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The 1-on-1 connection: Informal conversations are critical to recruitment efforts

A positive experience with a firefighter is sometimes all it takes to motivate someone to consider a new vocation


Firefighters engage in recruitment activities every time they are out in public, whether they are doing emergency response or just shopping for groceries.

Photo/Fairfax Fire Department

The need for recruitment in the fire service sometimes seems counterintuitive. Firefighting is a challenging and rewarding vocation. Some departments report getting hundreds of applicants for just a few positions.

But others tell a different story. Particularly among agencies that rely on volunteers to fill their ranks, many talk about the difficulty of finding people to fill available positions. And even those who lead departments that get many applicants for any open slot will admit that quantity does not equal quality. Finding good people to be firefighters can be a challenge for a department of any size.

Several factors play a role in the recruitment challenge. Some people may not understand what the job really entails in terms of work responsibilities. Some may genuinely want to do the job but have problems with some of the logistics, such as scheduling. Some may be qualified but not truly motivated. Some may be attracted to the job for the wrong reasons.

The right people for the job

Effective recruitment isn’t about finding a lot of people to apply for firefighter positions, but rather finding the right people to apply. Most fire departments recognize that some effort toward recruitment will more than pay off down the line.

But what kind of recruiting? Some departments put considerable effort into programs that advertise upcoming entry-level testing, perhaps including some in-person education sessions for prospective candidates. Others may include focused workshops to prepare candidates for specific aspects of the testing process, such as the physical abilities test. Many will include open-house events where candidates and their families can tour fire stations, meet firefighters, and have their questions answered.

All these efforts are worthwhile. But such episodic recruitment events are not enough. For recruitment to be truly effective, it needs to be an ongoing process that involves everyone on the department.

Such ongoing efforts may take the form of structured endeavors, such as Explorer or mentorship programs for young people. These programs can get teenagers mentally and physically prepared to successfully test for positions later on. They are especially valuable for people who have no prior ties to the fire service and who may have never considered making a commitment to working in the emergency services. But there’s more we can do.

Informal, one-on-one connections

Some of the most effective recruitment happens informally, one-on-one. In this capacity, every member of the organization is on the recruitment team. Firefighters engage in recruitment activities, for better and worse, every time they are out in public, whether they are doing emergency response or just shopping for groceries. They don’t have to say a word to leave an impression on a prospective new-hire as to whether that person could see themselves as part of the organization.

Firefighters should always be aware that their actions and attitude are having a real effect beyond what they may be aware of. Conscious, directed efforts can have much more positive impact. This is especially true for those who may not have ever met a firefighter or considered a fire service career.

Consider the experience of Deena Lee, who has just been promoted to chief of department in El Segundo, California. In 1999, Lee was working in the emergency room at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center while studying to become nurse. She remembers that paramedics from the Long Beach Fire Department would come in with patients, and they saw that, “I was strong, moving patients around. They thought I’d be good” at firefighting. Just that much encouragement caused her to change her career path, culminating in the top position now.

You never know when your words of encouragement will have a lasting impact. Look for opportunities to connect at the one-on-one level. Is there someone at your gym who obviously values fitness and has a good work ethic? Among a team of contractors working at your house, is there someone who makes the extra effort and is eager to learn? Do you know someone through a social or athletic group that you think would be a good firefighter candidate?

Don’t limit your range to your friends. They already know you and probably know something about the work you do. Talk to people in the community that might a good fit for the fire service. Ask if they have ever considered the job. Answer their questions. Encourage them to follow up.

It doesn’t take much effort to motivate someone to think again about a vocation they may have never seriously considered. Having a personal connection with someone, even a stranger, can make all the difference, especially for those who are underrepresented currently in the fire service.

Further, don’t limit your outreach to the usual suspects, like hospital and ambulance staff and sports teams. One successful candidate on my fire department was a cashier at the grocery store where the firefighters shopped. Casual conversations about the job led that person to successfully test, get hired, promote and complete a full fire department career.

Reach out

Recruitment can happen in many ways. Formal programs are a good investment, but don’t overlook the importance of the personal connection when encouraging good candidates to consider the job. Connecting one-on-one can make all the difference.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.