What if it was this easy to recruit firefighters?
The Snyder Fire Department set a goal, formed a team, and made a plan to significantly increase its membership in two years
Across public safety, staffing challenges are a top concern. Approximately 94% of 2023 What Firefighters Want survey respondents reported that their department has experienced staffing challenges in the past three years. For volunteer services, new member recruitment and existing member retention is especially challenging.
Serving a 6-square-mile area in the Buffalo suburbs, the Snyder (N.Y.) Fire Department recently received the Firefighters Association of the State of New York’s Recruitment and Retention Award for its efforts that have proven successful in this area. Since January 2022, the Snyder Fire Department has added 30 new members to its roster and receives one or two new applications per month.
Here are a few things we can learn from the Snyder Fire Department.
The Snyder Fire Department formed a recruitment committee. Committees or task forces perform best when they have responsibility delegated from the chief, a charter or mission to guide the committee’s scope and timeline, resources to set and accomplish SMART objectives (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound), and clear understanding of the problem they are charged to solve.
Create a plan
Having a plan is an important first step. Just 26% of What Firefighters Want survey respondents agreed with the statement, “My department has a strong recruitment plan.”
“One thing we tell other (fire) companies when working with them is that they have to understand THEIR issues and solve for them,” said Trish Hudson, Synder Fire Department Commissioner and member of the recruitment and retention committee. “This plan was to help us understand OUR issues and solve for those.”
The Snyder Fire Department’s four-phase plan, explained in greater detail here, included three confidential member surveys, communication of survey results to department leadership and members, creation of new event opportunities and partnering with other community events, development of plans to expand resident boundaries, creation of a duty shift program, and better organized onboarding practices.
Evolve membership types
The Snyder Fire Department now has two types of membership – on-call membership for firefighters who live within the fire district residency boundaries and duty shift memberships for firefighters who live within a 25-mile radius and are able to work a set number of hours at the fire department. The duty shift program was implemented in the fourth phase of the plan.
“In collaboration with our fire district commissioners and chiefs, we implemented our new duty shift program on Jan. 1, 2022,” Commissioner Hudson said.
In addition to helping onboard new members, the duty shift program has helped retain members. Hudson wrote:
“We converted approximately 11 existing ‘on call’ members to duty shift. This solved one of the issues we heard during the surveys – that increased time demands on families, jobs, etc., made it difficult for members to achieve their membership requirements as an on-call member. The duty shift program allows individuals to work shifts at the fire station (shifts of their choosing; we do not schedule at this time), so they can put in the time when it works for their schedules. We have some folks who work remote jobs, and they will come up to the fire station with their laptops and work during the day while on shift. We have some individuals who spend overnights at the fire station as that works best with their schedules. We offer that flexibility to them in the form of shifts of their choosing – minimum shift time is 2 hours and maximum is 12 hours in a 24-hour period.”
Create opportunities to meet people
The Snyder Fire Department hosted coffee-with-a-firefighter events at the fire station. Prospective members could tour the fire station and talk to firefighters. Creating a low-stress, friendly and welcoming event is a great way to answer questions, show people around, introduce current members and introduce people into the possibilities of volunteering and membership.
During events, make sure to connect recruits to the firefighters in your department who are positive about the fire service and regularly recommend it to others. Approximately 65% of What Firefighters Want respondents chose 8, 9 or 10 on a 1 to 10 scale question that asked, “How likely are you to recommend a career in the fire service?” Enthusiastic firefighters are the best ambassadors of your department’s mission and culture.
Celebrate milestones and accomplishments
A department Facebook page says a lot about a department’s culture and priorities. The Snyder Fire Department page celebrates longevity milestones, like Firefighter Ron Yensan’s 60 years of service, as well as the accomplishments of newer members, like Firefighter/EMT Xaiver Jones passing the New York State EMS exam.
Leverage social media
The department volunteering FAQs page states that the trait all members share is “a desire to help people and to serve the community we live in.” A sentiment that is true across all public safety occupations and geography and needs to be showcased in department social media. Approximately 70% of respondents to the 2023 What Firefighters Want industry survey chose “Service to the community” as one of their three most satisfying aspects about being in the fire service. Camaraderie with other firefighters was a close second, being chosen by 64% of respondents.
Scrolling the Snyder Fire Department Facebook page, it is easy to see the aspects of fire department life that volunteers want to experience – high-quality regular training, ample opportunity to serve their community and a diversity of personnel.
Remove friction from the application process
Joining a volunteer department should not be a challenge in web-browsing skill or communications fortitude. Make the “Join” or “Apply” button prominent on your website, and make sure every member knows where to direct applicants to apply. Next, keep your promises and follow a process. The Snyder Fire Department promises to reply within 1-2 days. My questions to the department’s recruitment email address were answered in less than 24 hours. The promptness, sincerity and quality of your communication makes an impression on applicants and reflects how the department values adding new members.
Recruitment is not actually easy
It is likely that the Snyder Fire Department is making volunteer firefighter recruitment look easier than it is. Like all things that are worth doing, success comes from a combination of having a vision, creating a team, motivating the team to work together, sincere willingness to change, working hard to achieve the goal and celebrating accomplishments.
What can your department learn from the hard work and success of the Snyder Fire Department?