Retention has long been a challenge for many volunteer and combination fire and EMS departments, yet little research has been done on the subject.
volunteer fire service retention
Thanks to support from a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant, the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) has conducted a study to identify institutional drivers that cause volunteers to leave, the differing perceptions between leadership, current volunteers and former volunteers and what can be done to positively impact retention.
The research was conducted in three phases over the course of several months in 2019 and 2020
The research was conducted in three phases over the course of several months in 2019 and 2020. The first phase included interviews with current and former volunteers as well as department leadership.
SAFER work group feedback
This was followed by a synthesis session and feedback from the NVFC’s SAFER work group, which consists of representative from several national fire and emergency service organizations. The final phase was a quantitative survey of over 1,000 current and former volunteers as well as current department leadership.
“We know that many volunteer fire departments struggle with retaining volunteers, but much of our knowledge about why volunteers leave is based on anecdotal evidence,” said NVFC Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Sarah Lee, who oversees the organization’s SAFER grant.
Improving volunteer retention rate
Sarah adds, “With this research, we now have data to back up the hypotheses. We also have a better idea of what areas to focus on to help departments overcome the challenges and improve their retention rates.”
Some of the key findings from the quantitative research include the following:
- There is a disconnect between why former volunteers say they left a fire department versus what current leadership thinks are the reasons why volunteers leave.
- Current volunteers who have considered leaving but did not said their main reason for staying was their desire to give back to the community and help people.
- When asked what could have a positive impact on volunteer retention, both current and former volunteers cited mentorship programs, giving out awards/honors to members when they reach service milestones, conducting stay interviews with volunteers who have lapsed attendance and conducting exit interviews, when a volunteer leaves the department, as among their top choices.
- The majority of department leadership (74%) said their department either had a general sense of retention but no specific way of measuring it or no clear definition of retention at all.
NVFC’s ‘Make Me A Firefighter’ campaign
The NVFC will use the data from this research to develop tools and resources designed to help departments better understand and meet the retention challenges they face. The research was conducted as part of the NVFC’s ‘Make Me A Firefighter’ campaign, a SAFER-funded program that helps volunteer and combination fire departments recruit and retain volunteers.
The campaign includes a department portal filled with free tools and resources to help departments increase their staffing and a public site where prospective volunteers can find a local fire service opportunity.