Will changes from the COVID-19 crisis affect volunteer firefighters’ mindset and commitment?
By Dr. Candice McDonald
As some volunteer firefighters return to their paying jobs in an office after a year and a half of enforced remote work, fire service leaders should prepare for the long-term impacts the changes may have on the volunteer fire service. In 2016, I conducted a research study on retention in the volunteer fire service, and the results showed it is not financial incentives that motivate volunteers to stay engaged.1 Three of the top motivators for retention found in my study were family engagement, a flexible schedule, and nonwage benefits.1 Keeping these motivators in mind post-pandemic is critical for the success of volunteer fire departments.
Employers are already seeing a change in employees returning to the work environment after spending such a long period of time in a remote work environment. The workforce has changed. People have changed. Families have changed. The remote work world has allowed employees greater independence and forced an emphasis on home life. For some, a health scare or a loss caused by the pandemic has also led some employees to have a higher value of life outside of the workplace. The pandemic forced parents of school-age children to take a more active role in their children’s education, and educators are reporting higher levels of parent engagement post-pandemic.2 People are cooking more at home post-pandemic, with 70% planning to continue this trend, which has led to increased family time around the table.3 The pandemic has also led to an increase in new hobbies for six in 10 Americans.4 Pet adoptions were up by 35% during the pandemic, and returning to work adds a new level of stress for the human and the pet.5 These are all changes fire service leaders should pay close attention to as they develop strategies for recruitment and retention.
Fire Engineering: The COVID Marathon
Researchers are already reporting the post-pandemic workforce prefers nonstandard work times and that there was an increase in preference for working nights/weekends over a typical weekly dayshift during the pandemic.4 Employees have adapted to being able to work from any location in the world, something a traditional office setting prevented. The returning workforce will not be the same as it was pre-pandemic. How an employer operates will not be the same. Some employers have already closed or downsized offices as they transitioned to hybrid or full-time remote environments.
What does this mean for the volunteer fire service? Volunteer fire service leaders should prepare for two scenarios. The first, leaders need to be ready to adapt to a change in the mindset of volunteers who are moving from a home environment back to a traditional brick and mortar setting. These volunteers spent more than a year of having freedom and learned to appreciate the flexibility of a remote environment. As commutes restart and extra hours in the office are required, volunteers will be forced to once again find a balance between their career and home life. History has shown that volunteers who are unable to find a balance will disengage from the fire service.1 Volunteers struggling to balance career and home life may feel a need to compensate the time they lost at home by separating from volunteer activities that take time away from family, pets, or hobbies.
To reduce the stress, fire service leaders should foster family engagement by planning social activities for the volunteer and their family. It will be critical for fire service leaders to communicate and support the value of family. It will also be more important than ever for fire service leaders to implement flexible training days, offer hybrid meetings, and allow the scheduling of duty hours to accommodate the needs of the volunteer. Fire service leaders with successful retention rates have learned to accommodate the needs of their volunteers.1
The second scenario is one of opportunity. As some employers move to a permanent hybrid or full-time remote environment, fire service leaders should look at this group of people as potential recruits. Due to long commutes and a lack of flexibility in the past, these individuals may not have been able to serve as volunteers. Recruiters should develop campaigns focused on the recruitment of this audience. Fire departments can also set up remote office space with docking stations, internet, and printing for volunteers to conduct work at the station as an advertised nonwage member benefit. A remote office space would not only provide a quiet workspace for the volunteer but may also provide an outlet for socialization that the remote workforce will be craving due to the loss of “water cooler talk.”
As we transition back into this new abnormal, fire service leaders need to once again eliminate outdated thinking to allow progress for the recruitment and retention of volunteers. It will also be key that fire service leaders and other fire department personnel understand that working from home does not mean a volunteer is available every time the tones drop. That volunteer still has an obligation to attend virtual meetings and meet deadlines just as if in an office setting.
Another approach fire service leaders can take to ensure they are meeting the needs of internal stakeholders is to survey the current needs of their volunteers. Talk to members; recognize that volunteers will have different needs. Facilitate discussions on how the fire service as an organization can help volunteers overcome any barriers to volunteering, seek ways to reduce the work-home-volunteer-life balance struggle, and ask for ideas to foster family inclusiveness. Every volunteer’s situation will be unique, but what is not unique is a higher rate of retention AND performance among volunteers that has leaders willing to listen AND adapt to the needs of their stakeholders. For the volunteer fire service to survive the mindset shift caused by the pandemic, fire service leaders must recommit and be willing to respect the work-home-volunteer-life balance.
CANDICE McDONALD has served two decades as a firefighter, EMT, EMS officer, EMS CE instructor, fire inspector, and public information officer. She is the second vice president for the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association, a trustee with Women in Fire, a member of the Fire Department Instructors Conference International educational advisory board, and a National Volunteer Fire Council fire corps state advocate. McDonald works for NASA in the Office of Protective Services as a special agent/physical security specialist and is an adjunct professor for Eastern Gateway Community College. She has a doctorate in business administration with a specialty in homeland security, a master’s degree in organizational leadership, a bachelor’s degree in organizational management, and an associate degree in human services.