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How fire chiefs can hire like corporate pros

Getting good company officer candidates starts at the point of firefighter recruitment and hiring; here's what the recruiting pros do to land the best applicants


This feature is part of our Fire Chief Digital Edition, a quarterly supplement to FireChief.com that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging topics facing fire chiefs and fire service leaders everywhere. To read all of the articles included in the Winter 2016 issue, click here.

By Cathy Sivak

Fire departments of all sizes face recruiting challenges, from large metro departments to smaller combination, volunteer and paid on-call departments. Adopting best practices from corporate human resources recruiters can ignite efforts to screen, hire, train and retain new firefighter recruits. And deepening that pool of high-quality firefighters is the first step in developing stand-out company officer candidates.

The overall corporate and government job market and applicant availability vary by market and region, but in general, candidate pools are "getting tighter, with certain roles in fields like software engineering that can be hard to fill," said Rodney Alvarez, a 15-year corporate recruiting veteran and vice president of talent management for computer software firm Celtra Technology in Boston.

Outside the fire service, where many spend their entire career at one department, consistent recruiting efforts are crucial. In the overall job market, employee tenure across the private, public and government sectors has an average length of eight years. A recent Society for Human Resources Management survey of hiring professionals revealed that it took an average of 42 days to fill open positions at a cost of $4,129 per hire.

Finding candidates

Corporate recruiters continue to tap technology and word of mouth. Referrals (83 percent), use of the company or organization website (81 percent) and social media (67 percent) are the top 2016 candidate sourcing methods cited in a SHRM talent acquisitions report.

Social media and traditional job advertisements and postings continue to evolve. Corporate recruiters create profiles of the types of people who are likely to match the qualifications of roles. Fire departments should embrace targeted candidate messaging, Alvarez said.

"Best practices create a profile of people who are attracted to the role and build a profile of the people who are ideal candidates," he said.

For the fire service, he suggests assessment of the department's community role, the existing culture, future roles to fill and overall diversity needs, followed by listing the traits of potential firefighter candidates.

Recruiters then need to determine ways to connect those attributes, Alvarez said. Create a candidate profile that describes the desired educational background— college degree, community college certificates, EMT and firefighter certification, high school graduates or vocational/tech students — rounded out with likely majors, clubs, organizations and common interests.

"Define the quintessential firefighter,” Alvarez said. "Why are they attracted to this position? Consider ages, activities. Then ask yourself: Where do we find these types of candidates? Once you have created the profile, it opens up so many other venues where you can find that person."

For example, fire departments can tap the millennial generation's sense of community service.

"Millennials are looking for jobs that are rewarding and can make an impact, something that is fulfilling to them, not just the salary. A lot of jobs don't provide that sense of fulfillment," Alvarez said. "It is almost like a crusade that is a huge move to the advantage of firefighter recruiting."

If the goal is to diversify, identify community events and outreach that will help broaden the candidate pool and make this goal known. One simple way is to make sure the recruiting team includes firefighters who represent the populations the department needs to reach.

Recruiting for the LAFD

The Los Angeles Fire Department is recruiting to diversify the city's current cadre of 3,200 firefighters. The LAFD is working toward a better reflection of the city's population, including additional minorities and women to address recent allegations of nepotism and bias. Less than 3 percent of LAFD rank and file is made up of women (the same as in 1995) and nearly half are Caucasian men in a city with a 29 percent white population.

California state law prohibits hiring quotas, so ongoing efforts to diversify the LAFD are designed to expand the pool of applicants and ultimately increase hiring of minority and female firefighters. These efforts include recruiting to attract a more varied pool of applicants to the LAFD and add more non-traditional and qualified candidates to the hiring pool.

Political, economic and social influences will be considered, said Alicia Welch, battalion chief of the LAFD recruitment section, in an LAFD report to the Board of Fire Commissioners.

The initiative draws on the expertise of a professional marketing firm to develop a modern marketing campaign to incorporate traditional and social media.

"Through social media, a recruiter can reach every ethnic grouping, fitness and athletic aficionado, faith-based group and armed forces service member," Welch said. "Social media allows the recruiters to have a presence at multiple events, share news and information, and place a face and reflection of the community in all we do."

LAFD also plans to use emerging technology to broaden the scope of its application process to include tools for follow-up communications after events and during recruitment cycles. The intensive year-long process can cause some candidates to lose interest, and the hope is that better follow-up will keep more applicants in the pipeline.

To help develop new generations of firefighters, the LAFD recruiting plan includes a formal mentorship program with educational institutions, updates and expansions to volunteer opportunities to foster interest in LAFD careers, and development of a high school magnet program. Get LAFD's full recruiting plan here.

The power of social media

The top recruitment reason organizations use social media is to find passive job candidates, according to the SHRM Social Media Recruiting Screening survey released in January 2016. Some 84 percent of SHRM member organizations use social media, with another 9 percent planning to use it but stalled by concerns about legal risks or lack of HR staff time.

For nine out of 10 hiring entities, promotion of job openings is the most popular use of social media. Three out of four organizations use social media to contact candidates, and more than two-thirds of recruiters use it to search for passive and active candidates.

Corporate recruiter due diligence includes an internet search and comparison of LinkedIn profiles with candidate-supplied information, as well as review of public social media activity, said Alvarez.

"I match up the resume with the LinkedIn profile. Are the lengths/durations of the positions the same? Are there embellishments to titles?” he said. "I also make sure the resume matches the social media profile. For firefighters, anyone in public service, it's particularly important."

Questionable social media posts and results of other online searches often disqualify candidates. Indeed, one-third of companies reported that candidates were disqualified after online searches revealed illegal activity and discrepancies with job applications. Online candidate reviews are such an integral part of the recruiting process that two in five hiring entities (39 percent) now allow candidates the opportunity to explain potential items of concern, up 13 percent compared to 2011.

It’s also important to make sure your recruitment efforts are easily seen where candidates are most likely to look – their smartphones. To help mobile user accessibility, follow the lead of some 66 percent of hiring entities that are making careers pages more prominent on their websites and optimizing careers sections and job listings with mobile-enabled job applications.

A new take on old-fashioned recruiting

Even with the long reach of social media, nothing beats building relationships in person. Find opportunities to target specific candidate pools.

For instance, since fitness plays a role in candidates' suitability, consider sponsorships with local fitness events like 5K runs, Iron Man competitions and marathons. Training facilities and other workout locations as well as nutrition- and lifestyle-focused events are other potential recruiting spots for fitness-oriented candidates.

Combine in-person outreach with marketing in local or regional sports or workout magazines, as well as online publications and enthusiast groups on social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, professional sites like LinkedIn and interest sites like Meetup.com. Other options include Idealist.org, a job site for people who want to make a difference, as well as additional nonprofit outreach through Volunteer.org.

Fire departments can easily promote career opportunities at existing community events like festivals. Teens and 20-somethings want human contact, not just social media, said Alvarez, and the next step is to attend or create different types of events to increase community visibility and draw future candidates to fire stations. While a traditional open house can bring in job seekers, additional outreach can target new potential candidate pools if fire departments follow the lead of corporate recruiters that tap social media as well as technology. For example, individual firefighters can sign up for a free Meetup.com account and invite the shared-interest groups they join to meet at the firehouse.

Best practices for interviewing

Once your organization has successfully recruited suitable candidates, it’s time to consider the interview process. Plan ahead and create questions and topics for various members of the interview team so that each person touches on different areas to get a more holistic view of the candidate, said Alvarez.

Many corporate recruiters use personality assessments such the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to help ensure that their selected candidates have traits considered desirable for success in specific positions.

"For public service roles, these personality tests are crucial as a reference point," Alvarez said. "Is the candidate someone who is sociable, outgoing, extroverted or introverted? Is it someone who is conflict-prone, who challenges authority a lot, or is agreeable, amicable or stable?"

The most effective long-term recruiting practices result in new hires that become long-term employees. Interviews with long-term performers or newer, thriving recruits can round out recruiting efforts by giving hiring managers the inside view of what makes the organization desirable, Alvarez said.

Formal stay interview discussions are not tied to performance reviews, but rather meant to help round out profiles and fulfill recruiting missions. Alvarez suggests these questions:

What attracted you to this job?

What keeps you here? What makes this department unique?

Fire departments should follow the corporate lead and tailor recruiting messages to target specific candidate pools. Create profiles of the skills, interests and aspirations your department is looking for and leverage social media and traditional job postings to find and attract applicants.

Stealing pages from professional recruiters' playbook will help fire chiefs improve both the quality and quantity of their recruits, retain those recruits longer and ultimately have a larger candidate pool of those ready to be great company officers.

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