Survey Says? Managing Recruitment & Retention Feedback in Volunteer Fire/EMS Departments

Conducting surveys and asking for member input in your fire/rescue/EMS organization is the sign of a healthy organization focused on volunteer recruitment and retention. However, mismanaging the process can irrevocably harm trust, loyalty and rapport in an organization that so heavily relies on teamwork to serve its community.

It’s never a bad idea to ask your volunteers what they think, what they need, and what they want from your organization – but it’s smart to be smart about it!

While working with my first-ever recruitment client several decades ago, they asked me to compile and conduct a survey of their membership – and their members’ families! I created the survey and printed copies, and the department manually distributed them to their members. Now mind you, this was pre-internet, pre-SurveyMonkey, etc., so I acted as the independent third party and the respondents mailed their completed surveys to me for scrubbing names and identifiable comments or details, as well as analyzing, aggregating, summarizing and reporting back the resulting data.

If you know anything about surveys, a good response rate varies from 5-30%. A very good response rate would be 50% or higher of the total audience being surveyed.

This volunteer fire department received feedback from 70% of its members, and 75% of the members’ families. Not only was the quantity of responses staggering, but so was the quality of the feedback.

As you can imagine, some of the member feedback addressed needed changes in leadership styles, member services, and general attitudes towards volunteers. Despite that, members were very forthcoming in providing their input to improve the organization and much of it was positive feedback.

The most glaring results came from the families of the department’s volunteer firefighters. Here are the top three takeaways:

  1. “Asking us our opinion in this survey is one of the greatest things the department has ever and could ever do for the families. Thank you for respecting us enough to ask and valuing our opinions.”
  2. “The department already offers so many great recognition, appreciation and fun family events but it would be helpful if at least some of the time those events could be held somewhere other than the firehouse where the conversation never changes and the risk of losing their family member to the fire alarm is at its highest point.” That’s good intel for those planning recognition and incentive programs.
  3. But the third key point was heard the loudest: “God help you if you ask our opinion… and then ignore the information, insight and ideas we offer for positive change!”

That story and valuable lesson has stuck with me ever since, as I’ve often had the opportunity to consult others on creating, distributing, collecting and analyzing membership feedback from their volunteer organizations.

Here are some tips for consideration if you’re planning to survey your volunteers about morale, culture, operations or any other potentially sensitive subject:

  1. Start by getting a commitment from leadership that there will be transparency in the process and that they will take appropriate corrective actions based on the feedback gained from the survey. (Notice I said “appropriate” – not every change can be implemented.) Without that, the survey is doomed from the start and could do more harm than good. No buy-in = Do not pass GO, do not collect $200!
  2. Develop a plan as to how you will formulate, distribute and collect the surveys. Determine what platform you’ll use, the means (online and/or paper too?) and timeframe for submitting feedback, and communicate an achievable timeline for aggregating, analyzing and reporting the results. Identify who will manage the data and report out the findings. Will they be a member of the department or an outside party?
  3. Formulate your questions carefully and determine which questions are best asked as objective inquiries using a rating system from 1-5, 1-10, “totally dissatisfied” to “totally satisfied,” etc., or which questions should be subjective and open-ended, eliciting more than a “yes” or “no,” or a weighted response. Ask a friend from a neighboring or far away fire department or any other industry to review your questions for spelling and grammar, and whether they will evoke the desired type of response. Make sure the questions are worded properly, avoid double-negatives and ensure your rating/weighting scale is easy to understand and difficult to get backwards.
  4. Communicate the results throughout the organization, prioritize the opportunities for improvement and create a plan and timeline for implementation.

Conducting volunteer retention surveys can be very beneficial to an organization that is truly interested in empowering its members to provide feedback and is dedicated to filtering the results in a way that keeps the membership engaged in continual improvement processes.

Taking a, “That’s not the answer I was looking for,” attitude or any covert attempts to otherwise stymie, ignore, discount or deflect feedback is a slippery slope. Continually “asking” for feedback and the members never seeing any progress or action will eventually result in an awkward silence that’s tough to break. You’ll lose trust and respect with those you serve and serve with. When the troops no longer come to you with their issues and ideas, it’s likely that your days of leading have already ended.

While not every decision can be made by committee nor every idea implemented, for the good of all, ask the hard questions, be prepared for the answers, take appropriate action, and adjust as appropriate. That’s the sign of a team-oriented organization on the right path – whether you’re looking to build one from scratch or scratching to rebuild one that has gone silent.

BY TIGER SCHMITTENDORF, VP of Recruitment & Retention Services

Looking for ideas on how to improve your volunteer Fire/EMS recruitment and retention or to conduct a member retention or family satisfaction survey and what to ask? Email us at [email protected] and we’ll send you a sample questionnaire you can tailor to your organization.