By Blaize Levitan, FD Hacks
Separation of service is a reality for every fire department. The departure of a firefighter provides an often missed opportunity for valuable data collection. Through conducting exit surveys with each departure, both career and volunteer fire departments gain a final opportunity to receive critical insight about how firefighters perceived their experience with the department. This enables fire department leadership to uncover any areas of concern, highlight strengths in the department, and identify and assess trends across our fire stations.
Gathering information about firefighters’ experience should be a key element of your fire department’s recruitment and retention program and was cited as a best practice by the University of Pittsburgh’s Guide to Best Practices in Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment and Retention. As noted in the report, “fire departments can issue exit surveys to determine why people are leaving the fire service.” Reasons for leaving a fire department can range from simple issues that can be easily addressed to complex structural issues within your department. For example, exit surveys in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania identified that volunteers were leaving departments largely due to internal bureaucratic red tape, such as a fourth month process to replace a lost firefighting glove. In response, departments in the county focused on streamlining internal processes and reducing red tape placed on firefighters to improve firefighter retention.
Exit surveys also provide important information on how firefighters perceive the climate within the department. Are specific hot button issues being inadequately addressed? Are internal department politics driving people away? Are there different trends in departure across race, gender, and/or age? Is a particular firehouse or fire company the source of a hostile work environment? Asking these questions is vital in order to create a successful retention program.
Creating A Firefighter Exit Survey
There is no single correct way to design an exit survey for your fire department. In order to determine the format that will work best for your department, critically assess the needs of your department and identify what you want an exit survey to accomplish. Research what other fire departments are doing and then pull what you like best from each. That’s what we did to put together some guidelines to help you get started in creating an exit survey for your fire department:
1). Ask Questions About Demographics.
While your survey may be anonymous, be sure to collect basic demographic information about respondents to identify if there are any trends across specific groups of firefighters. Specifically, it is important to determine the respondent’s age group, gender, race, and ethnicity. Demographic questions should be optional, but highly encouraged.
2). Understand Their Role in the Fire Department
How long has this departing firefighter served the department? What station did they serve at their time of departure? What role did they play in the department (firefighter, EMS, support)? What was their rank? It is important to have a picture of what role departing firefighters played in our departments to understand who is leaving.
3). Decision to Leave
Why is this firefighter leaving? How long have they been thinking about leaving? What factors influenced their decision to leave? Which of these factors do they believe are within the fire department’s control? If changes were made would they consider staying or re-joining? Did a firefighter have a specific personal experience that is driving them away?
4). Perception of the Fire Department
This is the real crux of what we’re looking for out of an exit survey. How did that firefighter perceive our fire department and their time with us? Is the fire department welcoming to newcomers? Ask questions about the department culture and morale, sense of family and welcoming, quality of leadership, training programs, opportunities for advancement, and on-scene operations. We also can get a sense of condition and care regarding apparatus, tools, and equipment. Structure these questions so that the respondent can answer based on a scale of 1 through 10. An example question might be: “How welcoming is Fire Department X to new firefighters, with 1 being Very Unwelcoming and 10 being Extremely Welcoming?” Another example question could be: “How likely are you to recommend joining Fire Department X to a friend or colleague?”
Don’t be afraid to use the exit interview to gain candid information on conditions within the organization. Not only can a fire department gain important feedback on its strengths and weaknesses, but exit interviews may also provide an opportunity for a departing employee to bring forward any allegations (i.e., discrimination or harassment) should they exist. We may not know if we don’t ask. Answers to the questions will only benefit the fire department in the long run. Remember, perception may not necessarily be reality in your department, but it is a reality to that individual and should be treated as such.
Examples of Fire Department Exit Surveys
Often, it’s best to go see what our peers are doing. Here are examples of fire department exit surveys.
If you have an example of an exit survey your department uses and you’re willing to share it, please email us.
Implementing Fire Department Exit Survey
There are multiple ways to implement an exit survey for your department. As we covered in Four Ways to Conduct a Firefighter Survey, the survey can be conducted via paper, digitally, in-person, or a combination of those methods. Determine what is best for your fire department by identifying what goals you seek to accomplish with the survey. For a firefighter exit survey, we would generally recommend conducting the survey through multiple methods, allowing firefighters more than one option to provide the feedback sought. If using a combination of survey methods , ensure that you use the SAME survey instrument and aggregate results in the same place. In-person exit surveys surely show the most commitment from your organization, but can also be the most difficult to implement. Once you have designed the survey, start implementing right away using whatever method is available at the time. Going forward, you can always make changes on how you implement over time to find what works best.
Final Thoughts On Firefighter Exit Surveys
Hopefully we’ve convinced you to explore implementing an exit survey for your fire department. Whether career or volunteer, our fire departments are professional organizations and can gain insightful data from exit surveys that will only enhance our recruitment and retention programs. Exit surveys are a best practice in firefighter recruitment and retention. The time of departure is an important time to hear from our firefighters. If you’re not already harnessing the power of exit surveys, don’t let the opportunity pass again!
What do you think? Does your department have an exit survey for departing firefighters? If so, please consider sharing it with us so we can post it as an example in this article.
Disclaimer: This is not legal advice. You must always consider department policies and procedures and what is best for your specific department.