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Firelines: Vibrant training needed for meaningful retention

July 9, 2019
By Dave Balding

Volunteer fire departments across Canada, regardless of size, continue to face mounting challenges in recruitment and meaningful retention.

It’s commonly held that volunteerism is on the downswing nationally as we compete with ever-demanding work schedules, children’s activities and other organizations, to name a few.

I’m happy to report that our fire department’s membership numbers are currently robust. Further, our members, both experienced and new, are engaged and enthusiastic.

Is there a recipe for this success? I say no, but there are some essential ingredients.

I used the term meaningful retention. Many departments have a periphery of somewhat active or inactive members and a nucleus of those who regularly show up, participate actively in training, attend emergency calls – regardless of the time of day, and other community events.

I have long maintained I’d rather have a few of the right members than a surplus of those who do not fully contribute. This expectation is clearly communicated by me and other officers.

Yes, peer pressure also plays a part as firefighters encourage the engagement of their colleagues.

Vibrant training is another essential ingredient for meaningful retention. Our training is well-planned, dynamic and innovative. The results are evident in participation and retention.

Our recent success in recruiting brings a challenge, however. An influx of new members requires essential training soonest in order to achieve a safe level of competency in order to respond in any capacity.

Attracting members to a fire-service organization requires a multi-facetted approach. I believe in the fire department being actively involved in many aspects of the community. Golden Fire Rescue is immersed in many facets of our town’s activities, contributing to a public awareness on several levels such as fire safety, fire department needs, goals and more.

Word-of-mouth recruiting is highly successful. The enthusiasm our members exude when inviting others to join is evident. A recent local recruiting story with some flexibility bears retelling here. Last summer, I was approached by a Sikh gentleman expressing a sincere interest in joining the fire department. I explained (lacking a full understanding of his religious principles) that we would gladly consider him although to meet operational requirements he must be clean shaven. Our impasse became resolved when I offered him an application for a position to undertake all duties that do not require the use of breathing apparatus. We now have a hardworking dedicated member who is a valued member of our team in every respect.

In Golden, we are no different from any other volunteer fire department. We, too, suffer from attrition. We recently lost two well-trained firefighters to career departments. Volunteer fire departments will continue to be the farm teams for career departments, to some extent.

We operate within a world of operating guidelines, policies, procedures and regulations in a paramilitary environment – rightly so for an inherently dangerous occupation. That said, flexibility remains another essential ingredient. As leaders, we must continually have our fingers on the pulse of our departments, continually seeking to make corrections and improvements. I write this as I’m away from the fire department for a time. Despite that, I pay rapt attention to the goings-on, the calls.

I may have a little trepidation about the upcoming wildfire season and other significant events, but I also have every confidence the right things will be done. I believe this because we train well, we attract excellent candidates, we propel our members upward.

Grooming our up-and-coming members for new positions and responsibilities is critical to both the short- and long-term success of our departments.

We ask a lot in the volunteer fire service, but we also must give a lot. Some is typical, like thanks, rewards and so on, but there is more. Naturally the innate thrill of working with great colleagues and helping others is a giant reward. There are also the ad hoc ideas and activities that flow from a creative group of firefighters – true teambuilders.

The credit for the successes that we, along with our community enjoy, goes without question to those hard-working members that are the glue in our department.


Dave Balding joined the fire service in 1985 and is now fire chief in Golden, B.C. Contact Dave at david.balding@golden.ca and follow him on Twitter at @FireChiefDaveB.


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