Easing the burden of turnover in the fire service

The majority of the 318,000 professional firefighters work at the local level, where government bodies are responsible for financial oversight. Departments often operate with strict and inflexible budgets determined largely by money collected from the local tax base or through municipal fees. Spending earmarked for the fire service is often cut, or redirected to other projects, as part of local budget planning.

Given these shrinking resources, the cost of turnover in the fire service is a difficult challenge to overcome. Retirements and resignations may constitute the largest percentage of turnover, but staff attrition also comes in the forms of injury, disability leave, and line-of-duty death. While departments typically have a basic contingency plan in place, structuring yearly budgets around possible injury or death is impossible. Recent reports, however, are drawing attention to the need for better understanding, planning, and budgeting for turnover before it wreaks havoc on department services.

Employee turnover strains department budgets

In a profession that relies heavily on specialized skills and celebrates experience, losing a high-performing member of the department is difficult, even when the departure is due to a positive life change such as retirement.

Turnover is not always bad. In 2015, Forbes pointed out that losing a disgruntled or poor-performing employee can save money in the long run, as these employees can lower morale and work output by virtue of a negative attitude. Making good separation decisions, though difficult, can serve to foster an agile, upbeat work environment by allowing employees to dictate the direction of their own career progression.

Usually, turnover is costly for a department. Even with minimum staffing, Providence (Rhode Island) is facing a serious budget shortfall owing to the cost of providing 24-hour fire coverage. In FY2015-16, the city council set aside funds to hire 52 firefighters. Unfortunately, 55 firefighters retired in 2015, with 22 more resigning and submitting retirement applications in January of 2016. The Providence Fire Department is currently running at the minimum staffing level allowed by union contract.

Their financial situation is further complicated by unplanned overtime payouts needed to maintain services. After the city reduced fire coverage from four platoons to three, firefighters accustomed to working an average of 42 hours per week are now regularly working more than 56 hours per week. The anticipated expense of $5 million set aside in the department budget was exceeded by nearly $4 million by the end of the fiscal year.

An additional challenge came when the International Association of Firefighters—the representative union for Providence firefighters—filed a lawsuit against the city over new overtime rules, which officials estimate could cost the city as much as $9 million in back pay. Much of the existing staffing burden is expected to be relieved by a SAFER grant, which was awarded to the city in July 2016 and will be used to hire 80 new firefighters. However, the battle between the union and the city continues to vacillate between arbitration hearings and the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

Small departments bear the cost of training

When a new firefighter enters the fire service, there is a significant investment of both money and time in recruitment and training. In Indiana, for example, firefighter recruits must complete the Firefighter I/II certification, a 120-hour course. The training fees are costly, and the recruit is paid a salary and any overtime accrued during training. Additional overtime costs are often accrued by the department as well, to cover the shifts missed by the recruits while attending training.

Once such a significant investment has been made, the premature loss of a trained firefighter to other departments is devastating.

By far, the largest contributing factor to employee turnover in the fire service is pay. Many smaller departments find themselves in the position of being the “jumping off point” for new firefighters who then look for more lucrative compensation from larger departments. The smaller department pays for the certifications that make these firefighters more appealing. In addition to the lost time and money, small departments struggle to retain experienced firefighters and cultivate opportunities for mentoring.

Because firefighters at airports, maritime authorities, and other specialty agencies are required to undergo additional training, these rosters are especially subject to recruitment by departments keen to acquire a well-trained professional without incurring the cost of that training. When successful, the department losing the firefighter must make an additional investment in a replacement.

Putting the brakes on turnover

Retaining highly-skilled employees is a top priority for most departments. Inflexible budgets leave little room for financial incentives, but pay and benefits are not always the main contributor to employees choosing to leave. According to a study conducted by the Saratoga Institute in California, in which approximately 20,000 people leaving their current employment at business organizations were surveyed, 88 percent stated that they were leaving their job for a reason other than pay. Among the reasons that people left their businesses were having an unclear perception of the demands of the job, feeling underappreciated, or lacking faith in senior leadership were the top motivating factors.

The hiring process at many departments offers an opportunity for planting the seeds of reduced turnover.  Television depictions of the life of the firefighter often paint unrealistic expectations of the job.  These depictions of constant action make the work a highly coveted position for thrill-seekers, unable to handle the significant downtime and equipment upkeep that comes with firehouse life.  Those applying because they believe they will find glory in the position may find that they are not mentally prepared for the actuality of entering a burning building and the dangers they will face.  Still, others may not understand the impacts that a firehouse schedule can have on their family.  Clear and accurate descriptions of all aspects of the firefighter’s role, both on-scene and at the firehouse, can provide an applicant with ample explanation of their duties and set the correct expectations up front, leading to decreased turnover.  Interviewing the applicants correctly in the beginning can also prevent turnover later.  By developing strong interview processes, and asking the correct questions, departments can often accurately predict which quality candidates will make long-term firefighters.

Department supervisors can overcome the morale issues which lead to attrition by clearly stating the unique mission and goals of their departments. Hiring and promotion processes should be outlined and based, at least partly, on merit, with skill sets required to advance within the service clearly defined. Providing opportunities for personal growth, ensuring that the rank and file firefighters feel valued, and offering an agreeable work-life balance can do much to make employees want to stay attached to your department.

Promotion based on seniority makes sense in a profession that values experience, but not all senior firefighters get necessary training to prepare them to properly manage a department. Attitudes toward innovation can become a wedge between senior leadership and young professionals, as well. In a service steeped in tradition, fire service leaders may be inclined to shun new ideas, frustrating those trying to better the service through the introduction and use of new technology.

Mentoring programs have been useful in reducing turnover, and can provide additional benefits for all involved.  Veteran firefighters involved in the mentoring of new recruits tend to stay with their firehouses longer because they have a personal investment in teaching and training a new generation of firefighters.  The secondary benefit is that younger firefighters get to share best practices in new firefighting technology with the older generation who may otherwise not be as understanding or accepting of these advances when presented from outside sources with whom they have no vested interest.  The mentoring program, by allowing for a free exchange of ideas between peers, thus adds a layer of cohesion, trust, and understanding to a team that fosters a culture that firefighters are often reluctant to leave.

On the best of days, firefighting is a difficult, dangerous, and demanding job. While budgets may remain inflexible, departmental supervisors and hiring practices can become flexible enough to lower the likelihood of employee attrition. Encouraging new ideas, setting clear expectations, and engaging in fair personnel policies can be significant in building and maintaining a happy, well-balanced fire department.

Posted on Aug 19, 2016