What is a Length of Service Award Program and how can I use it effectively in my fire department?
The state of volunteerism in the fire and EMS agencies
Volunteer firefighter numbers have been steadily decreasing since the 1980s – which is a major concern as 70% of firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers. The decline of volunteer first responders should be a major public safety concern for all citizens – but it also brings serious challenges at the station-level. Lower membership numbers bring legitimate physical and emotional safety concerns to the remaining members, which may be given more responsibilities. It also places a financial burden on fire departments when firefighters don’t stay in the service, as the cost to train and equip a firefighter can exceed $20,000.
How to recruit and retain volunteer members
There are three top-level initiatives that departments should consider to help build and maintain membership levels:
1. Work on effective leadership
Effective leaders set the direction for the department, which often determines whether people stay or leave. While what makes a great leader is subjective, consider an individual’s experience, communication skills, passion for the industry, openness to change, ability to handle challenges and conflict, confidence, organizational skills, fairness and general attitude.
2. Spread the word
Outside of the emergency service community, there is a large discrepancy in the perceived amount of volunteer firefighters and emergency responders in the United States. A survey by the National Volunteer Fire Council found that only 11% of respondents believed that their local department was staffed by volunteers.
It’s important to not only spread the word about your department, but about volunteerism within fire and emergency services. Market your department at local events, stay active on social media and have a website presence.
3. Provide benefits
The number one reason most people leave their jobs is that they don’t feel appreciated. When you’re volunteering your time, recognition becomes even more important. From a simple “thank you” to a formal Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP) – benefits can play a significant role.
What is a Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP)
A Length of Service Award Program, also called “LOSAP” or “LOSA”, is a plan that offers financial rewards for volunteers based on their longevity of service. These benefits are provided when a volunteer reaches “retirement age,” they become disabled or pass away.
There are two common types of LOSAPs: Defined Benefits or Defined Contribution. Defined Benefits provides volunteers with a monthly monetary reward at the entitlement age based on years of service. Defined Contribution provides volunteers with a lump sum monetary reward at the entitlement age based on years of service.
Recruiting and retaining members with LOSAP
LOSAPs are specifically designed to help emergency service organizations recruit and retain volunteers by providing benefits for years of service – ultimately hoping to save department’s time, resources and money.
Leaders in the fire service know best that once someone is in the brotherhood – they’re in it. A LOSAP can be used to help recruit young, new talent by bringing tangible benefits along with emotional benefits of volunteerism. Consider a LOSAP to be the “icing on the cake” that takes someone from being interested to committed.
It takes time for volunteers to get to the point where they, and their families, can’t imagine their lives without the fire service. Unfortunately, after new volunteers get older and busier with children and careers – it can become overwhelming and difficult to stay devoted to a volunteer position. In these times, a LOSAP can serve as a useful retention tool to help volunteers justify time spent serving their communities, as a LOSAP can kick-in after only 10 years of service (in most states). And at that point, they’re probably in it for the long-haul. People in the fire service know best; if you’ve made it 10 years – fighting fires basically becomes part of your DNA.
How to get a LOSAP in your fire department
As the first specialized insurance program for firefighters in the United States, the VFIS Length of Service Awards Program is designed specifically to meet the needs of your emergency service organizations. We can work with your local insurance agent or VFIS representative to explore your options and help you implement a program.
Best practices for your LOSAP and how to develop a culture of recognition
Just like any tool, simply having a LOSAP doesn’t make it effective. A LOSAP should be used to help develop a culture of recognition within your department. Once you have a LOSAP, here are a few best practices to consider:
1. Recognize years of service
How many years have you volunteered as a firefighter? We’re not looking for “ugh, around eight… I think” or “more than 15, less than 20” – your answer should be specific. There should never be a point where a volunteer isn’t aware of their years of service.
Do something special to recognize every member’s volunteer “anniversary” each year, post years of service in your station and create memorable experiences for milestone years.
2. Develop a competitive points system
Whether it’s eating the most wings or running the fastest mile – people will do a lot of things to have their name on the wall. Develop a points system, including things like length of service, number of calls and experiences that are unique to your department, and make it a competition. Post the ongoing results on your station’s wall and make it a part of your culture.
3. Make a committee
Develop a committee that is responsible for your LOSAP so that your department can make the most of it. A LOSAP committee can be responsible for:
- Maintaining accurate and detailed records on your members’ years of service so they will receive the proper benefits.
- Recognizing years of service within the department and promoting your LOSAP to potential new members in-person, at events and online.
- Advocating the importance of funding your LOSAP to local representatives (if necessary), as volunteers provide significant savings for municipalities who would otherwise have to pay the salaries and benefits of full-time firefighters.
4. Have a mentor program
Fostering relationships until someone truly feels like they are a part of the brotherhood is important for recruiting and retaining members. A mentor program can help set up your members for a long future in the fire service by helping them see the bigger picture and realize the true value of their volunteerism.
After all, if their mentor was in the service for 35 years and it made their life happier and fuller, it could mean the same for them.
5. Make milestones and retirement a big deal
Whether it’s presenting a LOSAP check, throwing a party or adding their name to a plaque on the wall – it’s important to celebrate the people who have given a large part of their lives to your department to help foster a culture of appreciation.
We recognize that recruiting and retaining volunteer members isn’t easy and that each department faces their own, unique challenges. Talk to your crew about the types of benefits they believe would be rewarding and ask your local VFIS representative about what a LOSAP program may look like for your crew. Does your crew already have a LOSAP? If so, comment and let us know how you talk about the program with your members.
The Glatfelter Team
When this team of rockstars isn't immersed in the process of researching how to reduce the risks your organization faces, we share stories of our pets, kids and favorite pizza toppings—on the daily.
Fires, medical emergencies, natural disasters, accidents, terrorist acts — the community calls you to scenes filled with trauma. And it comes with a cost.