The Decline of the Emergency Response Team

by John Burge, TEEX ESTI Private Sector Program Director

With the decline in membership we are witnessing in the volunteer fire service across the nation, it seems to also be extending into our industrial fire teams as well. This trend is starting to show itself here at the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) Fire and Emergency Services Training Institute.

Forcing new employees to choose whether they want to be on the fire brigade or rescue team while on-boarding is not a good, nor proven method of selecting team members. In fact, the plant I worked in resorted to this practice just to maintain the minimum staffing levels set for each of our on-shift teams.

In our annual student counts, just in the last five years, we have seen a decline in the total number of students across the Industrial Fire, Hazmat and Marine disciplines. The start of this decline coincided with the oil market crash of 2015, which also severely damaged the off-shore oil market (which we have not recovered from yet.) The initial hit was in our off-shore Marine program, but we have been observing a slow and steady downward trend in some sectors of our business units. This trend seems to be more in line with ERT membership counts shrinking. I talk to volunteer and industrial fire chiefs from across the nation on a regular basis and most are experiencing a problem with finding and recruiting new members to be a part of their Emergency Response Teams. Most of their team numbers are shrinking due to normal attrition, but instead of having a waiting list of potential new members, they are now recruiting, begging, bribing and even forcing new employees to fill vacancies on the ERTs.

One evening, while on graveyards, we had a very impressive flare stack fire. I was rushing around turning on and positioning fixed monitors, calling different units on the radio telling them where to respond, spotting our pumper, and filling the IC role until more help arrived. I saw three of our new young fire brigade members running down the street to me. I was out of breath and remember thinking that the sight of them coming down the road was like seeing an old slow-motion Baywatch commercial “help was on the way!” But, they never slowed down and ran right past me. I didn’t even have the breath to shout for them to stop. The last I saw of those three, they were headed to the parking lot! Later, after looking back in the records I discovered all three were forced onto the fire brigade.

You have to realize that not everyone is built or put together to do the things that volunteers or “old-timers” have been doing for decades. Even as a new ERT member in the early 90’s, I couldn’t get enough of it. I never missed any training, I joined every emergency team I could get on and responded to every plant alarm; even from home when I knew about them. I worked my rear end off with the team, filling a four-inch binder to the brim with certificates from schools and training facilities all over the US, and finally landed my dream job of working for the best of them. It didn’t even matter that I took a large pay-cut to become an instructor at the top emergency responder training facility in the world. I did it, and am now living the dream every day.

The question is how do we entice or re-energize today’s generation into being a part of something that we have always considered to be so special? And I’m not picking on any certain age range, when I say today’s generation I’m speaking of anyone from 18 to 45. At 45, I still felt like I could take on a grizzly bear (maybe a small one) and win. But now in my mid-50’s I have realized I can’t do things like I use to.

I’m a Baby Boomer, and I don’t want to debate what’s right or wrong with the Gen X, Millennial’s, or the brand-new Gen Z, born between 1996 and 2014. So let’s focus on Gen Z here since those are the ones now hiring into the workforce, and this is where you could make the biggest impact. If you can figure out how to persuade them on the idea, and then retain them on the teams, you could get a lot of years for your efforts. Here are some characteristics of the Gen Z’s. Let’s take a look keeping our two problems, recruiting and retention, in mind and see if there is something we can focus on to appeal to this generation from our specialized world.


  1. Technologically advanced – probably born with a smartphone in their hand.
  2. Born into the Internet age – texting, messaging from a very young start and probably prefer that form of communication to in-person or face-to-face communication
  3. “Hey Google” – spend several hours a day on social media or searching the internet.
  4. Visual Learners – according to info-graphics by Upfront Analytics, they perceive information visually; storytelling, explained videos, and other forms of visualization capture their attention.
  5. Independent, self-confident and autonomous – they don’t rely on their parents as much as previous generations did. Internet and technologies allow them to start earning money at a much earlier age than their parents.
  6. Entrepreneurs – Millennial Branding reports 72% of modern high school students are already thinking of starting their own business and 76% hope that their future jobs will be derived from their hobbies.
  7. Environmentally aware – they value the eco-friendly, healthy lifestyle; could possibly be the first generation with a positive impact on the environment
  8. Excellent multitaskers – they have the ability to absorb tons of information in a short period of time and built to handle several tasks at once.

To solve our first problem of recruiting, they actually have a lot of desirable characteristics. We have tech savvy, not afraid of computers, will answer their phones even with text, messaging and emails, very visual, independent, self-confident, autonomous, have goals, dreams, environmentally aware and can truly multitask! Heck, I’ll take several and replace some of the problem workers we had. I always felt if I had excellent operators in the control room, it was an easier transition for them into one of the ERT members. They were already hard working, focused, busy, and looking to impress. It didn’t always work out that way, but we had a pretty good track record at the time.

But how do you get their attention and pique their interest in becoming part of an Emergency Response Team? Gen Z is probably not a group that would respond well to being forced into a an activity they aren’t interested in. That brings up the topic of incentives. It does seem that money is a primary driving force for them. I have had discussions with several other Chiefs on what they do for their team members, and the range is very wide. There are good and bad points with every option I’ve heard, but the overall consensus is having an incentive program of some type is better than not having one at all. Several had a per hour monitory increase, everything from $0.25 up to $1.50 per hour. Some use a percentage or factor of how many teams you are on and others use longevity as a weighting factor.

These factors could add up to a nice little figure, but the complaints I’ve heard about regarding the hourly increase are that they couldn’t put their hands on it because it came every pay check a little at a time with taxes taken out, direct deposited straight into the home checkbook (not visual). A few others pay a one-time bonus at the end of each year – if you made all four quarterly training sessions and your off-site training. I heard of amounts ranging from $1500 to $2500 less taxes. This seems to go over better because it’s something they can see and put their hands on(visual), and they can go and buy themselves something like a new smartphone or the latest high-tech gadget on the market (it was a new rifle and scope or hunting and fishing equipment back in my day). I still think my favorite incentive program actually came from my old plant and was a little more complicated but these new advanced tech savvy, multi-tasking Gen Z youth would enjoy just figuring it out. This may not be correct anymore but is very close to what we used at the time:


  • The program year will run from January 1 to December 31.
  • Awards will be distributed during March of the following year.


  • All Emergency Response Team personnel employed on December 31 will be eligible for the program.


  • Reduced attrition, 100% attendance at scheduled “on site” training sessions and 100% attendance at scheduled “offsite” training sessions during program year.


  • Each team member (who attends, 100% of on-site & off-site training programs, during the program year) will receive the “ERT Bonus.”
  • The bonus is calculated, based on the number of years he/she has been a member of the emergency team.
  • Service time will be “grand fathered” for current team members.


  • Years Served: 1-5 6 and above
  • Bonus Earned: $450, plus an additional $52.50 per year of service above five years.


  • There is no maximum number of credits that can be earned.
  • Service on multiple teams will be awarded by multiplying your “years of service” by 0.1 for each extra team that you participate in.  (For instance, an ERT member serving on 3 teams will have his years of service will be multiplied by 1.2.)
  • The Bonus will be issued to the ERT Team member in the form of an adder on his/her pay check with taxes withheld.

With this program, even the first year brand new guy got at least $450 in a check and the guys that put in the time on multiple teams (multitaskers) reaped even bigger benefits. By the time I left the plant, being on 6 teams with the longest being on the fire brigade from early 90’s, I had 24 credits above the first five years. We got the check in March and it was better than spiked eggnog on Christmas! Of course, a program like this can be tweaked in several ways to make it fit the company, maintain a budget and still achieve the desired results.

If the Incentives don’t hook them, let’s look in some other areas we can possibly catch their interest and coax them onto our teams. They are known to be very tech savvy with texting, messaging and the internet, so let’s get a few of them interested in communications and possibly making improvements in an area that we could all use. Offer them some top-notch radio and communications training. Once trained up, use them in some areas that can benefit the teams.

If you don’t have a brand-new pumper on site, get ready. These apparatus are becoming more technical every day and the new electronic controls being offered are really impressive. That should also catch their eye so offer some extensive new pumper training. We all need some young excellently trained pumper operators that we can rely on to take care of our high-dollar apparatus.

You may also try to reach their environmental awareness side. The sooner we get any emergency under control, the sooner we can stop the environmental damage and start the mediation. We need good young trained up ERT members to help make sure we stop, contain, extinguish and control whatever the emergency is. It’s a ton of responsibility that takes a lot of training, learning new skill sets and consistent practice.

Of course, all of the communication, pumper and environmental training begins with first mastering the basics disciplines to include fire, rescue, hazmat and other ERT training and skill sets before you start specializing. We have to first give them the “tools” or training to be competent and not a danger to themselves or the team.

The second problem is retention. We’ve baited the hook, started them thinking and got them on the teams. Once on the teams, most of them will begin to embrace the skills that they develop adding to their self-confidence and swagger. The comradery and relationships that they will build will last a lifetime. Making sure they fit in, belong, and want to remain on the team is critical. It takes extra work on our part, but we should make sure we engage them and the rest of the team during training sessions. Reward them when they do well, recognize them for special achievements. Make sure your team leaders treat them with respect and teach them without shouting or getting upset. Cookouts, BBQ’s and get-togethers after training sessions add to the comradery. Involve the families or spouses in the extracurricular events if possible. Retention is all about making them feel like part of the team and want to continue to grow their knowledge. Give them duties to attend to and make them feel like a part of the club. I’m old school, but I used to love all the patches on my shirts and coveralls, we even got nice winter ERT jackets every other year with all of your team names displayed on the chest and sleeve with our big ERT patch on the back. That may also be an eye catcher for them. Being multitaskers, they probably won’t stop at being on only one team, which is another plus for the employer.

We really need to get creative, think outside the box, and develop whatever it takes to interest new ERT members and increase their willing participation. Once you get the first new young ERT member, they will be a magnet for others to follow. We are not at an alarm point yet, but if we don’t start slowing the downward trend and begin working on a solution we could end up with some serious shortfalls in the next few years. Take a serious look around at your team’s demographics, how many of your team members are now over 50, and how many members do you have under the age of 30? I’m betting there aren’t near enough new young members to replace the retirees we will have during the new few years.

Hopefully I’ve mentioned something in this article that has you thinking about recruitment and retention.  This is a topic worth of discussion at your next team meeting; someone may have a great idea to share. If you’re already doing something that is working or making a difference, the rest of us would love to hear about it; even if it’s just something you would like to add or share, please feel free to reach out to me. [email protected]

Stay Safe out there!