Between burnout, on-the-job trauma, and staffing shortages, employee retention is a nightmare for first responder leadership. You want to hire personnel who qualify and retain those with experience, but everyone seems to be dropping like flies. Staffing gets harder, stress rises, and it’s a constant cycle of fruitlessly trying to hire staff who will do the job well and stay on.
How can you retain the people you have and make a few more good catches that will stay on?
It’s not impossible, but it may take a slight change in strategy.
Reasons They Go
The main reasons staff quit are low pay or stressful work environments. That’s everywhere, but for first responders – where stress is the name of the game – it’s increased.
When someone quits or is fired, other responders have to step in. That costs more for leadership with overtime pay and increases stress on the responders filling in. It’s a lose-lose situation (except in the case of those who thrive on OT – we see you.)
Overall, the turnover rate for first responders has increased in recent years making employee retention seem near impossible. Responders are finding new careers, better pay, or simply burning out and choosing not to stay.
Reasons They Stay
So, why would a first responder stay in their line of work?
The reason they sign up is a need to help others. If a responder feels validated in that capacity, retention is more likely. If one feels heard and seen, retention is more likely. If pay and hours feel fair, or at least that management is doing its best, retention is more likely.
See the theme?
You can’t keep them all, but some things can help with your employee retention.
10 Strategies That Work
These ten strategies have proven effective in many departments and, while it’s not the same for everyone everywhere, you may find them helpful. They’re from a common list of strategies for many workforces, but hand-picked for our first responder leaders to consider.
Let’s start at the… well, start. No one wants just anyone with a pulse and a certificate tasked with being a first responder. It takes qualifications and experience, but pickings are slim. During onboarding, make sure new staff are aware of required training and any probationary protocols. Be sure to make timeframes clear and get current staff to support these efforts. After all, the “new guy” is here to help lighten the load for the current responders. Having everyone on the same page and the same mission is key. When you build strong responders from date-of-hire, you retain them longer.
First responders never know what’s next on the street, so training is vital. Going through drills they already know is still important, but mixing it up with things they hardly get to try is important too. It may even bring them back to the old days when they were excited to do the job. Plus, when it’s not a real emergency, they can focus on fine-tuning the technical aspects of the task.
Yes, everyone has to do training and con-ed, but this isn’t about just doing it. This is about revisiting how you do it and finding ways to make it more enticing or challenging. You know your people. What would make them more excited about the training and rekindle their love of the job?
Seems hokey, but people want to be heard. Surveys don’t have to be routine but they’re so helpful, especially when anonymous. Starting something new, maybe a new facility? Survey what they want. Thinking about getting new apparatus? Good time for a survey. Getting ready to hire more responders? Throw a survey out to the OGs and see what they think.
You may think you know what they think, but a good survey helps them explain it more (without the wisecracks). You never know if you don’t ask. One major flaw in employee retention is not allowing staff to be heard, so this one can be key.
Pay Attention to Your People
Know your folks and you’ll see when a shift occurs and catch it early. On-the-job trauma can not only ruin a career but take lives. Pay attention to your people and their mental well-being closely. Be there for them and make sure they know that. Be a sounding board and just listen sometimes. Or be a counselor if needed. If you don’t think you can fill those shoes, at least be observant and have someone else who can.
With the suicide rate for first responders at an all-time high, we need to pay more attention to our responders to see the warning signs sooner.
This is becoming bigger and there’s a reason it works! Mentors do know their people and they’ll be the first to see a shift in character or attitude. Plus, mentors are there to guide newer responders through troubled waters they’ve already been through.
Actually, it helps employee retention in two ways. Mentors feel the fulfillment of helping others with their experience and the responder being mentored feels heard, understood, and has hope.
If you don’t have a mentorship program, this is one takeaway you need now.
Perks and Appreciation
No, not pizza parties. You need perks and incentives that promote a good work ethic and encourage good overall health. An on-site gym where responders can come in on or off shift to work off stress is great. You could offer perks to those who complete specific training within an allotted time. And, yes, food works too, but don’t let it be the only incentive. Your responders love to eat but think outside the pizza box on this one.
Have policies in place for personal emergencies so you have a backup for your backup. No one wants to force overtime and no one wants to encourage no-shows. Find a policy that works for your department so responders don’t feel trapped between having a job and taking care of loved ones. Family members need your responders too. A good swap policy might work, or an on-call procedure for those looking for OT.
Build Your Leadership
Programs that allow staff to grow inside a department incentivize sticking around. When responders feel there’s nowhere else to go, they’re more likely to look elsewhere. Train-the-trainer programs and supervisor training classes are great starts to show your responders that you encourage their career growth. Find paths and places for them to grow into and you’ll see who’s vested in their career and watch your employee retention grow.
Make expectations clear for both leadership and staff. Current policies and any changes need to be spelled out and documented. Questions need to be easy to ask and answered clearly. Be approachable in this regard. Offer support around change and post and communicate often so there’s no confusion as to what information is available to your responders.
Ask your people from high to low if the information is clear. This opens the air for questions and concerns and allows for more communication. With open dialogue, there’s less room for doubt.
Support Your People
Having first responder support programs in place and making them accessible can make or break a department’s employee retention. Read that again.
First, you need to have programs to support your responders. Both mental and physical health is vital. Fitness programs or gym discounts are simply enough to offer, but mental health programs take more convincing. That’s why making programs accessible is crucial to getting responders to sign up.
At FRC, we offer Department packages so you cover the cost of a coaching package, and they simply sign up anonymously. It’s the easiest way to ensure that your responders have access to mental health support securely and confidentially.
Stick to Your People and Your People Stick to You
Grow your responder family through loyalty to them and they will want to stick around. Employee retention is hard these days and it’s not getting any easier. To keep your first responders in the door, you need to keep them mission-ready and mission-willing. Don’t just be a leader who delegates; be a leader who leads, cares, supports, and grows responders into the people they signed up to be.