What recruiting experts can teach fire chiefs

Some of the most successful recruiters, both inside and outside the fire service, offer their tips to get more volunteer firefighters in the door


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 Summer 2015 issue, click here.

By Cathy Sivak

Unless you've been asleep for the past decade, you've been beat over the head with the fact that the number of volunteer firefighters is steadily dwindling. You've also likely heard every imaginable reason for this trend. Proven solutions, however, are a bit harder to come by.

The keys to success in bolstering our ranks may be found in other volunteer-driven organizations, such as The Salvation Army, Kars4Kids and the Girl Scouts of the USA. Each has been able to find creative paths to recruiting success. From improving your public relations efforts to utilizing new online recruitment resources like VolunteerMatch, there are a number of valuable lessons to learn from some of the nonprofits succeeding in getting their message out.

"We're just doing our jobs, we don't want praise," is a worthy attitude, but it doesn't bring in new volunteers, says Kevin Quinn, chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council. "We have to change that adage. Outreach is the biggest critical component. We have to market ourselves, and we're not historically comfortable with that."

Volunteers lend their energies to organizations that make it clear they are needed and appreciated. A lack of knowledge about the need for volunteers is the top barrier for fire services recruitment, with 41 percent of the population unaware community fire departments are staffed by volunteers, according to a recent in-depth study of volunteer perceptions by NVFC.

The visibility of Salvation Army volunteers in disaster-recovery efforts and feeding programs such as soup kitchens help raise interest from new volunteers who see Salvation Army volunteers in action or hear about the positive impact of volunteering from current volunteers.

"Word of mouth is big; people tend to share their experiences with friends," says Victor Leonardi, a volunteer coordinator for the Salvation Army in Hawaii. "Don't be shy to ask, and make sure to promote what you are doing."

When Leonardi was hired three years ago as divisional community development manager of an area that covers portions of Hawaii and the islands of Pacific, his support office had zero volunteers. Today, it manages 2,500 volunteers, nearly half of the state's total of 6,000 volunteers.

Publicity that features the impact volunteers make should be showcased in recruiting efforts, and photos and links to news coverage posted prominently on a department's home page and social media accounts can create major interest, Leonardi says.

Digital community

The Salvation Army also widens its pool of potential volunteers with information booths at the annual meetings of local credit unions and use of resources such as the local Craigslist.org volunteer section.

"Sometimes in small communities, people are shy to walk in the door to offer to help," Leonardi says. "People search the Internet for volunteer opportunities; make sure you are there for them to find."

Fire departments are likely most familiar with Kars4Kids, a resource for donations of junk cars for training or other event-specific needs with a ubiquitous jingle. The national non-profit converts donated cars into funds for volunteer-run outreach programs dedicated to educational, material, emotional and spiritual needs of underprivileged Jewish children.

To reach a wide range of potential volunteers in local communities, fire departments should consider a focus on marketing, public relations and advertising opportunities in local newspapers, billboards and radio stations, says Wendy Kirwan, Kars4Kids' director of media relations. Kars4Kids finds websites like VolunteerMatch.org crucial to help find willing hands.

"VolunteerMatch is almost like a job board for non-profits looking for volunteers," Kirwan says. "It's free to sign up and post a volunteer opportunity, and I think the interface is simple enough even for those who are not tech savvy. It's very location-oriented, so volunteers from your community can easily find you. I can't overemphasize the value of posting your volunteer opportunities on their website."

Kars4Kids uses a full spectrum of social media – Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and Flickr – to engage its volunteers and donors. More than 5,200 people are part of the group's Facebook page, which provides regular updates on the organization's activities as well as other content to engage fans.

"We don't use social media much for recruiting volunteers, but for retention, it can be an amazing tool," Kirwan says. A Facebook or Whatsapp group can "keep volunteers engaged, create a sense of community among them, and keep them in the loop on organization news."

Make Me a Firefighter

It's up to local departments to develop resources and recruit, train and retain all types of volunteers, but assistance is available through NVFC's launch of the first-ever national recruiting campaign, Make Me a Firefighter.

It can be difficult and time-consuming for volunteer department chiefs to take advantage of the various grants and support available to bolster recruiting efforts. Local departments have long been able to tap Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for recruiting efforts, but this is the first year national organizations are eligible for funding.

The grant will fund the multi-pronged campaign, designed to raise the visibility of volunteer opportunities and to offer department chiefs and other volunteer recruiters support and guidance as well as funding for volunteer retention.

Make Me a Firefighter debuts August 1 with the launch of the public web site to reach out to target audiences, and will include training to assist departments. NVFC urges departments to sign up prior to the August 1 launch. NVFC will maintain a portal restricted to fire service departments to provide a venue for a free exchange of ideas.

Fire departments register through the online portal in a simple process, then gain access to recruiting and retention tools and support. Chiefs who are not comfortable with technology can designate another member of the department as the point person.

Storefront recruiting

In Maryland, the Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad and the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department recruiting efforts have the full-court press feel typical of military recruiting. More than 2,300 total volunteers contribute to the 19 departments in the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire Rescue Association (MCVFRA).

"They concentrate on recruiting. It's not an afterthought; it's a primary mission," says Eric Bernard, MCVFRA executive director. "Because they recognize the importance, they are constantly doing it. They don't wait until they are in crisis mode, they are constantly seeking out new volunteers. Continuously let the public know that not only does your department have community-based volunteers, but also that you need them, that there are volunteer opportunities available."

To draw interest, recognition and volunteers, the MCVFRA borrowed from the military recruiting station model. A corner storefront in downtown Rockland, Md., is believed to be the first volunteer firefighter recruiting station in the country. An antique pumper and volunteer fire rescue recruiting station signs in the windows create public visibility and outreach that also draw visitors.

The lease and salary of a full-time volunteer recruiter is paid with grant funding, and student volunteers lend a hand. Visitors can try on gear, test a fire pole or stretcher, watch a video, learn about volunteer opportunities, and of course, sign up. MCVFRA also visits high schools, attends community fairs and supports the in-person approach with an advertising campaign that encompasses radio, TV, newspaper and lawn signs.

Fire and rescue departments must seek volunteers from a pool deeper than traditional family connections to combat factors in declining numbers, including the rise of the median age of firefighters, the annual 17 percent slip in the number of volunteer fire recruits, and the continued growth of emergency medical services call volume.

"We are seeking to build the next generation of volunteer firefighters; we cannot keep operating the way we are operating," NVFC's Quinn says. Departments need to open themselves up to underutilized volunteer segments, including women, minorities and younger generations, Quinn says.

"It's easy to get hung up on equipment needs and getting rigs out the door. We should be visionaries; we should try to have our departments reflect our communities," says Jen Roman, a captain with the Madison (Wis.) Fire Department. Her initial volunteer work as a first responder for Deer Grove (Wis.) EMS began in 1992; she became a career firefighter in 1998.

Recruiting Female firefighters

"It's not good enough to say, 'We should have some women on the department.' You have to believe that a diverse workforce is good for the community and good for the department. You can't just hire or recruit two women. You have to absolutely show you support women coming into your fire service," Roman says.

Women make up only 3.4 percent of all firefighters, 12 percent of police officers and 35 percent of EMTs. These statistics do not easily lend themselves to role models who bring more women into fire services.

Madison is unique, as it has triple the national average of women firefighters with 43 — 11 percent of total department personnel. A dearth of female role models led Roman and her colleagues to get more women interested in fire service.

"We looked at the gender inequity in our career choice, then looked at our circle of influence," she says.

Roman, also a long-time Girl Scout volunteer and a Madison College faculty member for protective services, spearheaded CampHERO. It combines the efforts of Madison's fire, police and emergency services departments, area technical colleges, and the Madison-based Girl Scouts of Wisconsin-Badgerland council, which encompasses 3,200 volunteers and mentors 8,400 girl participants in 24 counties in Wisconsin plus Winnebago County, Ill., Houston County, Minn., and Allamakee County, Iowa. 

Designed to raise awareness of the protective services as career options, CampHERO complements the Girl Scout mission to help girls build the courage, confidence and character to make the world a better place. CampHERO is open to all girls in grades K-12 from anywhere in the country, regardless of Girl Scout affiliation or ability to pay. "There are enough barriers for women and girls in this world," Roman says.

Since its launch, CampHERO enrollment has grown annually and will have reached nearly 700 total attendees following this year's July sessions. It incorporates day camp for younger girls and overnight "live like a firefighter" sessions for grades 4 through 12. Volunteer instructors and mentors from career and volunteer fire, police and emergency medical services departments in Madison and the region lead hands-on activities that include fingerprinting, use of a fire hose, practice calls to 911, set up of a medical helicopter landing zone, and instruction on use of the extrication equipment.

"We found girls are attracted to CampHERO because of police stuff they see on TV, but then the fire and rescue component really captures their attention," Roman says. "We put them in turn-out gear, and the older girls, in particular, go from standing with their arms crossed to fierce fire and joy in their eyes as they swing an ax or use the Jaws of Life to open a car door."

Departments often tap youth groups to serve as part of the junior firefighters program and spark a lifelong commitment. Formal high school cadet programs or partnerships with local and regional youth clubs with national affiliations like 4-H, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts can create future volunteers with skill sets and certifications.

While individual departments have created similar experiences to CampHERO, a lack of affiliation with an organization like Girl Scouts makes that outreach difficult to sustain, Roman says. She advises departments that wish to forge a similar venture to identify key volunteer organizers with existing relationships to potential partners.

Members of civic organizations such as Jaycees, Lions, and Key clubs create an important component of the Salvation Army's volunteer base. Organizations with military ties and active military members are among other potential volunteer pools the Salvation Army relies on. Corporate partnerships provide major volunteer roster boosts for the Salvation Army.

"Many times the corporations and the employees want to serve the community, but they just don't know how to do it," Salvation Army's Leonardi says. It can also pay to look as close as your nearest large retailer. "Giving back to communities is built into the business models of large retailers, and not just with finances. They really encourage staff members to volunteer," he says, noting in some cases retailers even match employee contributed volunteer hours with in-kind cash donations.  

Family or community ties to the fire and rescue service traditionally make up a solid core of volunteers. But there are all types of potential volunteers in every community, and in Montgomery County, Bernard makes it his daily mission to interest diverse types of people in volunteer fire and rescue service as he goes about his daily business.

"The personal invite is the best. Our recruitment effort is all about loving the fire department. We are constantly trying to bring in diversity," Bernard says. Since he frequently wears department shirts, hats and jackets, Bernard's recruiting occurs naturally as he interacts with people during day-to-day department business: the KFC where his department orders occasional meals, the Best Buy retailer where it sources communications equipment, the Sprint store, and the local supermarket where he recruited the produce manager and a cashier.

"When you know that you are short on volunteers, it is too late. We look at it as a constant process," Bernard says.

"People are sometimes just not sure if they are qualified. We never turn people away, whether they are over- or under-qualified. For us it is an opportunity to find out if volunteers have the heart to serve," Leonardi says. 

Develop a mentor program, whether it is informal or formal, and make sure to extend invitations to social events. "If they feel like they are just there to do a task, you'll lose them. If you treat them like they are part of the community, the volunteer family, they will contribute. Over time, it becomes normal for a person to volunteer time and energy to an organization. Make them feel appreciated, always," Leonardi says.

Cement volunteer relationships and underscore appreciation with volunteer luncheons, tokens such as donated gift cards, and nomination of volunteers' efforts for local, regional and state award recognition.

Clear expectations, combined with dedication and commitment, create new generations of volunteers and a professional atmosphere. "They have to understand the commitment before we sign them up. It has to be all-out. We invest thousands of dollars in a volunteer the first year, and that's actual cash for training and individual gear. We cannot do a poor job of educating," Bernard says.

MCVFRA offers immediate training to new volunteers that kicks off with 12 weeks of Friday night sessions. The team-building includes protocol lessons and communal dinners. "Our rule for recruiting is retain first," Bernard says. "Having someone sign up and then having them mop the floor doesn't work. We don't make them firefighters or paramedics on Friday nights, but they get to line up, they get their new uniforms and gear."

The most crucial component to recruit volunteers is an ongoing, dedicated effort, Bernard says. "Recruiting and retention is hard work; it is constant work. You never get to say 'I'm done.' This is not a task with an end date. This is a continuous priority, this is a constant battle."

About the author

Cathy Sivak is a freelance writer and award-winning journalist who spent several years covering the police, fire and emergency response beat for a daily newspaper.

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