An assessment of retention incentives for volunteer firefighters in Virginia

Steven M. De Lisi, MPSL, CFO, Gary S. Green, PhD, Peter M. Carlson, DPA, Harry Greenlee, BA, MA, JD


Volunteer firefighters provide fire protection for the majority of communities in the United States and often receive little compensation in return. In addition to the inherent hazards of firefighting, volunteers are challenged by increasing call volumes, training requirements, and demands from family and careers. As a result, fire department leaders often attempt to retain members through incentives.
The opinions of 108 volunteer firefighters in Virginia about which incentives will enhance recruitment and retention efforts were investigated according to personal factors such as sex, age, and rank. The analysis looked at 12 incentives and five personal characteristics and revealed only six of the 60 possible two-variable relationships as being statistically significant. In particular, younger volunteers were more likely to name training competitions, tuition reimbursement, and the opportunity to fundraise as being important factors in their volunteerism. The most significant finding of the research, however, is that a decentralized management style—manifested in the delegation of authority and participation in decision making—is important to the vast majority of volunteers, regardless of their personal attributes. Although such emphasis on decentralization will likely require a cultural shift in many volunteer fire departments, it is cost-effective and, most importantly, will en - courage the recruitment of volunteers and enhance their retention.


volunteer firefighters, incentives, recruitment, retention

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National Fire Protection Association (NFPA): US Fire Department Profile through 2002. January 2005, p. 15.


Ibid., p. 1.

Virginia Department of Fire Programs: Virginia Fire Service Needs Assessment. January 2004, p. 3-20. Available at

Ibid., p. 3-21.


NFPA: Fire Department Calls—2003 p. 2.

NFPA: US Fire Department Profile through 2003. January 2005, p. 4.

Ibid., p. 1.

Virginia Department of Fire Programs: Virginia Fire Service Needs Assessment. January 2004, p. 3-20.

National Fire Academy: Report on The National Volunteer Fire Summit. June 6, 1998, p. 13. Available at report.htm.

Ibid., p. 2.

Recruitment and Retention in the Fire Service—The Final Report. TriData Corporation, Arlington, VA, 1998., p. 15.

Fisher JC, Cole KM: Leadership and Management of Volunteer Programs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993, p. 67.

Jarene FL: What We Learned the Hard Way about Supervising Volunteers. Philadelphia: Energize, Inc., 1999, p. 6.

Fisher and Cole, op. cit., p. 61.


Ibid., pp. 65-66.

Babbie E, Halley F, Zaino J: Adventures in Social Research. Thousands Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2000. According to the text, “Gamma is a measure of association based on the logic of proportionate reduction of error (PRE) and is appropriate for two ordinal variables.” The authors state that the logic of PRE “means that two variables are related to one another to the extent that knowing a person’s attribute on one will help you guess his or her attribute on the other, or in other words, the extent to which one variable is ‘associated’ with, affects, or has an impact on another variable.” Regarding Pearson’s r, the authors state that this is a measure of association that “allows for the fact that the relationship between variables may not be completely consistent, but nevertheless it allows discovery of any prevailing tendency in that regard,” and as is the case with this study, “when you calculate correlations among several pairs of variables the resulting r’s will tell which pairs are more highly associated with one another than is true of other pairs.” Both gamma and Pearson’s r indicate the strength of association with a numerical value, where “the closer to -1.00 or 1.00, the stronger the relationship between the two variables, [and] the closer to 0.00, the weaker the association between the variables.” Gamma and Pearson’s r both also indicate the direction of association, where “a negative sign indicates a negative association (the items change in opposite directions) [and] conversely, a positive sign indicates that both items change in the same direction (they both either increase or decrease).”

Findings associated with the dependent variable of years in current rank, and the independent variables of Health Club Memberships, Training Competitions, and Tuition Reimbursement indicate a negative association, meaning that as years in current rank increase, the influence of these incentives appear to decrease. While the findings of this study are generally inconclusive as to the influence of age or years of service related to these three incentives, findings do indicate a positive association between the independent variables for rank, age and years of service. With this positive association, it may be possible to conclude that rank, age and years of service are directly related to years in current rank, and if so, the negative association between years in current rank and the abovementioned incentives may also mean that as rank, age, and years of service decrease, the influence of these incentives increases.

The Final Report, op. cit., p. 99.

Lee JF: What We Learned the Hard Way about Supervising Volunteers. Philadelphia: Energize, Inc, 1999, p. 67.



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