After nearly two decades of being on my volunteer department I’ve started noticing a frightening trend amongst our members – low attendance. And I’m not just talking about the boring and mundane weekly truck / station maintenance. I’m talking about emergency incidents and training.

The same ten or so people out of a 30-person roster keep showing up for everything, while the others seem to show up periodically. Some I haven’t seen in months (literally).

I had always heard of this strange phenomenon from other departments, but had never been witness to it myself until last year and most of 2009.

So what gives? Where is everyone? What’s the causes and how do we turn things around?

I think the causes are many and some just can’t be explained. I know one reason for our department is because a good portion of our roster is getting older which means more family involvement. The kids are getting older and are in sports and events. They can take longer vacations because the kids don’t need to be looked after so much.

The other causes or reasons are a bit of a mystery to me and I even posed the question in another firefighter forum. Although the response was minimal, one particular response caught my attention.

“The sad fact is some people just don’t enough pride in themselves, their fellow firefighters or their department to really make a difference. They are just shirts.”

I agree to an extent with some, while others I think have just lost interest in one form or another. Sure, they’ll be there for the “big one” and show up to the more glitzy and glamorous events, but ask them to attend a sit-down training or help with the more repetitive and mundane tasks and it’s like pulling teeth.

My initial thought(s)? Market within. Make the department such a neat place to be and be part of that people can’t resist coming around. Here is a short list of ideas I’ve come up with.

* Competition: Firefighters are for the most part type-A personalities and are competitive. Have an annual award for the firefighter with the highest attendance

* More competition: Divide your roster into even teams with a captain leading each and see which team can perform the best. The losers have to buy the winners dinner or give them a cookout or something

* Compliment and encourage: Being a leader means you have to look at every member of the department and periodically remind them just how important their job is and how good they are at doing it

* Make the station a focal point: For most volunteer departments the fire station has always been a focal point. Maybe it’s lost some of that luster and it’s high time you make it the central gathering point for firefighters and the community alike

* Re-Think Training: Train, train, train, it’s what we do. We know we should and more often. But with any volunteer department it gets harder and harder to keep up with local training, let alone the constant barrage of government required trainings now mandatory for all departments. Maybe we need to re-think how the trainings are handled? Offer a dinner before or after? Train more in the public view possibly?

* Compensate: I know, money should be the last thing on a firefighters mind when doing this job and I also know some can’t even fathom paying their volunteers what with budget cuts and all, but maybe a little extra dough in one’s pocket is an incentive that could help

* Do it for the kids: Maybe integrate a junior firefighter program along with your fire prevention program to ensure the future of the department

What else? Any other thoughts? Ideas?

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Comment by Chris Tomlinson on September 25, 2009 at 8:13am

I totally agree. If they're not showing for the "boring" stuff and only the "big ones" and then leave we're not missing anything. Some just get tied up in too much of their own personal life that the F.D. has to take a back seat - I totally understand and respect that.

But for those that are still around, I think there needs to be some other incentive to drive them there other than when the pager sounds. Obviously the incentive should be that they are part of a life saving organization that belongs to the community they live in.
Comment by Chris Tomlinson on September 25, 2009 at 8:11am

Oh, no, I'm not looking for the social life we use to have. I don't even have time for that, nor would I expect people to hang out for hours on end just B.S.'ing.

I think the social aspect can be strengthened a bit more, but that's just one cog in the wheel of the department. There are so many different things that people can do to be involved, I would just like to see my excitement in doing that. And from what I gather, our department is not the only one facing these issues.

Thanks for the response!
Comment by Rusty Mancini on September 25, 2009 at 1:55am
Chris, I might add ! If you lose some members that don't want to come to mandatory training and they haven't been coming around anyway, what have you really lost? Absolutely nothing at all. I know you asked how you could get them back interested. A lot of it has to do with the leadership in the department. I'm not going to waist money on a member that doesn't come to training. When you add up the cost of pagers,insurance,physicals,turnout gear inter./brush that's wasted money that could be going to something else.Anyway brother good luck and be safe.
Comment by Rusty Mancini on September 24, 2009 at 11:46pm
Chris, I remind our members that this is not the boys or the girls club.This is a business of saving life and property if you want a social club, may I suggest the YMCA. You might think that sounds harsh, but what are the real reasons for them being there? We had some members that didn't attend training, but you could bet if we busted a structure fire, it was like kicking over an ant hill.Those that don't attend training are the ones that don't work together as a team when the crap hits the fan! Mandate it in your By-Laws, how many hours a month a member will attend training. God for bid something happens to one of those firefighters injuries or even worst a lodd, your department would of wished they mandated training. I tell our members also that if you come by to hang out, at lease take a little time to view a video or refresh yourself in an essentials book, log in the time and how long you did some self studying. ISO will consider that part of that training points.It's alright to have a dinner once in a while but what are the real reasons you signed up for? One more thing, we have to follow Federal and State ( osha ) guidelines.We signed a contract with our county saying we will train so many hours a year, per member.
Comment by blair4630 on September 24, 2009 at 10:25pm
There are those of us (myself included), that just don't hang out alot at the hall, but are active members. I will occassionally stop by the hall and see what's going on, but normally do not hang out there. After a run, I'll hang out for a bit and BS, but to just stop by is not something I do alot. On the flip side, I attend as many meetings, training, and calls as I can, so if you look at my numbers I am active, although some at my department look at it as I never come around so I'm not "active". It's a matter of opinion, I guess.

Your numbers are similar to my department. We have approx. 30 members with gear hanging up in the lockers, and have about 15 I would say get a call or two a week (we do ~350/yr). I think some of the ideas you have are very valid, especially the one about older members gaining additional family commitments. Alot of the younger members center their lives around the fire dept., but later gain additional interests and responsibilies which further divide their time. I for one, go in spurts, with things like more or less overtimes availability at work, family things, and the like. It is variable for most of us, and that is the nature of the beast when speaking of volunteer things, of any sort.

Your suggestions sound good, and I'd say think up and implement as many as you can think of, and sort out the ones that work for your dept. accordingly. If you think up 10, maybe 2 or 3 will really make an impact and stick with those.

Good luck.
Comment by Chris Tomlinson on September 24, 2009 at 5:37pm

I think you've hit on something there that I overlooked in my post. The social bond seems to be less and less. I remember "back in the day" that it wouldn't be surprising to see a dozen people just hanging out at the station on a Saturday morning.

Maybe finding a way to be more "social" is part of the answer?
Comment by Auxman on September 24, 2009 at 5:32pm
I think having some sort of dinner before training on some sort of regular basis would help. Could be potluck or something fairly simple catered by the local diner for a reasonable cost per participant. This sort of social activity can help build the social bonds that could help out in other areas. Keep in mind that not everybody is going to be interested in the dinner for various reasons, so don't get disappointed if it doesn't make a huge difference right away. I'd probably do it every 4th or 5th training session, maybe every 3rd if you only meet monthly.

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