‘I saw you on TikTok’: The fire service recruitment strategy no one is talking about
Sacramento Fire Captain Keith Wade, once a TikTok skeptic, is now on a mission to show fire service leaders how the app’s reach could be the answer to staffing woes
The days of receiving a stack of applications for one open career position on a fire department are gone.
From the Great Resignation to inflation, coupled with the challenges brought by the pandemic and civil unrest, the fire service is reaching a crisis point when it comes to recruitment.
Traditional tactics, even out-of-the-box ideas, are not reaching what should be a department’s target audience: young people. Up-and-comers. The new generation of fire recruits.
So, where are they? And how do you reach them?
Welcome to TikTok
With the oldest millennials now turning 40, most new fire recruits will come from Generation Z, who are currently 26 or younger. People of this generation are unlikely to see your department’s Facebook post about open positions, as the percentage of Gen Z teens using Facebook dropped from 71% in 2015 to 32% today.
However, while Gen Z may not be on Facebook, they are on TikTok – and if you’re dismissively rolling your eyes at the mention of the newest social platform, you can take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Sacramento (California) Fire Department Captain Keith Wade was also skeptical when it came to incorporating the app into their department’s arsenal of recruitment tools.
“I’m 46 years old, married with three kids; I didn’t know anything about TikTok,” admitted Wade, who also serves as the department’s public information officer (PIO). “I envisioned it as people dancing and singing. I’m like, ‘What is this going to do for us?’”
But Wendy Aguilar, a professional storyteller hired by the department as a media and communications specialist, saw the app’s potential. Just a few months after she started the @sacramentofire TikTok account, they had their first viral video – a fire safety clip reminding viewers to never re-enter a burning home.
“That video has been viewed 8.5 million times,” Aguilar said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s somebody in our community [who sees it] – anyone in the country or the world can benefit from hearing that message. That’s when we knew we had something with our TikTok account.”
‘I saw you on TikTok’
While SFD’s safety video was able to reach a global digital audience, it was just the beginning of their TikTok engagement strategy. As Aguilar shared videos of promotion ceremonies, helmet cam footage from fireground operations, and the always-popular animal rescue videos, the views and comments began racking up – and this time, they were local.
- “Can’t wait to get my firefighter 1 certificate and join the Sac fire dept much respect for all those that are currently in the force”
- “This is so cool! I live in Sac and had no idea you guys were on TikTok!
- “Can you make a video about life at the department? Like a daily routine of sorts?”
Aguilar was rapidly replying to fans with encouraging updates, while also sharing the recruiting link for SFD. Eventually, their digital promotion yielded real-life results, which shocked Wade.
“We’ve had people show up at recruitment events and say, ‘I saw you on TikTok,’” he said. “It was hard for me to fathom a bit. Like, that’s how you’re arriving at our doorstep? But it’s a testament to this new generation. If you’re not on these types of platforms, you are somewhat archaic. You have to get with the times.”
It’s an area the fire service must make a priority like it has with other issues that needed an updated approach in the modern era.
“We’re doing a good job across the nation with cancer prevention and working on how we can do a better job on response times and keeping our firefighters safe,” he said. “But in recruitment, you have to stay relevant as well. How do you keep it moving and meet new benchmarks?”
‘What’s for lunch?’ in Sacramento
One of the reasons Aguilar and Wade believe the SFD TikTok account has seen so much success is due in part to the contrast in their perspectives. Aguilar, as someone without any prior experience in the fire service, is looking at every aspect of the industry as an outsider, as opposed to someone on the inside, like Wade.
“It’s kind of a unique dance that we’re doing,” Aguilar said, “because he knows the feel and the look of the fire service, whereas I’m here with the curious mind of what people in the outside world may be interested in.”
Case in point: SFD’s “What’s for lunch?” TikTok series, which was inspired after the first time Aguilar ate a meal at the firehouse; she knew immediately it was something the public would be interested in.
“… Everybody’s cooking, coming together at the table, they’re breaking bread together and having these conversations about their day,” she said. “They really are building a community that’s kind of like their family. For me, I thought, ‘If I would’ve known this about the fire service, that would’ve made me want to join, just for the family environment of it.’”
So, she captured that dynamic on video, talking with firefighters at the station about what they’re making, and getting footage of the collaborative cooking process as members talk amongst themselves.
“It blew up,” she recalled. “People absolutely loved it.”
The series has become something of a competition between stations, Aguilar said, as crews try to outdo each other with elaborate meals in the hopes of attracting the most views.
There has been pushback from some crewmembers who don’t like the idea of showcasing firefighters at the station, but Aguilar underscored that it’s a part of the whole package of being in the fire service.
“They want to be seen as firefighters running into burning buildings, with big flames and a lot going on,” said Aguilar, adding that focusing on who firefighters are after the flames have been doused and turnout gear put away is what completes the picture of the profession.
“We’ve really done a good mix of both. You get to see what they do for the work they do, but also that family environment where they are just people, like everybody else,” Aguilar said. “As a storyteller, that’s the way we connect. It’s about people. It’s about who we are at the very core.”
It’s that insight from Aguilar that makes it work, Wade says.
“That’s where I was really missing the mark. I was sitting there going, ‘Well, I don’t care where Bill came from, I want to talk about this incident,’” he said. “What I didn’t see and now I totally get, is that Bill has a story. Bill arrived here somehow and that can empower people to think, ‘Oh, I’m just like Bill. I grew up like Bill did, and now I can be a firefighter, too.’”
Firefighters as social media influencers?
Yes, the idea of firefighters as influencers may make you chuckle, but in 2022, it’s a logical step to modern recruitment, as well as overall community engagement. A viral safety video or an animal rescue video that strikes an emotional nerve can bring awareness to the fire service and your particular department
“Animal rescues are my absolute favorite stories to write,” Aguilar said. “I feel like I’m writing a children’s book every time. And Loki was the first one that really went viral for us.”
Loki, an abandoned pit bull puppy who was found with burned plastic on his body at a fire scene, garnered more than 600,000 views in his introduction video, which was set to the tune of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Disney’s Toy Story.
Viewers on TikTok followed Loki’s story as he was given a name and fostered by one of the firefighters, who eventually adopted him.
When one of SFD’s viral TikToks highlighting the rescue made its way to the local news station, news crews were quick to make a trip to the firehouse to film their own update on the story, which had already become a local sensation.
“The reach of that story is so massive still, to this day,” Aguilar said. “I’ll post something on TikTok and [commenters] will say, ‘Oh, thank you for saving this family’ or whatever the incident is, but then they’ll ask, ‘Where’s Loki? Can you tell us more about Loki?’ It is great for us to tell that story and for the community to know that the fire department is here for everyone.”
The SFD TikTok team also views the account as an educational tool they can use to give residents more insight into what their local fire department does on a daily basis. On one of the “What’s for lunch?” series videos, one commenter posted, “Oh, so that’s where my tax dollars are going, to pay for your meals.”
Aguilar turned the remark into a civics lesson.
“I asked, ‘Hey, people are asking who pays for these meals?’ and right away I start recording their answer that they pay for their own meals,” she said. “It’s a great teaching opportunity.”
It’s the concern that comments will turn ugly that Wade said holds many fire leaders back from engaging on social media platforms and trying new ways of connecting with the public.
“If you’re not open to get out there and take some risks, you aren’t going to have a whole lot of successes,” he said. “You’re going to stay in safe mode all the time. Take some risks, invite conversation, and then just have a plan on how you’re going to answer stuff and not shy away from it. You’ve got to be kind of bold on these types of things.”
How to make firefighting ‘cool’
For any department, large or small, curious about the possibilities of TikTok, Wade encourages PIOs or whoever disseminates information for the organization to have a discussion with senior leadership about the app’s potential.
“They need to have these discussions and really learn what the value is, because a lot of them think it’s nonsense and just for fun and zany ridiculous back and forth,” Wade said. “But there’s real value to these platforms for recruitment and retention.”
And that value is being connected to the next generation, according to Aguilar. She recalled a conversation she had with a captain at Sacramento Fire Station 4 who shared a moment between him and his daughter.
“His daughter said, ‘Oh my gosh, dad, you guys are so cool. You’re on TikTok,’” Aguilar said. “And he said, ‘I wasn’t cool before because I was a firefighter, but now I’m cool because we’re on TikTok.’ So, it kind of gives you the idea of where this is going and where the next generation is.”
She punctuated the point: “And that’s where want to be – wherever the next generation is.”
Worried about retention? Invest in the fire family
Clinical psychologist Rachelle Zemlok, a firefighter spouse, emphasizes the role fire families play in the career decisions of firefighters