The headlines are everywhere, in communities large and small: Fire departments – career, volunteer and combination – are facing an increasingly uphill battle when it comes to finding candidates. Recruitment and retention are probably the single biggest challenge facing the fire service today. And that begs the question: What are we doing wrong? And how do we go about improving firefighter recruitment?
There’s no magic formula. While there are success stories, a close read of most of them does not reveal strategies that can be easily replicated. Effective recruitment will look different for each agency. But we can begin to understand it better by breaking it down into how, when and, most importantly, why. Let’s start with the why.
Improving firefighter recruitment starts with understating your agency’s “why.” Before you can make a convincing case for someone to join your organization, you must understand your own identity. What draws people to want to be a part of your department? What trends are affecting your community? What kind of an agency are you – and what kind of candidate are you looking for? And then, what do you offer a potential candidate? What is their return on their investment?
Every agency is different, but looking across broad types of fire departments, we can begin to see how the “why” will differ.
- Career fire department – Whether it’s a one-station/three-shift organization or a large, metro department with multiple stations, career fire departments offer just that: a career. You’ll provide a livelihood, family and financial security, health benefits and a true career, not just a job.
- Combination fire department – Often combi departments are found in growing communities. As populations increase, so does call volume, and many volunteer departments have shifted to a new staffing model that incorporates some paid positions. This model is perhaps most challenging from a recruitment perspective, as you must message to both potential volunteers and career firefighters. Further, you must help them understand – do they join straight out in a paid position? If they join as a volunteer, is the expectation they work toward career or stay volunteer? How are you articulating the differences between opportunities so a candidate can make an educated decision?
- Volunteer fire department – Most often found in small town, rural USA, volunteer departments frequently run about 300 calls a year from one station. Compared with bigger departments, there’s limited opportunity for training and limited equipment, but a great opportunity to be part of a family atmosphere and to protect the community. The challenge for many volunteer departments is that community members may not even be aware the department needs volunteers. Are you disclosing you need help and showing how they can be part of that solution?
Whatever your organization type or situation, improving firefighter recruitment will begin with your recruiting committee determining why someone should join your organization. Once you understand that, recruitment messaging will follow naturally.
Most people don’t understand what to expect about becoming a firefighter. And without expectation there’s no motivation. We must do better at showing them how they become a member of our department. We say come be a volunteer or sign up for the career of a lifetime. We have a slogan. But we don’t do a good job of getting past the “join today.” Do I fill out an application? Can I do that online or does it need to be in person? What is the process? If there’s a test or requirements, what kind? What can I expect? How long will it take?
Recently, my department interviewed a new candidate for training chief. He suggested we hold a recruiting open house to help answer these questions. Offer some food, allow people to see the equipment and meet the personnel and ask questions. Ideally, set academy dates in advance, and allow candidates to fill out an application on site, so you can capture interest in the moment.
Whatever you do, it needs to be easy to get started. Every recruitment message you deliver should have a call to action – something as simple as a QR code that leads them to an online form. And as much as possible, your recruitment messages should spell out the process so prospective candidates know what to expect.
When does this all happen? This is another critical consideration. Too often I see agencies conduct decent outreach, but it is not timed to align with the opportunity to act. If you’re asking people to join, you need to be ready to welcome them in. Recruitment efforts should be timed to align with the next recruit academy, or physical ability test, or whatever is the first step in your process. This may necessitate moving to quarterly recruit academies so there’s always an opportunity coming up.
Another key issue with timing is how fast you respond when someone is interested. We cannot wait weeks to follow up. If they fill out a form on Saturday, someone must be following up by Monday at the latest. We have become conditioned to quick response. Today’s candidates won’t wait two to three weeks. You need to act immediately before they find the next shiny thing to chase.
Now, the firefighter hiring process doesn’t happen overnight. I understand that. But even if they can’t be hired immediately, you can be responsive and you can hook them in. Give them an experience they will want to be a part of. During the application process, invite them on ride alongs, have them hang out at the fire house or ride with the battalion chief. Give them enough of the experience that they want to do more of it.
Improving firefighter recruitment messaging
It’s easier today than ever to make a recruitment video – all you need is a smartphone and a social media account to share it. Your video doesn’t need to be professional or highly produced, but it does need to be authentic, relatable and in good taste. We’ve all seen the “firemen like it hot” stuff –we can’t do that today. Your message needs to support the credibility of your organization.
There are also plenty of examples and resources to draw on. The National Volunteer Fire Council, International Association of Fire Fighters, International Association of Fire Chiefs and National Fire Protection Association all have free recruitment resources. Just remember, however, that these are a starting point. They’re not tied directly to your agency, your identity, your community. Don’t just copy and paste – remember your agency’s why and integrate that into the messaging.
Recruitment messages should also set realistic expectations of the job. Your videos need to show the activities your personnel actually do – because we all know it’s not just lights-and-sirens and nonstop action. Show people in training, sweating, working hard, taking tests, going through evaluations, leading community education and community risk reduction events. When we’re representing our industry, these all need to be part of the picture.
Member testimonials are another effective video format. Just remember that not everyone should do a testimonial. Select members who are high energy but honest and professional. Instruct members not to overact and make sure the stories they share are not just about them, but clearly show what’s in it for the candidate.
Whatever recruitment messages you develop, they need to be authentic, clearly representing your agency’s why and what you do. The goal is not to get everyone in the community to join. It’s to find the right people to become part of your agency.
All this can be done in house with limited resources. But if you can obtain funding for outside assistance, your efforts will be more powerful. Marketing firms that specialize in working with public safety agencies can help you develop a multiyear recruiting and retention strategy, with monthly benchmarks. They can help you define your “why” and then put together videos, restructure your website, build your social media presence, improve your search engine performance and plan your email campaigns.
Marketing firms aren’t cheap, but they can be well worth the investment. My department used a SAFER grant to hire a marketing department that helped us revamp our recruitment efforts, including this video:
Hiring a marketing firm may seem a bit odd for a “business” that has little competition. But historically, fire departments have not been great at self-marketing – and today’s recruitment crisis is one of the results.
Our problem to solve
There’s no doubt firefighter recruitment challenges are kicking all of us in the teeth. But every agency’s recruitment problem is unique to them. Therefore how we fix it will not be the same for every agency.
Explaining the how and the when of the recruitment process is essential to bringing more candidates in. But none of that matters if you don’t understand your agency’s why. Start there, and you’ll be taking the first step to delivering an effective marketing program to improve firefighter recruitment and keep candidates around long term.