Break the mold, but keep the pieces: A new approach to fire service recruitment

Four keys to changing our broken approach to attracting new members


In May 1999, Marcus Buckingham published a controversial business management book titled “First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently.” The book was a pioneer in business management and ultimately become a must-read for business executives around the world.

The book focuses on four keys:

  1. Select for talent
  2. Define the right outcomes
  3. Focus on strengths
  4. Find the right fit
Talent comes in many forms, and organizations will need to define what talent looks like to them. (Photo/Nadav Soroker)
Talent comes in many forms, and organizations will need to define what talent looks like to them. (Photo/Nadav Soroker)

I first read this book in 1999, and now 21 years later, I find myself revisiting these concepts and their impact on today’s fire service recruitment challenges.

The battle with ourselves and “how we’ve always done it”

If you haven’t noticed, today’s fire service is engaged in a battle – the battle to recruit new volunteers; the battle to meet our communities’ increasing needs; the battle to hire and retain staffing; the battle to fund local fire service initiatives.

There are countless battles that we continue to fight, many without success. What’s more is that we continue to battle the same way over and over, with only a hope and a prayer that the outcome is different (the definition of insanity). In reality, the battle we wage is only with ourselves and our grip on “how we have always done it.”

I contend that we must break the mold but keep the pieces. We must abandon the systems that continue to fail us but keep the values and traits that make us who we are.

It is obvious that what we are doing with recruitment, retention and growing our organizations for the future is less than successful and, in many cases, we are simply failing. With the increased reduction in funding and application pools in the career organizations, plus the reduction in volunteerism across the country, the question becomes, how do we survive?

It is time to take a serious look at breaking the mold while retaining the pieces that are important to our future. And to do that, we need to address the four keys from “First, Break All the Rules.”

1. Select for talent

For generations, the American fire service (both volunteer and career) recruitment plan has been simple: Place an advertisement in the paper, post the listing on a website or share the news via word of mouth. In the beginning, and in some areas today, this still works. However, most of the country has seen a significant decline in career applicants and volunteer members.

This is the first mold we need to break.

With the reduction in the number of applicants, it is harder to attract qualified individuals. In many parts of the country, departments are being forced to reduce qualifications and requirements to apply. This is a slippery slope that contradicts the need for more talented individuals. To break this mold, we must aggressively design a new system of recruitment that allows the opportunity for organizations to seek out talent.

Talent comes in many forms, and organizations will need to define what talent looks like to them. When we look at the skills associated with this job, it is easy to recognize that our firefighters must be a combination of athlete, surgeon, computer technician and psychologist. Does our current system identify the talent that we seek for today’s fire service? Let’s consider how this applies at volunteer and career agencies.

Volunteer recruitment: With a decline in volunteerism, volunteer departments are being challenged to do it different. Some ideas:

  • Consider where your best members were found.
  • Utilize new members to identify why the joined.
  • Utilize new members to identify organizations, locations and events to recruit new members.
  • Create an Explorer or high school program.
  • Visit high schools and talk to young people while they are actively thinking about their career options.

Career recruitment: Instead of reducing the standards, focus on recreating the standards. Create a professional presentation and marketing plan that competes with your largest community employers. Some ideas:

  • Hire a consultant from outside the fire service to help you reach the right applicants.
  • Build a marketing plan that consists of social media and interactive advertisements that reach your desired outcome. Does your organization have a presence on Snapchat, Instagram and other social channels? I know this is way outside most of our comfort zones, but these social media outlets are where you will find the next generation. If you are just on Facebook, you are only reaching the 35-plus-year-olds, which is not your primary market for recruitment.
  • Build 30-second videos that feature interactive, high-energy videos to attract new applicants.

For career departments, it is also important to connect with both young college students and more experienced working professionals. We tend to focus on the young recruit, but there is an untapped market of middle-aged, experienced individuals who are looking for a career change. Many professionals may be able to continue their profession as a side job to their new fire service profession if they so wished.

Additional ideas that can work for career and volunteer organizations:

  • Hand out business cards: Create hand-out business cards for your staff and members to carry with them. When members come across an individual who demonstrates the identified “Talent Traits,” they can hand them a business card that says something like, “You made an impact. Ever consider firefighting?” Your best word of mouth is your members; challenge them to find more individuals like them!
  • Attend more events: We all do open houses, but are we also attending public events, like college job fairs, home and garden shows, music events, farmer’s markets and national trade shows? To seek talent, we have to identify opportunities in our communities to connect with the right people.
  • Broaden your net. Don’t settle just visiting the local EMT class or fire science degree program. Recruit at all job fairs, education, engineering, business degree programs. Promote the amazing opportunity that the fire service provides to these young professionals.

Once organizations have defined what talent means, a team must devise a plan that incorporates technology, top-of-mind awareness where your community thinks of your organization as the place to be and work, and out-of-the-box creativity. 

Consider inviting new recruits and prospective members to a “family dinner” that kicks off the academy and gives potential members a sense for the brotherhood. (Photo/Jason Caughey)
Consider inviting new recruits and prospective members to a “family dinner” that kicks off the academy and gives potential members a sense for the brotherhood. (Photo/Jason Caughey)

2. Define the right outcomes

Defining the right outcomes is directly linked to talent – hiring (and retaining) the right people for the job – but also how we serve our community, our strengths and our limitations, which we’ll address more below.

Over the years, the career fire service has become dependent on a set hiring process that generally consists of a written test followed by a physical test and an oral interview. This format of hiring was necessary due to the volumes of applicants that used to be attracted to a career in the fire service – and it worked. I challenge you to consider that system might not deliver the right outcomes for today’s fire service.

To break the mold of bad hiring practices, we must reidentify the desired outcomes.

Defining the right outcomes requires a 30,000-foot perspective of your organization and the needs of their community. My dad used to tell me, “you are your worst judge.” I think about that statement often when I look at our organization, and it reminds me that we need to get perspective from outside of our organization. Many times, we get so embedded in our own organization that we start to lose contact with who we are.  Whether it is ego or image, we can stray from what is truly important – “Mrs. Smith.”

Here are some ideas to help you achieve a 30,000-foot view and define the right outcomes for your organization:

  • Hire a consulting company to review your organization. A professional, experienced consultant will provide you a vision of who you are and what your needs are for community without our individual bias. An organizational report can be extremely beneficial for the success of our organization
  • Build a community oversight group that can provide vision and guidance for your organization. If you are a smaller volunteer or combination department, you can seek local professionals like teachers, bankers, local attorneys or business professionals. Your local communities have outstanding resources that you can tap into to provide guidance and opinions.
  • Complete an internal review committee of your organization consisting of all layers. You might only get a 15,000-foot view due to our own opinions and perceptions.

Defining your organization’s outcomes will ultimately help guide your recruitment process.

3. Focus on strengths

The American fire service does a lot of things very well, but one area of struggle is beating our own drum. We are humble servants who don’t like attention; in fact, many organizations have an unwritten media policy that if you show up on the news, you have to buy ice cream (or something) for your crew.

This is the third mold we need to break, while keeping the humility pieces.

Humility is a good trait; however, we must learn to identify and highlight our strengths. This doesn’t mean that we need to brag; it means we need to use our strengths to connect with the community. After all, the adage “our people are our greatest strengths” has never been more applicable then today.

Create a venue to highlight our people by building marketing and story boards around the special talents of your members. Then share the stories about your people with your community. The stories don’t have to be limited to your current staff or members. Share the history of members who made an impact in the past and the present.           

Other strengths that the community can connect with include community service through fundraisers, charity events and other publicly recognized events. In addition, your members receive a power benefit through the compassion and comraderies of being a part of the team. By focusing on your strengths – your people – you can build an emotional template to utilize as a marketing tool.

4. Find the right fit

Unlike NFPA and OSHA standards, there is not a one-size-fits-all fire department. Each of our communities is slightly different, and each of our organizations is dramatically different. Yes, there are some common ground similarities, but we still are uniquely different.

When you travel the country visiting fire departments, you will witness organizations that are trying to be something they aren’t. For example, a smaller department with limited staffing cannot perform the same tactical operations as a larger organization simply because of the lack of personal, but they try to do so and, in the process, compromise the safety of their members.

This is the final mold we need to break – trying to be something we’re not.

It is important that your organization be in touch with the reality of its mission and vision, its members’ capabilities and what it can offer the community.

To find the right fit, we must step back and take a realistic look at who we are. Then we must constructively identify what works for us. This takes energy and trust in learning to understand what and who you are. We sometimes have a false sense of identity that is based on ego or image. I challenge you to not fall into this trap. Be true to what your communities’ needs and what you can honestly provide based on your staffing model and operational response. There is a difference between large and small organizations. Don’t lose sight of those differences.

Find the right fit for your community, develop plans that meet the needs of both your organization and community, and don’t be afraid to adjust the fit as you grow and evolve as an organization. When recruiting, you have to feature marketing that effectively matches your target audience. When we look at social media today, the experts are saying that the Facebook market is 35-plus-year-old individuals and Instagram is 18-35-year-olds. What is the right fit for your organization? Put your energy into areas that will make an impact.

Adapt to change to avoid extinction

Breaking our mold does not mean throwing away the pieces. It is OK to break the mold and identify the pieces of our profession or your organization that you want to carry forward. If we as a fire service continue to try to make our existing mold fit the future, we will be left in the past like many other great organizations. Think of Sears or the countless other national chain retailers that didn’t keep up with changing times are now gone. Those businesses never broke the mold and failed to recognize that they were becoming extinct.

The fire service must break our recruitment mold but keep the pieces that work and ultimately create new pieces for the future.

Editor’s Note: What recruitment strategies have worked for your department? Share in the comments.

Next: Watch Caughey shares tips for managing the biggest volunteerism challenges, particularly the strain on members' time.

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