Author: Tim Nowak
Headlines across the country in fire departments and EMS agencies big and small are shouting challenges with staffing levels.
Big agencies are having issues finding specialized employees like dual-credentialed firefighter/paramedics, medium-sized departments are “losing” their employees to the bigger agencies, and small organizations simply can’t recruit individuals to work in their more rural environments. While some of these challenges are exacerbated in certain environments, they are vastly different and unique in others. Thus, the root challenge here is that there is no “one” problem to address.
Some would argue that the most challenging part of all of this is that what works in one agency may not be applicable to another agency down the road, across the state, or across the country. When considering these vast differences, there do seem to be some common trends found within different sized agencies. Our goal is to find opportunities to address the concerns for agencies of all sizes.
While there is no formal or consistent definition behind what constitutes a “big” agency or department, for the purpose of this context, we will define it as an agency that covers a population of more than 100,000 residents.
Big agencies typically do not have issues finding anyone to fill their rosters. They typically have issues finding specialized individuals to fill all of the typical needs of their operational structure. Finding dual-credentialed firefighters/paramedics has become the challenge for many fire departments, while finding experienced paramedics has increased in difficulty for EMS-only agencies.
The opportunity presented here is for each of these respective agencies to ask the question of “who” is actually needed. Do you need to staff your entire fire engine with firefighters/paramedics or can you more sufficiently get by with one (or even none)? In EMS-only agencies, does your entire fleet need to consist of ALS units or can you integrate a two-to-one ratio where there is one BLS unit for every two ALS units?
Moves like these can help to alleviate big agency staffing challenges. Conducting a staffing analysis is often the starting point toward determining what the actual need is and who must fill that need.
Stuck in the middle are agencies that cover a population of 20,000 to 100,000 residents and often have the ability to staff two or more stations. These agencies might have one full battalion, but they oftentimes lack the administrative structure that larger agencies can afford. This is where their opportunity lies.
Medium agencies have an opportunity to promote more creativity on the retention side of the equation by focusing on upward movement. While it may not be possible to simply add more FTEs to the budget to account for multiple full-time training officers, quality officers, fire inspectors, or other specialty positions, there is an opportunity to allow field staff to take on some of these responsibilities, with the appropriate pay increase and title increase to reflect this addition.
Some field paramedics may enjoy having a role solely as a paramedic, while others may want an opportunity to step out of the ambulance occasionally and do something different. Offering a promotion to a lieutenant position may allow an individual to work on a traditionally slower unit so that they can also tackle continuing education planning, chart reviews, or community risk reduction initiatives. Integrating a “Shift Inspector” position into a fire department may allow one crew member the opportunity to perform fire inspections during the day, while also responding to fire calls and taking an active role on a ladder company or as a fourth crew member to any other apparatus.
The key with medium-sized agencies is professional growth. If your agency can’t offer it, ambitious employees will leave for the larger departments who can.
One of the common challenges that smaller agencies face is that they typically recruit one of two different types of employees: those that are “local” and those that are using this job as a “stepping-stone.”
The advantage of recruiting more local individuals—those that grew up in the community and have every intent to stay for their entire career—is that there is often a sense of community pride and investment that exists within their employment ambition. The flip side of the equation is the stepping-stone employees—the ones that will only stay for a year or two before they shift to a medium or large agency.
The opportunity for smaller agencies is divided in two. First, you should capitalize on the investment that is found in the local employee by keeping them involved and visible within the community. Examples of capitalizing could be posting their pictures on your social media page, allowing them to tackle small projects and take ownership of the results, and putting them forward-facing so that they remain visible as a local representative of your agency.
Second, you must recognize that stepping-stone employees are still vital. The important part of being a small agency is realizing and accepting that fact. While you may not be able to retain these employees long term, you can help them succeed within the industry for years (even decades) to come. Educate them, train them, empower them, and then let them run free. They will be the individuals that sing your praises and strengthen your reputation within the industry. They will continue to provide you with new stepping-stone employees, ultimately helping you replenish the pool.
If staffing is an issue for your fire department or EMS agency and you’re looking for guidance or long-term solutions to help address your needs, schedule a free consultation with one of our experts using the below button!