Volunteer Vision: August 2018

Highs and lows of volunteer recruitment
July 16, 2018
Written by Vince MacKenzie
Recruitment. It seems to be a topic of discussion a lot lately. Fire chiefs and officers are telling me that not only is it getting harder to recruit volunteer fire fighters these days, but when we do, some of the successful hires leave in a few short years for fulltime fire fighting jobs.

Many volunteer departments experience significant turnover in personnel. The seemingly constant revolving door of personnel is one of the characteristics of today’s smaller community fire departments.

When recruiting, fire departments ideally want a younger candidate to join the fire department and start the journey of training early in life. More time can be afforded to training opportunities when a person is generally younger and not time committed to a young family or other obligations as we age. We also like it when the firefighter candidate can get quickly trained. So many fire departments put extensive effort into orientation and rookie training. The hope is with that training and along with practical experience they reach their 30s well trained and well experienced, and physically able to perform labour intensive fire fighting. As their career progresses, they use their practical experience to become good fire officers, eventually supervising the firefighter ranks.

Firefighters leave their respective departments for many reasons, be it busy fire department workload, non-commitment, or genuine non-interest. Some leave because of poor leadership, and some leave for family or work commitments. There are a multitude of reasons, but I would like to focus this column on one of the trends that has been happening for a while now.

Many recruits join volunteer fire departments with the hopes and dreams of using their training and experience to garner a position on a full-time fire department and have firefighting as a paid career. Many times, this is never disclosed to the recruiters.  The volunteer fire department accepts them into their membership and starts training them as recruits. As the training progresses, it usually gets revealed that the candidate has intention to move on. This can be somewhat frustrating and even offending to many of the chiefs I have spoken to. They feel much time and energy are committed by their department to training recruit volunteer firefighters only for them to leave at their peak potential. Adding to the grief is that usually their training is conducted by other volunteers who give freely of their time to train recruits. I get it, frustration levels can be very demoralizing. Especially after all the time and energy is expended only for the firefighter to leave the department in search of a career.

Recruitment is a process that all fire chiefs must embrace. I have said it before, I don’t consider recruitment and retention as a problem in the volunteer fire service, it is merely another process that we must learn to manage successfully.

Recruitment and retention, ironically, is a not a problem for career departments. There is usually a line up of candidates eagerly answering job postings nationwide. Their challenge is in narrowing the list and selecting the best candidates from exponential numbers of applicants—some of which may be your firefighters. What a great position to be in as a fire chief of career services. Many of those applicants come from existing volunteer firefighters who were trained by volunteer fire departments. Their gain becomes our loss.

So, if your fire department is experiencing the trend of personnel leaving to find careers with their training you have provided, so be it. While firefighters leave for many reasons, if they leave to join other departments as a career, celebrate their success because some of that success is because of you.

I have always said it is better to train a firefighter and have them leave, than it is to not train them and have them stay! If a fire department does relax their training program because they fear some of their folks will leave, what happens when they stay.

As a final note there is one advantage though, as I said earlier volunteer firefighters leave departments for many reasons. If one of these reasons is to relocate for better employment of their daytime job or their partners daytime job, typically these folk apply to their new towns volunteer fire dept. We all know that once a true fire fighter it’s a rewarding and difficult profession to give up despite the challenges sometimes. So, on a positive note, the training we provide benefits the other volunteer department too.


Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services. Email him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince
More in this category: « Volunteer Vision: June 2018

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