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Principles for Retaining Volunteers Part 8: Traditions and Ceremonies

By Daniel C. Olsen, Senior Consultant, Special Districts Association of Oregon


To some, traditions and ceremonies are wonderful experiences that are part of the culture. To others, traditions and ceremonies are old fashion, out of date rubbish that needs to be put on the trash heap of the past and done away with.

I agree that some practices need to go away. But I do believe that there are traditions and ceremonies that serve an important purpose, strengthen the culture of organizations, and help to retain volunteer members.

As a society we pass principles and values to future generations through traditions and ceremonies. Our values and the stories we tell are reflected in the traditions and ceremonies practiced.

The fire service is rich with traditions and ceremonies. While the specifics may vary from one region of the country to the next or from one department to another, they form a rich fabric of being a firefighter.

Traditions and ceremonies are important in retaining volunteers.


A Tradition is an established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior. It is the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction.

A ceremony is a formal act or series of repeated action that becomes a ritual.

Common values, morals, customs, and general culture hold a society together. Traditions are a way to pass these things along from generation to generation. Customs, values and traditions bind us together as a family, organization and a culture.

Traditions have been passed down generation after generation. Continuing them is a way to teach volunteers about your organization.

Examples of fire service traditions and ceremonies include:

  • Taking the Oath to be a Firefighter 
  • Pinning on the shield or badge
  • Completing basic training
  • Dedicating a new fire station
  • Placing a new piece of fire apparatus into service
  • Promotions of individuals
  • Retirement ceremonies
  • Memorial services
  • A firefighter’s funeral

The Past, the Present, and the Future

Traditions and ceremonies benefit the Past, the Present and the Future of your organization.

The Past

Understanding past accomplishments and what it took to get there as an organization knowledge our history and heritage. It enables us to know we are part of a team. It respects those you have come before us and the efforts, and sacrifices they made.

Also, it shows our volunteers that they are part of something bigger than themselves. It tells them that they are not alone, but rather, part of a greater whole.

The Present

Traditions and ceremonies are an opportunity to bring us together and know we are part of the team. Such activities help promote healthy relationships between the different generations. Traditions help to bind us together as a family. They develop a positive sense of belonging in an organization and adds to a member’s personal identity. We send out a message to our volunteers that they are special and valued for their service.

Through the passage of time, traditions and ceremonies impart and reinforce values.

Positive memories help our volunteers to recognize their purpose, take pride and enjoy their experience their experience as a firefighter. Department traditions can help shape who we are now.

The Future

Traditions and ceremonies guide us on our path to meet the challenges of the future. It helps your volunteers have that sense of belonging and the standard that is expected of them.

Traditions and ceremonies provide the chance for face-to-face interactions. They provide the new and the more experienced volunteer members a chance to better know and trust each other. Sharing special moments together create a bond that comes from feeling one is part of something special and worthwhile.

Three guidelines

  1. Each tradition or ceremony needs to have a purpose. It can be an old or a new tradition or ceremony, but it needs to have a purpose. A purpose that everyone knows. It answers the questions “why are we doing this?”
  2. They also need to have value. They must have meaning or relevance to being a firefighter and to your department. What are you teaching your volunteers about the organization? What does it mean to be a firefighter? Why does my service make a positive difference in the community?
  3. It is important that it enriches the person and organization. It needs to help move the individual or organization forward. They need to uplift the spirit of both the person and the organization.

Consider what traditions and ceremonies you have in your department. Use them to tell the story of your organization and bring your volunteers together now and in the future. Look at their importance and how they help to retain volunteers.