Empowerment Is Key for Retention in the Fire Service

Five ways leaders can encourage their firefighters

Empowered firefighters take pride in keeping the community they serve happy. (pixabay)

By Candice McDonald

Solving the shortage of dedicated firefighters in the United States is not the sole work of department leadership. The responsibility belongs to all internal stakeholders. However, leaders have the responsibility to empower the firefighters they lead to engage them in the process of creating a dedicated workforce. Empowering volunteers/employees in the organization has a direct correlation to the success of the department.

Employees who are empowered are provided by leaders with the critical information they need to make decisions independently. When leaders empower their people, the members have the ability to quickly identify issues and the solutions needed to fix them. They take pride in keeping the community happy and being a part of the organization. An empowered environment is an environment where all employees share the power and work toward the same goals.

To determine if there is a lack of empowerment among firefighters within your organization, you can answer the following questions developed by leadership experts George Manning and Kent Curtis:

  • Do people seem uninterested in their work?
  • Are absenteeism or turnover rates too high?
  • Do people lack loyalty and team spirit?
  • Is there a lack of communication among individuals and groups?
  • Is there a low level of pride?
  • Are costs too high as a result of turnover, waste, or inefficiency?
  • Does the quality of product or quality of service need to be improved?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then it is time to develop some strategies to empower your members, which in turn will lead to better organizational outcomes. Focus on the following five key areas to reform your organization: Trust, Invest, Recognize, Decentralize, and Cooperate.

Learn to TRUST your members. As I travel the country teaching and working with organizations, I often hear department leaders say they must take on all of the work because they cannot trust their members to do it. Not delegating duties and failing to trust your members to carry out duties create a sense of dependency. It is no different than a parent who never makes their child clean their own room. The child is never provided the opportunity to learn to do it and to keep improving on how to do it with each time. A sense of pride is never gained when the work is being done by someone else.

Good leaders will place trust in their people. They will allow members to take ownership in roles and to carry out the tasks. The tasks may not be carried out the same way the leaders would do it, and that is okay. It is key for the leaders to trust and EMPOWER their members to own the tasks and to create the process to get it done. When a sense of ownership is in place, members will work hard to meet organizational goals, do it with a sense of pride, and stay engaged with the organization.

Make an INVESTMENT in your members. Your internal stakeholders are your most important resource.Without trained firefighters and EMS personnel, there is no operational fire department.Leaders need to spend the time and resources needed to cultivate their members to gain fruitful returns. Investing in your members means not just sending chief officers to conferences but also sending those members who are not currently holding a leadership role. Developing an entry level firefighter is just as an important investment as developing those who lead.

Investing in members can also be done through internal mentorship programs and by creating internal training programs that not only teach firefighters the skills they need but empower them to use them. One of the biggest complaints I hear from young firefighters and EMS professionals is seasoned firefighters don’t want to give up the nozzle during a structure fire and seasoned EMS professionals will push them to the side during major traumas. Some seasoned professionals report they fear the job won’t get done to their level of satisfaction, so it is easier for them to just do it. However, the seasoned professionals fail to see that letting the young member take control of the situation while they are there to observe allows them to provide guidance should it be needed. It is better for a young firefighter to make mistakes or need assistance while the seasoned member can intervene. We owe it to our young firefighters to INVEST in them by allowing them the opportunity to try and fail while we are present. The seasoned firefighter or EMS provider might not be on that next call with the rookie. How can we be angry at them for not performing to our level of satisfaction if we did not INVEST in them while we had the chance?

RECOGNIZE the accomplishments of your members. Obtaining certifications and additional trainings might just seem likepart of the job,but these accomplishments should be celebrated. Symbolic rewards show members they are valued and can be a key retention strategy. Many members sacrifice time from family, friends, and loved ones to complete certain certifications. It is extremely important to celebrate the sacrifice and commitment the member made.

Members can be recognized at a company meeting verbally and through a printed certificate. Senior leadership can send a handwritten card or note recognizing the efforts. Recognizing members on social media is another great tool for showing the members and their families how much the organization values their dedication.

DECENTRALIZE decision making. One of the most challenging areas I see for senior leadership is decentralizing the decision-making process and empowering members to make decisions. Leaders who want to control every decision miss out on an opportunity to create an empowered workforce that will take responsibility to work together to identify areas of weaknesses, develop solutions, and implement change.

When the leader is constantly the one making all of the decisions, the members stop speaking up with identified issues and proposed solutions. If the leader always shoots down the concerns and ideas of the members, members will stop speaking up out of fear and disengage from the organization. An empowered workplace is one where employees will proactively recognize what needs to be done, inform leadership of a plan to address it, and take action to implement the solutions.

Create a culture of COOPERATION. Members should be empowered to work together. Creating a team environment is critical for organizational success. Senior leadership should be the biggest cheerleader of a team approach and be quick to address threats to the environment. Most teams experience personality differences among some members. Such differences can lead to communication issues and conflict. It is key for leadership to identify those issues and push the team toward a cooperative working environment. These types of issues will not solve themselves and cannot be ignored. Ignoring such issues will cause a divide in your organization, lead to cliques, and cause people to disengage.

Communication is a key element of an empowered workplace. Members want to hear information from leadership with full details in a timely manner. Members cannot be empowered and work cooperatively if all members do not have all of the information needed. Leaders need to assess the best method for communicating with stakeholders to ensure all members receive accurate and key information in a timely manner. Failure to do so can lead to chaos, rumors, and ineffective performance.

Employee empowerment is key for retention in the fire service. When firefighters are empowered, members are focused on the goals of the organization instead of fighting internal battles. Empowered firefighters also take pride in seeing the organization succeed, have a strong desire to be engaged, and stay engaged as active members. Empowered firefighters feel valued and look forward to showing up.

CANDICE McDONALD, Ph.D., serves with the Winona (OH) Fire Department and works for NASA as a federal special agent/physical security specialist. She is a member of the Fire Engineering/FDIC Advisory Board, director of CVVFA, and a Women in Fire trustee. She is a contributing author to Fire Engineering and earned her doctorate in business administration/homeland security.

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