As I put the finishing touches on this column, Halloween is approaching. Thanksgiving will be fast upon us, so I’m going to take a festive approach to this column as it will be a cornucopia of topics and random thoughts.
Out and about: On September 9th, I attended the 100 year anniversary of the Silver Creek (was corrected as locally it is pronounced Crik) Fire Department. It was a beautiful day and truly a community celebration. As I sat in my car writing down a few words to be said when the Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association plaque was to be presented, Assistant Chief Hartmann warmly approached and welcomed me. AC Hartmann offered lunch as families gathered and children played in a bounce house. We toured the newly renovated apparatus floor that was accomplished by their volunteer members. The updated apparatus floor included metal lockers built by a member rivaling anything that could be purchased. Additionally, a newer Pylmovent exhaust capture system and turnout gear received on a grant were proudly spotlighted. We went upstairs to their hall, on display were many historical items from their proud past. As we went back outside and headed to their newly completed outdoor pavilion with a chicken rotisserie pit (for a fundraiser), we found Chief Stange and talked further about the department. Before the anniversary ceremony, I had the chance to talk to Senator Stroebel from the area. While many know the benefits that volunteer and paid-on-call firefighters provide their community, I wanted to ensure he directly heard the message and that support is needed. We discussed how even a $500 or $1,000 training grant for organizations could go a long way since they are saving a community huge multiples of that small investment. I agreed to stop in his office at the Capitol and hopefully we could talk more. After the short presentation, I headed back to my car but not before viewing the commemorative stone that had been placed in front of the fire house again celebrating their 100 years.
This visit was very impactful as the Silver Creek passion, enthusiasm and pride was so evident. This was evident not only in the celebration that was occurring on this day but the many accomplishments they had succeeded at over time. The support they received from their families and the community was noticeable too. Congratulations to Silver Creek on 100 years of service to your community and thank you for creating a lasting impression on the hard work being done throughout our State, by so many of our members to protect our communities. Undoubtedly, there are many great fire organizations in this state. Are our organizations without problems at times? No. However, too often we let problems define our organizations and we need to reverse that and create solutions. Thank you, Chief Stange, and Silver Creek Fire for this memorable afternoon and highlighting the great work being done throughout the state.
Recruitment and retention: No matter what conference you go to, firefighter recruitment and retention is one of the hottest topics. While much attention has been given to the recruitment and retention of volunteer or paid-on-call firefighters, the career side is not immune. Differing generational preferences and a healthier economy are playing a role in all sides of this recruitment, retention issue. While not comforting, this phenomenon is not unique to just emergency services, but other organizations are struggling too (Lions Clubs, Rotary, etc.).
While recruitment and retention is certainly a challenge, we need to address it like an opportunity. We must consider deploying new tactics to this continuing problem. Additionally, as much as we like to replicate what others are doing, “hey, can you send me your policy on (fill in the blank),” this is not a one size fits all problem or solution. So, consider what your issues are and options to start addressing them. It is not easy and actually uncomfortable, but seek the truth on why members do not join or quit. This can be very difficult but is an absolute necessity as too often the truth to recruitment and retention problems are hidden below the surface.
The Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association understands the recruitment and retention problems. Therefore, planning is in the works to re-invent the Winter In-Service and even take a show on the road. As for now, the Winter In-Service’s will focus on recruitment and retention. Keep your eyes open as more information on this will be upcoming soon.
Mental Wellness and Cancer: While our members and our respective organizations strive to protect the public we serve, we must protect and ensure the wellness of our members so they can continue to be healthy and deliver Fire and EMS services.
Daily life is challenging enough, now add in all the demands of providing Fire and EMS services and the opportunity to become overwhelmed is a further reality. Many organizations have done well in providing services to members after a critical call but what about something less acute or simply becoming overwhelmed with all the demands? We must provide to our members assistance in all aspects; the critical incidents as well as the potentially compounding issues.
Cancer is also being increasingly talked about as it becomes the greatest killer of firefighters. While some members and organizations are tackling this issue, the “dirty” culture is difficult to break. At a recent conference a Chief mentioned that his members still wear dirty gear as a badge of their honor. We can no longer remain silent as cancer increasingly impacts our firefighters and their families. We need to start a brutally honest campaign that calls out members that are not protecting themselves, not admonishing the ones that are; wearing their mask, cleaning their gear, immediately taking a shower, etc.
The Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association constitution and by-laws states “a Special Task Force may be established to accomplish specific tasks as set forth by the President for the good of the Association.” Therefore, a Mental Wellness Task Force and a separate Cancer Prevention and Risk Reduction Task Force have been established. There are no easy answers, but doing nothing is negligent. So, we must start discussing and chipping away at these issues. If you are interested in becoming involved in either Task Force please contact me at email@example.com
We need you: Finally, while the Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association gathers only once formally per year for our annual meeting; much continues to be done throughout the year. From monthly Board meetings to appearances to legislation to phone calls; the WSFCA Board is working for you. The Board is a diverse group faced with difficult decisions but work extremely hard to improve the Fire and EMS services in our state. If you have anything, reach out to any Board member and get involved. Additionally, we are on the verge of a major change next year as we transition to Regional Board members. This is exciting as it should increase engagement to every area of the state. Also, with an increasing emphasis on succession planning, Company Officers were established as a formal level of membership. So, plenty of opportunities to get involved. If you want to learn more, contact any Board member. The WSFCA slogan is “together we make a difference” and we can, but need your help.
In closing, let us be reminded of the impact the late, Retired Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini had. While there are many great quotes from Chief Brunacini one of my favorites is, “firefighters hate two things: change and the way things are now.” Despite the challenges, we must continue to move the needle on improving our organizations are our industry. Thank you for the services you provide your community and your members. Stay safe.
Chief Jon Cohn
President, Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs' Association