By Collin Hawkes
Think about all the firefighters you have seen come and go over the years. Now think about how much time, money, and resources it takes to train a firefighter. What if your department was able to retain firefighters twice as long?
There is a large amount of research on the costs of turnover of employees; this research suggests that the costs of turnover are around 150% of that person’s salary. So let us say your firefighters earn around $30,000 a year. That means for every firefighter that chooses to leave or is let go, you just spent $45,000.
But money is not the only cost; when others see people leaving the department they are also affected. Having the shock of a fellow employee leave causes others to consider why that person left and also why they have decided to remain there. This often lowers the satisfaction of others in the department as well as takes a toll on those who must make up for the current lack of manpower.
Knowing this information, what can we do about this issue? There are many factors that come into play when someone decides to leave a department; the single greatest factor is that person’s satisfaction with their supervisor. The best predictor of job satisfaction is person-to-supervisor fit. This means if you have poor or improperly trained leaders you will likely see this manifest in the satisfaction of many of your folks. So how do we obtain, keep and train those leaders? You start by selecting the best people for the job. This is done with proper selection systems and one of the best ways to select top people is through structured interviews. These are interviews that are based on the job, built with the expert knowledge of experienced firefighters. The interview has standard questions that are asked to all applicants as well as scoring rubrics that are predetermined by the subject matter experts. Unlike unstructured interviews, structured interviews can actually predict job performance and tenure in an organization.
The next step is to properly asses your potential leaders when they are moving from being a firefighter to a leader in the organization. Many of you may be familiar with the Peter Principle. This states that many employees rise to their highest level of incompetence. This happens because people move up in jobs that they perform well and then do not advance once they are poor performers. This can again be prevented by properly assessing firefighters who want to become leaders. While knowing the trucks and understanding how to pump is good knowledge for a leader to have it is not the only part of being a leader. Having the skills to lead are very different, being mature, knowing how to manage, and having the respect of the firefighters can make a huge difference.
Another important tool to use correctly to increase retention and satisfaction is the realistic job preview. If you recruit firefighters under the impression that your department runs a real house fire every day and that is not true, you will end up with many bored firefighters who want to see some action. Being able to accurately communicate the important parts of the job and what they entail is highly beneficial. A realistic job preview can be communicated as simply as a sheet of paper, as complex as a seminar, or as a ride along. Essentially the more accurately the applicant understands the job, the better off the applicant and the department will be.
The realistic job preview helps the applicant and department for a few reasons. First, for those applicants who do not understand the job and would have soon been gone due to a misunderstanding of the job, it is beneficial because the applicants and the departments do not spend time in a job they do not want to do. Secondly, having the applicant understand what will be expected of them and what they should be prepared for is helpful. For example, if a person does not realize that in the fire service we often respond to patient care calls and if that person is uncomfortable in dealing with patients or even deceased patients, this could be an issue.
Overall using proper techniques in hiring and retaining fire fighters can greatly benefit a department. This area is often overlooked in small and mid-sized departments, which is unfortunate because with fewer people, the ones who are there are even more important. For departments who may be short on funds to complete work such as this, they should consider looking into the SAFER grant. The recruitment and retention piece of this grant pays for departments to put in place procedures such as those above and can help departments retain the help of knowledgeable consultants in this area.
Bio-Collin Hawkes is an organizational development consultant for Townsend and Rush Consulting. His specialties include employee selection and training, and organizational development. He has been an active member of a fire department since the age of 18.