Fire Fighting in Canada

Volunteer Vision: The impact of the rookie effect in your department

June 13, 2024 
By Tom DeSorcy

When we speak about volunteer fire fighting, we often talk about two specific things: recruitment and retention. I’ve been co-authoring the Volunteer Vision column for almost 15 years and this hasn’t changed. Recruitment and retention have been the focus of our columns, podcasts, symposiums and conferences all these years, and will for many more to come.

Recruitment, of course, means bringing new people into the fire department. It could be the indoctrination process itself or it could be the actual enticement or selling of the department and encouraging people to apply. In a perfect world, applications continually come forward providing a steady stream of new recruits to choose from. Reality sees many department members and officers worried about their futures and who is coming to take their place.

But, what does retention mean in your department, and do you think it has an impact on recruitment itself? Would you consider retention as the process of keeping the new people engaged and onboard, or is it more focused on the existing force and keeping them interested in being a part of the team? It’s a little of both and each have a hand in helping the other.

Think back to the 1980s when recruitment in the volunteer service wasn’t necessarily a regularly scheduled event. New people were either brought in as they appeared or by request of existing volunteers who, for example, had a friend they wanted to introduce to the department. Those candidates were often voted on by the existing members. In this case, retention wasn’t really a concern as these elected members were invited onto the team and therefore should almost consider themselves lucky to be a part of it.

Today, many volunteer departments have recruit drives or intakes on an annual basis. Some more often than that. This likely involves a process of applications, interviews, indoctrination, and training. A methodic and calculated curriculum that ideally brings in more quality than quantity on a regular basis.  For those recruits, this kind of regime demonstrates commitment to detail all the while building retention into the process. They should be left feeling confident, honoured and proud to be a volunteer firefighter.

This begs the question: Who exactly are we trying to retain? If you’re a firefighter with a few or more years of experience, how do you feel when new members come on board? Are you intimidated or do you feel pushed aside? You shouldn’t feel either. New recruits should bring about a feeling of pride and excitement by sharing with them what makes you happy. Honoured, in fact, that they want to be a part of this with you. I call this the rookie effect.

A properly indoctrinated recruit brings an injection of energy and life into a fire department. You can’t help but feel their level of excitement through each accomplishment and personal encounter. Today’s better training has instilled a feeling of confidence in this next generation and they come to us thirsting for all the knowledge they can get and you are a large part of where they get it.

If you currently have new recruits in your fire department today, or the next time you do, step back and take a look at the effect they have on you and your peers.  What you should see and feel, is an injection of energy that can lead to a rejuvenation of sorts for some.

Consider the confidence they instill in our older members. Those on our team that may be reluctant, shall we say, to retire or step aside from front line duties. I would consider this another twist to my Moss and Grass theory of leadership. One where those members that are reluctant to change and progress move out of the way when they are no longer paid attention to or “fed” as well as the grass (or new recruits in this case). Shall we consider them existing and weaker grass that’s made stronger because of the rookie effect? Some may even be made to feel better about stepping away from the front and putting their experience to valuable use away from the hot zone.

It’s hard to say if the rookies recognize the impact they have on the existing members, but this is something we need to consider and bring forward adding to their importance and impact they, as new recruits, have on the department. Their role beyond response cannot be overstated enough, in that they can bring a certain “life” back to the fire hall, giving existing members needed validation and purpose that may have been lost.

Recruit firefighters are becoming less and less in the volunteer fire service. For most of the volunteer fire departments, new members are not necessarily lining up at the door to get in. But with new training standards and a commitment to quality, those we do get are more confident and committed to the process. That’s why it’s so important to recognize all the recruits bring to the fire department.

They may well be our future but never underestimate the contribution they can make to the past and always take advantage of the rookie effect.

Tom DeSorcy joined the fire service in 1983 and became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000, retiring in 2023. E-mail Tom at media.

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