Confronting the Dual Challenges Faced by US Volunteer Fire Organizations

Did you know most active-duty firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers? In fact, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) estimates that 87% of the 106,390,000 firefighters registered with the organization are volunteers. Similarly, the USFA asserts 86% of the nation’s fire departments either fully or partially depend on members who donate their time and expertise to helping others survive fires and other emergencies.

What this means is volunteer fire service is vital to society. These departments and their members provide our communities assistance during emergencies and disasters. They come to our aid during times of distress, engage us during outreach events, and encourage even our youngest students to stay proactive and prepared during times of crisis.

However, running a volunteer fire department is far from nonstop action and exhilaration. Those in charge must abide by countless and ever-changing regulatory standards involving both the department’s business and operational processes. Further still, keeping up with rising equipment costs, local challenges, and member and community needs can strangle a volunteer fire department’s finances and stifle its growth potential.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at two of the largest obstacles facing today’s volunteer fire organizations.

Dismal Recruiting and Retention Rates

Enlisting and keeping members active is, without a doubt, the most pressing problem. The number of volunteers who are actively being recruited into the fire service is far smaller than the amount leaving or aging out.

One probable cause could be a societal shift in work/life priorities. Because of the health and safety aspects associated with firefighting, membership requirements can be daunting. Besides meetings, drills, fundraisers, and training sessions, members must also respond to actual emergencies. Likewise, considering the NFPA’s 2018 findings that 50% of all firefighters are between 30-49 years old, it’s easy to see how many would-be volunteers do not have the time or capacity to devote to these activities in addition to their family life and work schedule. Furthermore, firefighting is a dangerous business. There are those who are hesitant to take the chance that an injury or worse will prevent them from caring for or supporting their loved ones.

Member retention is another problem. Although there are countless reasons members choose to resign, these occurrences are often predictable and preventable. However, some organizations consciously decide to wait until people leave before attempting to analyze and address what went wrong and, more importantly, how to fix it. Despite the industry resources available, many volunteer fire departments employ retention practices that revolve around reactionary discussions rather than preemptive solutions. In truth, if department leaders wish to engage both current and prospective members, they must be willing to apply the principles of situational awareness and strategic foresight to the internal issues inside their organizations.

Disappearing Budgets and Funding Opportunities

Operating a volunteer fire department is expensive. Like most industries, every year, the cost of doing business goes up while operating budgets tend to fall or hover at the previous year’s rates. For this reason, balancing industry and economic changes without compromising safety or effectiveness can be next to impossible.

Similarly, because of blurry organizational structures and municipal constraints, volunteer fire departments can be at a direct disadvantage when attempting to secure the mission critical equipment and administrative support programs necessary to stay effective and efficient. For example, even though upgraded or innovative fire station alerting technology can promote better overall safety and performance, these solutions tend to carry high price tags or expensive add on plans. And although most vendors are willing to work with departments for a customized fit, this subsequent blending of old and new technology can create even bigger issues with regards to maintenance and installation costs if not properly planned and orchestrated.

Moreover, while a plethora of external funding and grant programs exist, bureaucratic roadblocks, contradictory use clauses, and numerous process inefficiencies at all levels often leave departments with the greatest need struggling for support. Worse still, because of the varying standards and ambiguous stipulations usually attached to these programs, department officials may have a tough time navigating the grant process successfully or achieving any real results without incurring additional costs for specialized guidance or assistance.

Looking Ahead

The dual challenges posed by changing societal norms and shifting fiscal priorities mean volunteer fire organizations must maintain awareness over where their agency is, where it’s going and what it needs to get there.

Although volunteer fire agencies may function as mission-driven organizations, they must also employ business management processes to assess their organizations’ future. For this reason, fact-based operational insight and strategic thinking will play vital roles in steering and stabilizing the trajectory of our nation’s volunteer fire departments throughout the next decade.

By: John Martyn

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