Retain or Die

20101118_010158_870Well, this will be the last step in the 6R system. We have covered a lot of ground in the past posts so lets recap:

We started with Respect. It is my personal belief that we need to respect each other before all else. Only then can we show respect for our customers, our equipment, our local government leaders and our department leaders.

We moved onto Response. As I mentioned, if we didn’t have that , we wouldn’t have a job so it is critical to have an “all in” attitude and give an “all out” effort into making the response timely and efficient.

We then focused on reimbursement. To get paid back for the service you provide is not some sort of clandestine activity. It is important and should be a subject that is talked about openly and honestly with local government leaders, department leaders and line staff to make sure you are getting what is owed to you.

We talked about reinvestment. Making the reimbursed dollars count to better your department, that is the name of the game. It is the responsibility of every employee to see that the potential of that reinvestment is maximized and that the money is used effectively without waste.

Recruitment was discussed. I will admit that it may be one of the toughest things you will be tasked with but the process can be managed and a great deal of positive input can be gained from all members of your department. Using employees at all levels to formulate a recruitment plan is crucial in making that plan a success.

So lets dip our toes into the pond that is the art of employee retention. Retaining employees is tricky because every person is motivated in different ways and each person has a their own reasons why they stay or leave a job. You can’t please everyone but it is important to have your “ear to the ground” to have a good vibe for what is going right and wrong in your department.

I feel that retention is a multi headed beast. There are some common threads however that each person will site as their reason to stay or leave. Pay and benefits are common items. Working environment is also mentioned frequently. There are also factors like run volume, employee utilization and scheduling to contend with.

Pay and benefits vary widely depending on your location and department makeup. In my area, the part-time firefighter/EMT is a valuable commodity. A great deal of departments dip into the same resource pool and have to stay competitive with wages and/or benefits to attract employees. Full-time employment is similar with the step raise system being the main difference. Some cities “step out” faster than others due to their contract language being different. Also, the top steps in some departments are the bottom steps of others. The benefits for the full-time staff are different from city to city but they don’t vary as widely as wages. Both will keep people or drive them away if there are drastic changes made. I believe I mentioned before that one could make a decent living working several part-time “gigs” at different departments in my area. Therefore, the departments have to really work hard to make their department attractive to potential part-time employees.

The working environment plays a key role in the retention of employees. If your department gets a reputation for “hazing” or treating employees poorly, you will start to see a decline in interest from potential employees and the employees you do have will start to look elsewhere for employment. Also, that “rep” is hard to shake once it is out there so be aware of what your department looks like from the outside. The generations who are coming to the fire service now don’t understand the “tradition” of treating the rookie like crap or don’t tolerate hazing. They will quickly move on to greener pastures. I am not saying that instilling tradition is not important. All I am trying to say is that there are some “traditions” that can go by the way side. Not teaching someone how to do their job so they don’t die because they need to “learn what it means to be in the fire department” doesn’t help anyone and will put you and them at risk when the time comes to perform. Everyone learns a different way so it is up to us to find the way the “new” generation learns and use that to train them correctly. To that end, if an employee doesn’t feel like there is anything to learn from their peers, they will move on.

As we progress as a society, we learn certain things. Be it from being knocked over the head or by the impassioned work of leaders in the communities. What was accepted in the past may not be now. The biggest issue I see is gender. I often hear or have witnessed gender bias and discrimination throughout the fire service. Female employees that come into this male dominated field have taken their hits and find themselves being treated as if they are not equals. The fact that you would treat someone who has the same training as you differently because of their gender is amazing to me. The arguments are similar when the subject is brought up. “They can’t drag me out of a building” or “they can’t lift as much as me” are ones that come to mind. I think if you look around at all of your staff, you will find men who struggle just as much. I personally can’t lift as much as I used to due to a few injuries over the years and I sure as hell can’t drag a few of my crew members out of a building by myself as they out weigh me by 100 pounds. Making your department a gender biased atmosphere will most certainly drive people out. As one of my former Captains said “telephone, telegraph or tell a fireman are the quickest ways for information to get around”. If your department has driven people out because of the environment, the environment YOU let develop, word will get around to potential employees from the employees who have left or are considering leaving.

Run volume has the potential to become a factor in losing employees. It obviously can’t be controlled but it is still a factor. The lack of runs promotes boredom and disconnection. The time employees have between runs needs to be filled with training, outreach or other things to keep employees engaged in the department. This is not to say that employees need to be cleaning the bay floor with a toothbrush but they need to know that you expect them to take pride in their equipment and facilities and that your department is a positive force in the community. They also need to know that they are expected to stay fresh with their skills so training often will keep them focused on the job. Training also will build teamwork and give employees a sense of being part of something. All of those things will keep employees in your department. If the employee doesn’t value any of those things then you shouldn’t lose any sleep over losing them to another department.

Employee utilization is a factor if you are in a department that uses one employee to do multiple roles; such as running combo companies where the crew takes whatever run comes first or if you place people on the ambulance one day and the fire apparatus the next. It is important to give your employees variety if you can. Being “stuck” on the ambulance because the other staff don’t like to ride it is something that will drive employees away to departments where they are utilized more diversely and effectively.

Scheduling plays a role in retention as well, though you may not think so. Having a schedule that fits your area should be a consideration. These days, everyone works more than one job since we all can’t be in the NFL or NBA or professional bad mitten players or whatever. You need to make efforts to have a schedule that works, within reason. There are multiple schedule templates to use. Having a schedule that affords your employees time to find interest other than the fire service will keep them engaged and happy. If your schedule does not work or no longer works with your employees lifestyle, you will start to see people exit the department to work for a department that fits their needs. Now, I know that we can’t cater to each individual employee but try to use employee input when making scheduling decisions. The department I work for switched to a 48/96 schedule from a 24/48 schedule at the beginning of this year for the full-time staff. It was a hard sell in the beginning but it was a group decision and from all accounts, it looks like a success. The employees have more consecutive time off and seem to come back more rested and energized.

I understand that some employees are vested in the department because of seniority or rank so the “top end” turn over may be low but as a Chief, you need to keep a watchful eye on all levels of your department to keep employees engaged and in your department. If you don’t, you will come into work one day and realize that some of your best and brightest employees will be arriving on mutual aid apparatus because they could no longer stay employed with you. Their new Chief will thank you for your contribution I’m sure!

One thing I did not mention is that you need to do exit interviews with employees that do decide to leave. The 6R system is data driven so it is important to sit down with those folks who are moving on and try to get as much data as you can about what they like and don’t like about their experience with your department. You need to be man or woman enough to take negative things they may say as useful information. You are not perfect and neither is your organization. The only way to get better is to take criticism and use it to better your department.

So that’s the 6R system in a nutshell. Like I mentioned, it is a concept. It helped me as a Chief by having some key points to focus on. It also served as a platform for decision making as we could use each point to determine if what we were about to do affected the department in a negative way. I often went through the list by saying “how will this affect reinvestment or reimbursement or does what I am about to do maintain the level of respect that I established for my department”. It helped me so I hope it will help you.

So now the burning question is what can I write about from here? As I said before, I am no longer a “Combo Chief” but I feel that I can still have input on running a combo department since I still work in one. I hope to bring issues or subjects forth in coming posts that will open a dialogue inside departments or help someone work through an issue they may have so we will see where we go from here.

I started working on a presentation version of the 6R system that I may have ready to present in the near future. If you would like information about having this presented at your department, you can contact me at Like I said, the presentation isn’t quite finished so I will let you know when I put the finishing touches on it.

Be safe out there and watch your 6. Keep our brothers and sisters in blue safe as well. We are a team out there!

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