To Motivate Firefighters, Tap into Their Natural Competitiveness

It was August of 1985, and I was doing some yard work at my parents’ house when the chief of the Wilder (Ky.) Volunteer Fire Department stopped by and asked me to join the department. I agreed and attended the monthly business meeting later that night. After filling out an application, I was voted in, fitted with my first set of turnout gear (a hand-me-down set of red Nomex with a flannel liner and a pair of fireball gloves) and officially declared a probationary volunteer firefighter.

Later that week, I would go on my first call, an accident involving an overturned dump truck. Having had no prior training, I was limited to the task of fetching tools and equipment while the rest of the crew worked to free the fatally injured driver, who had been pinned beneath the truck’s elevated bed while dumping a load of rock on unstable ground. It was on that day that I made a decision: I would never be placed in a situation where I felt so helpless again.

In the coming years I attended countless training sessions, earned multiple degrees and responded on hundreds of fire, EMS and rescue incidents. My basic motivating factor on every incident was the satisfaction of being a firefighter–the opportunity to perform the life-saving tasks that I was not capable of performing at that first incident I responded to.

As I teach across the country, one of the most common questions that I’m asked is, how do you motivate firefighters? How do you get them to want to train and to dedicate themselves for the betterment of the department?

Although I’d like to say that I know of some secret trick or mystery potion that single-handedly motivates firefighters, I don’t. Yet I do know three things that motivate FIREFIGHTERS (no, it’s not money, sex and beer!): fires, rescues and resuscitating victims of medical emergencies. Put simply: the opportunity to do the job.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), fires are diminishing every year. And the opportunities to extract someone from the crumpled remnants of a motor vehicle collision or to successfully resuscitate a victim are few and far between. So, in the absence of opportunity, what’s our alternative? How do we motivate firefighters? How do we reignite their passion for the job? How do we uplift the morale of the membership during financial cutbacks and unprecedented scrutiny?

In a word: training–safe, realistic and challenging training that raises the bar for the organization and the individual.
I don’t know a single firefighter who seeks to achieve mediocrity or chooses to join an organization that prides itself on being second-best. Firefighters are competitors by nature. We find satisfaction in a job well done, and our performance as individuals and as a crew are representative of our proud traditions. Our motivation is not and cannot be bought or purchased by financial rewards, nor can it be brought down by disappointment when others abandon us. We don’t seek the glitz and glamour of notoriety or the security of political patronage. We define ourselves by the professionalism we demonstrate in the performance of our duties.

In his book “Drive,” Daniel H. Pink describes the two types of motivation: 1) extrinsic motivation from external or materialistic rewards, and 2) intrinsic motivation from the freedom, challenge and purpose of the undertaking itself. The fact of the matter: You can’t motivate a firefighter by way of directives, nor can you motivate a firefighter with external rewards. In fact, Pink’s findings prove just the opposite: Although extrinsic rewards can deliver a short-term boost, the effect wears off and worse yet, it will likely reduce the person’s long-term motivation to continue the project or task.

Therefore, it’s in our best interest to develop an organization and culture that enlist the competitive nature and natural characteristics of firefighters. We need to challenge them to improve their performance by developing a training program that demands continued improvement in their mental and physical abilities. Establish a road map of professional development that provides a balanced focus on higher education and career diversity. Initiate competitive promotional exams with aggressive reading requirements that expand their knowledge base far beyond the repetitive nature of day-to-day operations.

FIREFIGHTER motivation is not about the short-term rewards; it’s about developing a mindset focused on the long-term results and the satisfaction of serving a world-class organization for the greater good.

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