this has been heard around the country. I can also say that I was just in a community that has successfully recruited some 15 career firefighters as volunteers. One final point -- in that particular area of the country (and others) it seems to work well -- it is a local issue.

Amy Sebring: I have seen comments that training requirements can be a burden. Is this a factor?

Bill Jenaway: Amy, yes it is. There have been situations where members cannot make training on regular nights and the total hours are a problem. There are a couple of solutions. First, breaking up the course into more modules is one way. Also, having some of the work done via Internet or by reading versus in class. Finally, make instructors available when students can make training. We cannot think of doing the training the way we used to do it, or that the student only has our activity to do.

Mike Morrill: What role do liability issues play in the recruiting and retention of volunteers?

Bill Jenaway: There have not been many issues come to the forefront, except some discriminatory practices where people were "excluded." Even those are rare.

Scott Thresher: I am in Biloxi and we are still recovering from Katrina. Many "volunteers" left the coast due to the job reduction and various personal situations. Do you see a rebound along the Gulf Coast, besides all the wonderful organizations who donate their time to help the coast rebuild?

Bill Jenaway: Well, I was just in Louisiana and saw an extensive number of dedicated and valuable volunteers. However, I also was told it is taking much longer than anticipated to get back to normal. Unfortunately I have no magic ball, but I would say time will tell and the potential is there.

Colleen Schneider: I work in health care. What about recruiting volunteers for potential disaster situations where staff will not be able to meet the demands on their own? Volunteers may be worried about potential harm to them. How can you recruit and then train for "future" needs, not knowing entirely what they may be?

Bill Jenaway: One of the ways I have seen used effectively is to focus on known hazards, events, scenarios, rather than try and solve all of the problems. For example, I have seen towns focus on persons who can provide health care or construction services, or in one case food service. It goes to the point of identifying the most important skill, knowledge or service sets you might need and securing those first.

Francis Mowbray: For the Volunteer Fire Service, with leadership being identified as a key issue to success, are there any nationwide initiatives on the horizon to make improvements in the area of leadership? Or should we pursue this in our particular town, county, state? I know IAFC-VCOS has a good leadership program, but is DHS, FEMA, etc. working on anything?

Bill Jenaway: Great point. I know of no other programs than individual state programs or the VCOS program. In working on a similar project in one state this year, we have suggested they develop a specific leadership course, not on firefighting, but on leading people the right way.

Is it unreasonable to have training requirements for volunteers?

Bill Jenaway: Not at all. In fact it is compelling that they be trained in the work they are expected to do or the end result could be chaotic and unsuccessful.

Charlie Hanson: If part of the solution to the problem of volunteer retention is to pay them, either directly or indirectly, have we not just moved from volunteers to paid responders? It appears that motivation for helping on these volunteer departments has changed from serving the community to "What's in it for me?"

Bill Jenaway: Now you are in to the real deal. SHIFT HAPPENS. And that is what we are experiencing. We are a shifting American culture, not that it is "What's in it for me," but if I do this (volunteer), something else won't be done. From the day I entered this service in 1968 I got something. I didn't ask for it, but I got a meal, a shirt, a jacket, fun, socialization. Some have found their spouses or significant others in the fire service. Part of this shift for the under 25 group is they need $3 per gallon of gas. If they are running to a fire call or hanging out at the firehouse, they can't make the $3 for a gallon of gas. So gas allowances make sense in many communities. Twenty-five years ago this was not the case.

John Franco: Can you provide some information on rebuilding community relationships? We had a leader who was ineffective, and the community lost interest in supporting the volunteer organization. It is now difficult to recruit these community leaders and have them meet at the table.

Bill Jenaway: Another BINGO! The development of conflict between elected officials and fire service leaders is a killer! VFIS has a book entitled Building Blocks that discusses this exact issue. You can go to www.vfis.com under products and see more info. [https://secure.glatfelters.com/vfis/vfisresourcecenter.nsf/(vfisweb-viewlist_by_category_anonymous)/C53578CBFCA83B75852571E00070F204/$FILE/Building_Blocks.pdf]

Michael Farinacci: Could age be a factor? Are there certain age restrictions in that one can be considered too old to volunteer for tactical positions? Are these local, state regulations?

Bill Jenaway: I am not aware of too many age restrictions, but let's be realistic. Fighting fires is a young person's deal. Physically it is demanding. That being said, it points out the need for baseline physicals and periodic physicals thereafter, for young and old alike, to keep healthy people healthy, and if a problem is detected to fix it. The LAST thing we want to do is see someone die or become disabled because there were not physically or mentally able to do the job. Physicals can be a Benefit!

Robert: I think that requirements to be a firefighter are overwhelming to the new generation. When I started 15 years ago, being called a firefighter was earned. Today it seems like the generation that we deal with now expects it to happen without much effort put in.

Bill Jenaway: SHIFT HAPPENS. When I joined 15 hours of training was it, and I WAS A FIREFIGHTER. The job demands are different today, and competency should be the focus versus just going to a class. I have seen a number of people complete a class that they literally slept through, but they put the hours in. Field performance is the key. That is why multiple training venues is a key for the future.

Roberto (Rob) Lucheme: It helps when several recruits attend class together. The carpooling encourages a group dynamic, and they tend to push each other along and make it fun rather than burdensome. In fact, making it fun and making everyone feel welcome sums it up.

Bill Jenaway: Great point, and fun and socializing in the volunteer service go together. When we take the socializing and fun away, we lose the development of camaraderie, building lifelong friends, and learning the real value of social organizations. No wonder some dictatorial leaders lose their flock

Mike Boyle: Do you see any places where the use of technology tools, such as the Internet, could be leveraged for recruitment and retention? Does the report address anything like that?

Bill Jenaway: The report does touch on this. As another example, in our firehouses in my community, members can come in any time and check their emails on a fire company computer. Students can do their homework, and even last night I saw one college student working on his laptop in the TV room using our wireless system. A call came in and he was there ready to respond. In addition, simply searching websites of other fire departments, manufacturers, training sites, etc. makes the firehouse a comfort zone and a learning zone to today's students who are tomorrow's volunteers.

Mike Morrill: I'm working with Americorps in a volunteer management program and was curious if liability issues might become a challenge to overcome.

Bill Jenaway: It may come up. Depending on how the fire agency is insured and what state you are in, the liability issues are different. Worker's comp may or may not cover the individual. FD Liability policies generally cover those who are invited on site (like juniors and other groups); however, the exact language in your policy has to be reviewed.

Glenn Bukowski: More organizations are requiring background checks for volunteers. While there are valid reasons for this, many volunteers express suspicion as what information will actually be collected and what will be the ultimate disposition of that information (to say nothing of online security issues if this is the medium used to register for the background check). How can we address and overcome volunteer’s reluctance to submit to background checks?

Bill Jenaway: You can start by suggesting it is in their best interest. We want to assure that individuals in our organizations are not going to bring problems in. The last thing you need is for a good person to mix with a criminal that entered without a background check. Similarly, the last thing a person wants for their child in entering the organization is to find that a sex offender is a volunteer as well (again because of no check being conducted). You are protecting your organization and the member(s).

Bruce Summers: Can you recommend any good resources for tying volunteer retention strategies into volunteer job design?

Bill Jenaway: I am not quite sure what you mean by volunteer job design, but let me tell you about a department I was at on Monday. They recruit from a local college. They have 27 students this semester, which is almost equivalent to their roster of local members. The students are pre-med, pre-engineering, and business students and like the company because they get involved in gaining knowledge and skills they can apply after school is complete or to get them into grad school. The same can be said for juniors who may want to be EMT's, firefighters, HVAC techs, electricians, plumbers, etc. The fire service is a great training ground for any of these jobs.

I live in an area where there are "bedroom communities" and it is difficult to get responders who may work elsewhere during the day.

Bill Jenaway: This is another common challenge, but I bet there are people in the town who are on shift work or some type and may have an interest. In one community I just recommended that they develop the old "Welcome Wagon" concept where they will be the Welcome Wagon. When a house is sold, the fire truck will come up to the new house with a basket that includes a ruler from the gas station, a kitchen magnet from the deli, and a fire company sheet and application -- maybe even a free pizza from the local pizza shop!

Isabel McCurdy: Bill, what I find problematic is the constant change of leadership. Thus our life experience seems devalued now and redundant. One gets lost in the shuffle.

Bill Jenaway: Absolutely. The turnover of leaders is a challenge, especially if the by-laws limit a Chief to one-term. How stupid - change the by-laws, keep a good leader in place. I met a Chief who said he leads by intimidation. And he wonders why he has few members. I met another who uses total staff involvement and has more people than he knows what to do with. Another Chief works with the members to understand personal issues, and works around them on training and staffing issues. She is a big hit with a good organization.

Roberto (Rob) Lucheme: Regarding recruiting for future needs, that's the whole point of a fire department. We are an "all hazards" organization that interfaces with other organizations under a unified command system. We are set up to at least begin to set up some sort of approach for any hazard. That's what we train for. That's why we develop a social group. That's what makes it fun. Because you don't know what's going to happen next.

Bill Jenaway: You are right, and that all -hazards training has to be balanced. We can't expect everyone to be experts on everything, but awareness and balance must be struck or we will lose volunteers.

Rick Tobin: I've run across something interesting on this front recently. With the Emergency Management Assistance Compact in place, some volunteers are concerned about being "federalized" for responses and being forced to travel to distant events, even though they only intended to serve their local community. Have you heard this discussion?

Bill Jenaway: I have heard several people discuss the use of volunteers as sort of "expected labor," and one group even thinks they can control them; however, these have not gotten far. Volunteers can still un-volunteer. However, there are situations where their value can be enormous, and asking for volunteers will get you more than telling them they are volunteering. A good example was the hurricane situations of a couple of years ago. The Feds asked for volunteers and got plenty who wanted to go and did it using the right process.

Jim Wilson: As a VCOS Board Member, I can wholeheartedly recommend their programs. I have recently established "Specialty Responder" categories as a method of reducing initial training demands and getting them participating more quickly. Do you know of other programs with long term success using this strategy?

Bill Jenaway: Yes, there are a few. One I have seen is limited community involvement in disaster preparedness--limited in the fact that they will only do certain things. This is a program that came from California, went to Georgia, then to Virginia, and is now in Pennsylvania.


Avagene Moore: That is all the time we have today. Thank you, Bill, for your time and effort and for the excellent information you shared with us!

I also thank the good people at the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) for referring you as a potential speaker. The NVFC is one of the founding Partners of the EIIP. Thanks to Heather Schafer, NVFC Executive Director, and Megan Botten, NVFC Office Manager / Executive Assistant for their help.

I hope all online with us today and readers of the transcript will read your report, Bill. It is a good one.

Bill Jenaway: It has been a pleasure. I can be reached at [email protected]

Avagene Moore: Before we close, if you would like to be alerted to future Virtual Forum topics and are not on the EIIP Mail List, please subscribe by going to the EIIP Virtual Forum homepage. If interested in partnering with the EIIP, please see the "Partnership for You" link.

We have one new Partner this week - Quabbin Healthcare Consulting, Inc. (Web site pending); the Point of Contact is Lynne Shaw, President. Their mission statement is "QHC Master Exercise Practitioners offer exercise design, facilitation, and evaluation utilizing HSEEP guidelines. We also work with local communities and schools in emergency plan development and training. Our consultant team has expertise and lengthy backgrounds in fire, police, EMS, clinical healthcare, healthcare administration, education, HazMat, town government, corrections, and public health." Welcome, Quabbin Healthcare Consulting, Inc.!

Please join us next time, Wednesday, October 10 when we celebrate International Day for Disaster Reduction with a presentation on International Disaster Management by Damon Coppola, author of a book on the subject. Oliver Davidson will also be with us on October 10 representing Private - Public Partnerships for Disaster Reduction. Join us as we focus on what the U.S. can learn from other parts of the world, including developing disaster policies and practices. Please mark your calendar!

Before we sign off, please help me thank our speaker, Bill Jenaway, for today's fine presentation. And thanks to you, the audience, for your presence and participation. The EIIP Virtual Forum is adjourned!