Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on November 2, 2020.

Culture Clash

A new report sheds light on why volunteer fire departments struggle to recruit and retain members, and reveals disconnects related to department culture and leadership


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Two-thirds of the United States’ roughly 1.1 million firefighters are volunteers. They’re a critical component of public safety for millions of Americans living mostly in small, rural communities. In some of these areas, the local volunteer fire department is the only access residents have to medical care for many miles.

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Despite the importance of the US volunteer fire service, volunteer recruitment and retention has been steadily decreasing for the past three decades. Volunteer rates have dropped from a high of 8.05 volunteers per 1,000 people in 1987 to a low of 5.8 in 2017, according to the 2018 US Fire Department Profile report published by NFPA in February. It’s a complex issue fueled by many factors. Demographic shifts in the country are in part to blame, with statistics showing more Americans leaving rural areas to live in big cities over the past 20 years. The percentage of people living in rural areas in 2000 had dropped by about two points by 2010, according to the latest US Census data.

In an NFPA Journal Podcast that aired in February, John Montes, then an emergency services specialist at NFPA, described the shortage of emergency medical technicians in rural America—but the same factors are driving shortages of volunteer firefighters. “There’s just not enough people,” Montes said. “Prior to this shift ... you saw more population in those areas, so there was more capacity for these volunteer services because someone who worked at a factory could also be an EMT, someone who worked at AutoZone could also be an EMT, someone who worked at the grocery store could also be an EMT.” Equally important to the challenges departments face in finding volunteers are the ones they face in keeping them.

RELATED: Read the full report "Volunteer Retention Research Report" from the National Volunteer Fire Council and the July/August 2017 NFPA Journal cover story "Shrinking Resources, Growing Concern."

A new report published by the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) offers the first comprehensive look at why volunteers choose to leave departments—and the findings reveal a critical divide in why former members say they left and why current members and department leaders think members leave. Researchers hope the report will help inform strategies by fire service leaders to help reverse the negative trend in volunteer firefighter retention throughout the United States.

“I’m hoping that this study is going to lead to materials and info we can distribute to volunteer fire departments that will make them more successful,” said Steve Hirsch, chair of the NVFC Board of Directors.

Culture, not schedule
Of the more than 1,000 current and former volunteer firefighters surveyed in the new NVFC report, over two-thirds said they think their department has struggled with volunteer retention.

For years, department leaders have been saying the same thing. And when asked why they think that’s the case, they often cite the time commitment that comes with being a volunteer firefighter—hundreds of hours of training on top of middle-of-the-night calls and department functions. “That’s just a huge time commitment for people to be away from their families, their jobs,” Robert Griffin, chief of a volunteer fire department in North Carolina, told Government Technology magazine in 2018.

But the NVFC report suggests something else is most often driving members away from departments—the top four reasons former members gave for leaving had to do with department culture and leadership. “The specific reasons for leaving [that were] most selected by former volunteers in the survey were: department atmosphere full of cliques and groups that exclude others; department leadership that doesn’t focus on or support the needs of members; department atmosphere where members of different generations don’t get along; [and] lack of camaraderie or sense of community among everyone in the department,” the report says.

Various threads on online message boards reveal similar sentiments among those who claim to be or have been volunteer firefighters. “Ever since I started in the department I am in I have been treated like absolute [garbage],” one Reddit user posted on the popular discussion website in 2016. “Now I am firefighter 1 and 2, have my driving certification, and tons of training and they refuse to let me be interior. They are doing it to spite me.” Another user replied, sharing a similar experience: “I felt the same way at my volunteer dept. Was always treated like a child. I basically stopped showing up.”

Also included in the NVFC report are the guesses of current volunteer firefighters and department leaders on why members leave, and their responses don’t align with what former volunteers said. For the most part, they think juggling the responsibility of being a volunteer firefighter with careers and personal lives is the most common factor driving volunteers away.

The split in opinions didn’t come as all that surprising to Hirsch. “I wouldn’t say that before this report we knew for sure there was a disconnect between why leaders think volunteers leave and why people who were there and left actually left,” he said. “But when I became chairman of the NVFC a year and a half ago, my task to staff was to get closer to and learn more about leadership in the volunteer fire service. I had a feeling there were critical issues with leadership not always understanding what their volunteers need or want. This survey seems to buttress that feeling.”

Bob Duval, a regional director at NFPA who heads a volunteer department in a small town in Connecticut, counts himself lucky that his department doesn’t reflect the kind of cliquishness and lack of inclusivity that can drive members away. “And I’m not just saying that,” Duval told NFPA Journal in September.

At the time, his department was gearing up for a barbecue, where all 25 volunteers and their families were invited for burgers, hot dogs, brisket, and socially distant cheer. It’s events like this, Duval said, that keep his members close-knit and content. “They need to feel appreciated, and they need to be involved,” he said.

When it comes to the job, Duval tries to instill the same principles. “We work to get every member involved in every task,” he said. “If we go to a call, it’s not just going to be the ones who know how to run a piece of equipment that are doing things while others just stand around and watch.” He’s seen scenarios like that play out regularly at other departments, and they can become toxic. “Those are the departments that get torn apart from the inside.”

Duval cautioned that, despite the findings of the NVFC report, the impact of the time commitment should not be ignored for either recruitment or retention. He’s seen it happen at his department. “In today’s society, people simply don’t have a lot of disposable time,” Duval said. “So it’s become hard to get and keep people when you’re honest with them, when you say if you want to fight fires, you’re going to have to do this training and it may take six months or a year.”

Hirsch said he hopes the new NVFC report can help volunteer fire chiefs shape priorities and initiatives aimed at retaining volunteers.

“I’ve seen these issues myself in volunteer departments,” he said. “In many cases where departments experience huge issues with recruitment and retention, leadership is not being positive about the people, not including them in decision-making. You’ve got to have positive, forward-thinking leadership in a department, because just like those negative attitudes, positive attitudes can be contagious, too.” 

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images