Motivating fire service personnel to participate as active members of a technical rescue team can be very challenging. This includes all ranks. Further, fire chiefs and other administrators must also maintain support for events that are often very infrequent.
This is especially true when participation as a team member is voluntary and team leaders must pay attention to recruitment and retention. For firefighters to accept extra assignments, the work must be attractive and appropriately rewarded—and not just financially. What gets supported and rewarded gets done.
Think about what might happen if someone got to practice a sport every day but never got to play in a game. There would be no way to feed the competitive juices and most, if not all, participants would forgo the practices and look for a different pastime. As an example, I was recently talking to a high school football coach. We were discussing the decline of participants in the sport, and we talked about some of the reasons. There is more concern for concussions, competition from more sports, year-round requirements, and others. One thing the coach mentioned was the challenge to get players to practice every day when there was only one game per week. There is also a lead-up time where there are weeks of practice before the first game is even played. He opined that kids playing sports want to play the games, not just practice, and in other sports there are more opportunities to compete. This certainly is something to think about, whether a sport or being part of a special rescue unit that rarely gets to “compete.”
For specialty teams to be successful, there must be enthusiastic support from the top of the organization, including the chief of department and senior staff. They cannot pay lip service to this and must communicate to the entire department that positions on the team are valued and will be supported. I have known chiefs who are the opposite, and their member participation leaves much to be desired. Those who truly value team membership do better with recruitment and retention. They show their support overtly and do not quibble when training arises. They don’t deny training opportunities by hiding behind staffing issues. There is a difference for those with legitimate issues and those who are not supportive.
There are some chiefs who personally don’t support the efforts of special rescue teams and membership. They may tolerate them if they have no choice but may also question whether the expense is worth the payback if their community has no history of needing such service. This is shortsighted in that not too many communities routinely need special teams. But when the call arises, having properly trained firefighters will be worth the effort. This can be challenging in communities strapped for resources, but I am aware of cases where this was not the issue, but the chief opted out anyway. This is not an approach to take if you are looking for people to volunteer.
GETTING THE RIGHT PEOPLE
As is the case with any job, you have to start with talent and those who are interested in the work. This begins with recruitment of members for the teams. You should have a job description but not the traditional general language that so many have today. There should be a list of prerequisites that includes physical conditioning, basic training, and a statement of interest. There are times when it is appropriate to recruit, not just post on a bulletin board. Asking everyone who is interested to submit may be necessary, but sometimes there are individuals who have talent and a good work ethic who should be specifically recruited.
If an organization wants its best and brightest to be a part of special response units, the leadership must get creative in its approach for rewarding and supporting. This does not necessarily mean significant increases in monetary payments. There are other means that can make the job more appealing for someone who expresses an initial interest and also has an aptitude. Often the simplest things keep people interested and involved. If you don’t know what you can do, ask. You will get straight answers that are good. You can also ask those who leave the team why they have chosen to leave. It may be that their time is up and they have done what they thought they could, or there can be some subtle actions that have driven them away.
The opportunity to train and improve in specialty areas is attractive to certain personalities in the fire service. When this situation exists, they need to be nurtured, and the firefighters need to participate in the training. This means providing release time and paying overtime when warranted. It is the price of doing business—and a relatively small price to pay for the investment. If team members are regularly questioned or even denied opportunities, they will begin to wonder if their efforts are being supported. If the team establishes a reputation that makes it difficult to participate as needed, then future involvement will not be what is necessary.
If you have specially trained personnel, let them deliver training to the rest of the firefighters. Use their expertise. They will be happy to share their knowledge and will take pride in doing so. They will be considered competent by the firefighters, who in turn will support the team members and possibly even aspire to the job should an opening occur. And, you will get better trained firefighters in your organization while demonstrating support for those on the specialty teams. This does go a long way toward establishing a great relationship and long-term benefit to membership.
Look for ways to identify team members. Special add-ons to uniforms and small tokens such as T-shirts and hats don’t cost a lot but add to the pride that members have and are willing to show off. Elevating one’s status can serve as a motivator and does not have to be extensive or expensive. Subtle can be good. Challenge coins have also proven to be quite popular among specialty teams. Distinguishing from the general population is good.
The fire service has long spent time preparing for infrequent events. Think of the apparatus and equipment purchases that are designed for “the big one” along with training and education. How many skills did you learn in recruit school that are infrequent but extremely important when needed? Those who opt to join special rescue teams are very similar. They learn many critical skills that may or may not be used over the course of a career. This is a factor in recruitment and retention. Because firefighters have a host of emergencies, not using some skills does not affect recruitment and retention. When extra duties are involved and volunteers are used, leaders must give more attention to recruitment and retention. While an organization can hope it never needs special rescue teams, it still needs to be prepared with staffing just in case.
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.