Out of My Mind—Recruitment and Retention

By Rich Marinucci

Here in Michigan, I recently woke up and the reported temperature was 4°. Most of you probably don’t care. You either had the same thing or are in a warm spot wondering why I don’t just move! Butm that is not why I raise this issue. In the morning paper, it had an article about the State of Michigan pushing forward with pension reform to reduce the benefits of public sector employees including teachers, police officers, and firefighters. My connection between the two is that I wonder how many of the legislators and others who are part of the assault on pay and benefits would be willing to leave the comforts of their home or work in the middle of the night and respond to a complete stranger having a problem in this weather. So much of the work done by the public sector—and I am talking specifically about teachers, law enforcement, and firefighters—is done with little fanfare and is also doing what a majority of those complaining about pay and benefits won’t do.

I am not sure how the entire country is doing regarding recruitment and retention of career firefighters, but there is a challenge in Michigan. I believe it is related to the above referenced issues regarding pay and benefits. Departments that typically used to get hundreds of applications now barely get enough to cover the vacancies and often need to go through multiple hiring processes to find qualified candidates. There is a connection. If the job is not attracting applicants, then it is about supply and demand. Something needs to be done to reverse this trend.

Of course, this is nothing new in the volunteer service. Many places across the country face challenges to fill their rosters. And, the same people who claim that firefighter pensions are too luxurious also blindly tout the return of the volunteer service. Yet once again, none of them would be willing to get out of bed in 4° temperatures. And, they still don’t offer solutions, just obstacles and uneducated opinions. You can’t just sprinkle magic dust on a community and think you can generate a volunteer force. It takes effort and a culture that encourages volunteerism. 

The connecting point in this is that fire service requirements and needs have become more complex. There is so much to preparing to provide the quality service that citizens expect. When someone calls 911, regardless of where he lives, he is expecting someone who is trained to respond and fix the problem. The “problems” are getting more numerous and complicated. The tools and apparatus are also advancing. This needs more of a commitment to training. This takes time and effort. It is not acceptable to learn as you go. You need to be prepared before the emergency. To do the job properly, communities must commit resources including adequate staffing and competent personnel, apparatus, equipment, policies, and training. If all of this is not being done, then there will be undue risks and insufficient service.

Another aspect of the changing environment is the effect on firefighter safety and health. There is more information released, almost daily, about the adverse impact on firefighters from working in hazard zones. Firefighting has always been dangerous. But as studies and science continue to point out, there are short- and long-term risks that were not always part of the job. The fuel in modern fires is producing additional risks to firefighters, and organizations must take steps to address the challenges to the best of their ability. They cannot ignore what is occurring. This adds to the list of elements of the job that require study, effort, and action.

Today’s leaders in the fire service need to recognize that the challenges are different than in the past. There needs to be more effort to inform and educate not only the elected officials but the public at large. While every profession has a few bad eggs, the most in the fire service are committed to providing the best possible service to their community. They believe in servant leadership, and their efforts should not be diminished by either the ill-informed or the few rotten apples in the bunch.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.