Do something different: Why it’s time to question everything about recruitment

The fire service is struggling to recruit applicants, but solutions exist: Take these 7 tips from organizations that are succeeding


Right now, every first responder agency or system in the U.S. has two major challenges. The first challenge is retaining their existing staff. The second challenge is recruiting more applicants to fill open positions.  

In Minnesota, “nearly 60% of the state's 10,465 certified emergency medical technicians did not provide patient care in 2021.” That’s a staggering number prompting many unanswered questions about what more than 6,000 certified EMTs were doing instead of working in EMS. We don’t know if they were studying to become a paramedic or nurse, working in an Amazon warehouse, or totally out of the labor force.  

It is also increasingly common for EMS employers to report not getting a single applicant for open positions. One example: “Perham Area EMS (Minnesota) has two paramedic positions open but hasn't received any applications,” according to a Star Tribune article

"Despite the persistent challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, a broken reimbursement and funding system, and a competitive job market, some employers are bringing in new applicants and filling recruitment classes," Friese writes. (Photo/Stephen M. Dowell via Orlando Sentinel)

Despite the persistent challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, a broken reimbursement and funding system, and a competitive job market, some employers are bringing in new applicants and filling recruitment classes. The Tucson (Arizona) Fire Department is a few weeks into its biggest recruitment class in years and expects the next class, which starts this summer, to be even bigger.  

As I follow the news and study the EMS and fire industry, the services that are succeeding are doing some or all these things that you can do to improve recruitment and retention.  

1. Increase pay of current employees 

Instead of offering a signing bonus for new applicants, redirect any available funds into bonuses and pay increases to current staff. Though a one-time bonus is likely to be well-received, you are likely to make an even bigger impact on retention by moving your employees from a living wage to a thriving wage.  

2. Recruit all the time with the best people 

Let go of the myth that everyone in your department is a recruiter. We know from several years of EMS Trend Report data that optimism for the future of EMS is low and only one-quarter to one-third of EMS professionals are likely to recommend a career in EMS to someone they know. The people who are optimistic about their future in fire or EMS, as well as those who are optimistic about the future of the profession, are likely to be the best recruiters for your organization and the industry. Find those people in your department and agency, and equip them to be advocates.  

3. Meet applicants face-to-face 

After two years of grinding isolation and social gathering precautions, lots of people are starved for face-to-face contact. Go to places where you are likely to meet potential applicants. Tucson Fire has been setting up a recruiting booth at community and sporting events. Set up a booth or table at the local farmer’s market, music festival, houses of worship or anywhere people gather. Tucson is also recruiting at military outplacement job fairs. If you have a desirable place to work and live, consider recruiting in neighboring states.   

Get to know the high school and college sports coaches in your community. Your leadership experiences and knowledge of performing under pressure might be inspiring and educational to those athletes. At the same time, use those connections to share the opportunities in public safety for people who are physically fit, used to performing under pressure, and able to accept coaching to improve their physical and mental performance.  

4. Go beyond social and web advertising 

Yes, you absolutely should be using social networking, a department website and web advertising to attract applicants. After all, “How to become a firefighter” was the number six career-related Google search in 2021. But instead of simply shouting into the void of cyberspace, focus your attention on the people most likely to be interested in a public safety career. I’d start with targeting messaging at the family, extended family and friends of current personnel and retirees. They already have a foundational understanding of the career and may want to follow in the footsteps of someone they admire and respect.  

5. Always be clear on who you need to apply 

Every time EMS1, FireRescue1 or Police1 have asked current public safety professionals why they serve, the top two responses are always to serve my community and make a difference in the lives of others. Before launching any recruitment campaign or posting a help wanted ad, ask yourself:  

  • “Will this be seen by people who want to serve and make a difference in our community?”  

  • “Does this communicate how we serve our community and make a difference in the lives of the people in our community?”  

If you answer no to either question, retool the message and refine the effort you are undertaking.  

6. Question everything about retention and recruitment 

When it comes to retention and recruitment for EMS agencies and fire departments, there should be nothing that is cast in concrete. Question everything about your retention and recruitment efforts. If it’s working, keep doing it. If it’s not, throw it overboard and do something different.  

Also, question your staffing models and shift lengths. Minnesota legislators are being asked to waive or change regulations that mandate the ambulance driver have a certification. Look for ways to adapt the job to the current needs and interests of the available workforce.  

7. Solve the problems that cause stress and fatigue 

What levers can you pull to reduce stress and fatigue for the people you have and to make the job more appealing to the people you want to apply? Maybe you can reduce red lights and sirens use or lessen the hours your ambulances are held hostage at the hospital.  

Hospital bed delays, also known as wall time, boarding or patient off-loading delays, which existed before the pandemic, have been exacerbated by hospital staffing shortages. Remember, your EMTs and paramedics joined the profession to serve others and make a difference. They didn’t join to monitor a patient for hours in the ambulance bay or emergency department hallway and this is putting considerable stress and strain on the workforce. Follow the advice of EMS attorneys Doug Wolfberg and Steve Wirth to end your personnel being held hostage at the hospital and get them back into service.  

Finally, find your reason for hope and optimism about the future of your service and the profession. Many things come in cycles and this cycle is particularly challenging. Improvement is inevitable, and it will be because of your efforts, large and small, to serve your community and make a difference in the lives of others. Thanks! 

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