Reinventing recruitment: How 1 N.Y. department stepped up its game
The Snyder Fire Department’s new four-phase recruitment strategy is already showing results
By Trish Hudson and Zach Polvino
Recruitment in the volunteer fire service is at the top of the list of topics at conferences, on association webinars, and during conversations among members inside volunteer firehouses across the country.
The crux of the issue, per the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC): Departments are struggling to attract younger members for a variety of reasons, including increased demands on people’s time, longer commuting distances to and from work, the prevalence of two-income households, and increased training requirements.
Volunteer organizations must seek creative solutions to attract new members. Fortunately, there are many resources available to departments – and our department capitalized on these resources as part of a plan to reinvent our recruitment strategy. And it’s working.
About the Snyder Fire Department
Located in a first ring suburb of the city of Buffalo, N.Y., the Snyder Fire Department serves a district approximately 9 square miles in size and responds to approximately 1,100 calls per year for both fire and medical calls, including mutual aid to approximately 27 square miles in the towns of Amherst and Cheektowaga.
We currently have 70 members, with an average member age of 52 – not unlike the national average of an aging membership.
Members take action
In 2020, a small group of Snyder Fire Department members formed a recruitment and retention committee to address our staffing challenges. The committee was comprised of our second assistant chief (who is now the first assistant chief), a past chief who now serves as a safety officer, a lieutenant, and ourselves – a captain and the corporate secretary – all volunteer firefighters and EMTs within the company, and all with a common concern, a shared sense of problem-solving, and a continuous improvement mindset.
What started as simply trying to understand the issues developed into a multi-year, multi-faceted approach to both recruitment and retention challenges. The result: Since January 2022, we have successfully onboarded 16 new members. This is extraordinary because we had previously onboarded, on average, two members per year.
A simple start: Regular meetings
The department’s recruitment plan had multiple levels, but it all started with a simple step – weekly meetings. While there is a great deal that can be accomplished during in-person meetings, use of video conferencing proved to be an effective tool, providing the committee much-needed flexibility. The cost of entry to these systems has decreased dramatically, and many are even free, especially for nonprofit organizations.
Once regular meetings were established, the committee was able to begin developing and implementing a four-part recruitment plan.
Phase 1: Membership survey
While the committee consists of cross-functional members and officers, we wanted to hear from everyone, so we conducted three member surveys to better understand the membership perspective. The surveys were confidential, and themes focused on communication, leadership, and willingness to try new things (essentially moving away from “this is the way we’ve always done it” mindset).
The surveys ultimately provided valuable insight into the concerns of our membership. Key takeaways from the surveys included a need for increased communication, increased flexibility in our membership model (for retention) and more cross-functional leadership.
Phase 2: Communication
Survey results were shared with the department leadership, both firemanic officers and executive officers, including the Board of Directors and the Board of Fire Commissioners. Survey results were then shared with all members via email and at our company monthly meetings. It was important for the committee to let the members know that their voice was heard and that plans were being established and prioritized to address their concerns.
Internal communications: Although not directly related to the recruitment committee, the fire company went through a process in 2019 of a full review and re-write of the company bylaws. One of the gaps discovered during the re-write was the lack of a fully accessible email system. In 2020, spearheaded by the recruitment committee, we applied for the Google for Nonprofits suite of products and established a company-wide email system for communication. All company-related information is now shared utilizing the Google suite, including email and Google Drive. Email was a much-needed addition to our text message and push notification paging system.
In addition to utilizing these communication tools, we also focused our efforts on increasing the amount and type of communications to members. It became apparent that during the height of the pandemic that members wanted and needed information, whether written SOGs or verbal communications from leadership.
External communications: We have a small team of members who are responsible for all company online activity – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and website updates. A Google form was created and added to the website to solicit contact information for interested potential members.
A detailed social media policy was then developed, following specific criteria for posts. Using social media has provided a standard platform for sharing fire safety and prevention messages as well. These messages engage the community and have given the fire department a deeper connection to the community.
Our social media team takes great care to craft thoughtful messaging for every post. This messaging is designed to be professional, with the end-user (community members) in mind. The team focuses on storytelling and uses pictures and graphics to increase exposure and views. Posts are focused on fire safety/fire prevention, current events, notable or major incidents, regular training, member accomplishments and new members. All posts also have a common thread – spreading a positive, professional message that always incorporates recruitment, with simple call-to-action messages.
Having graphically consistent messages and page identity is equally important, as it continues to underscore fire department professionalism. These posts put a face to the department, humanizing it, to build a connection among the community … and potential members.
Phase 3: Event opportunities
Unfortunately, a significant number of people in the community we service did not know we are volunteers. That was a call to action – to spread the message that we are volunteers, and we are actively recruiting. We modified our community engagement message to always include an educational component of some sort, plus information regarding volunteering and training.
In 2020, due to COVID restrictions, we had to cancel our annual fire prevention open house as well as other community activities, creating a gap in opportunities to engage with the community. So, in October 2020, we decided to host a virtual open house via YouTube live stream. The virtual open house was a good learning experience! During the event, we hosted a food drive for a local food pantry, collecting nearly 3,500 pounds of food during a drive-through drop-off event. We also handed out goodie bags for kids along with volunteer information to every car that drove through the event that day.
The Snyder Fire Department has engaged in many other events. Since mid-year 2020, the department has:
- Created recruitment yard signs that members post at their homes;
- Created recruitment cards with contact information;
- Hosted a recruitment open house tied into the Recruit NY weekend in April 2021 and again in April 2022;
- Held a drive-through chicken BBQ fundraiser in May 2021 where we handed out recruitment material;
- Hosted annual “Coffee with a Firefighter” events at the firehouse, where the community could come by, have a cup of coffee, take a station tour, and talk to firefighters about volunteering;
- Partnered with the Town of Amherst and participated in their Food Truck Rodeo at town parks to increase our presence in the community and spread the message of volunteering;
- Hosted our annual Fire Prevention Open House during Fire Prevention Week in October;
- Produced a fire prevention video for school-aged children that was posted to our department’s YouTube page and sent to schools;
- Hosted a “Truck or Treat” event for Halloween at the firehouse, where we had an overwhelming number of community members and their children attend for tours, crafts and candy; and
- Escorted Santa throughout our entire fire district on our annual Santa Ride on Christmas Eve.
We displayed signage and handed out information regarding volunteering at every event.
Phase 4: Recruitment, recruitment, recruitment
All of the activities described above were great for increasing our interaction with the community in a non-emergency way, but we still had to further drive the issue of active member recruitment. As such, the committee got to work on this and spent nearly 18 months conducting research (including interviews with other fire companies) to develop a comprehensive plan that included multiple approaches.
Expanded residency boundaries: The first proposal presented to the Board of Fire Commissioners was an expansion of our residency boundaries for members by approximately 1 mile in each direction. This turned out to be not only a recruitment tool but also a retention and engagement tool.
Like so many areas across the country, our geographic response and residency area is experiencing a housing boom. Snyder is a desirable community in western New York, and there is a significant demand for houses. Homes typically sell within days (sometimes hours) of being listed, and almost always for significantly higher than their asking price. We found that several younger members who were first-time homebuyers were having significant difficulty finding affordable houses to purchase when they were ready to move from renting to home ownership. Expanding our residency requirements allowing members to stay with the department when buying a home beyond the original response boundaries. We were even able to recruit a few new members because of this change.
Duty shift program: Through extensive research and collaboration with other fire companies, the committee developed a duty shift program. Of greatest interest was hearing from other companies that have established similar programs – what worked for them and, perhaps more importantly, what did not work for them.
The program was presented to the Fire District Commissioners in mid-2021. In collaboration with our Fire District Commissioners, the program was approved and started on Jan. 1, 2022, when our first on-duty crew rang in the new year by working their first shift together. Our social media team posted a picture and write-up about the duty crew, which generated a considerable amount of interest within our community, in the fire service community in western New York, within New York State and even in other states.
The flexible program allows members to create their own shifts. They work shifts that support their families and jobs, thus creating the work-life balance so many of our members seek.
Some program specifics:
- Members must work a minimum of 288 hours/year to achieve good-standing status.
- The duty shift requirements, other than hours, has been kept the same as the on-call program; all drill requirements, work detail requirements, etc., are the same for each program.
- We have several crew members who work only evenings, over-night shifts or only day shifts, thus helping the department during often-challenging response times.
Quarterly surveys to all duty crewmembers are completed, as well as open meetings for any members who wanted more information about the duty shift program. The survey results confirmed what we suspected: Members in the program felt the program allowed them to achieve an improved work-life balance so they could continue their membership with the Snyder Fire Department, as many members had been struggling to maintain their requirements as on-call members while balancing their home and work lives.
Since Jan. 1, 2022, we have been successful in onboarding 16 new members and have transitioned 11 existing on-call members to duty shift members.
Orientation, onboarding and mentorship
Throughout the process of creating our duty shift program and increasing our recruitment activity, we also worked to improve our onboarding process and to create a mentorship program.
The Snyder Fire Department had a thorough onboarding program for new members. The orientation typically lasted for about 3 hours during which time new members received their turnout gear and other equipment, got a tour of the firehouse, and were educated on the bylaws, policies and procedures of the department and the district. We found that this was a tremendous amount of information to absorb in only a few hours, and it was overwhelming for many new members. The recruitment committee took this opportunity to reevaluate the onboarding experience and make some needed updates.
Orientation program: The recruitment committee re-worked the orientation program and created a new onboarding program, providing a more organized and methodical approach to onboarding. A series of training modules for new members were developed to provide an opportunity for new members to quickly become both proficient and efficient. The training modules are adjustable depending upon a member’s previous experience.
Mentorship program: The newly created mentorship program pairs a new member with an experienced member. The mentor does not have to be an officer, although many of our past officers are providing tremendous mentorship. Being a volunteer organization, we are fortunate to have members with diverse and varied backgrounds who can provide exceptional guidance. For example, one of our mentors is a former captain within the department and a retired teacher. Using his teaching background, he provides education using one-on-one teaching methods.
Mentors also attend the orientation session with the new member, and they assist in helping the new member work through the onboarding process. The mentor facilitates trainings, from reviewing equipment on the apparatus and practicing 2-minute and 1-minute drills, to explaining our SOGs. Mentors can provide this training or work to align schedules with an officer or subject-matter expert to provide the training.
The recruitment committee of the Snyder Fire Department will continue to look for new and innovative ways to recruit and retain members, as well as opportunities for members to grow.
Visit the Snyder Fire Department website to learn more about its recruitment efforts.
About the Authors
Trish Hudson is a firefighter and an EMT with the Snyder Fire Department and currently holds the executive officer rank of corporate secretary. Hudson has a strong drive for community service and is passionate about quality emergency care and response. She has been employed by the same company for more than 33 years and has had career growth opportunities within various roles, including sales, marketing, procurement, process management, manufacturing, project management and engineering.
Zach Polvino is a 15-year member of the Snyder Fire Department and currently holds the rank of captain. Polvino is very passionate about the fire-service and delivering quality, consistent service-delivery in emergency responses and in training. Polvino has a background in operations and project management, as well as a deep love of photography, and utilizes these skill sets daily in his tasks within the fire department.