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Your volunteer recruitment playbook: How to develop the plan and execute

It starts with getting real about why people aren’t joining the department


Staffing deficiencies are plaguing the fire service. The first step to finding a solution is the same as so many other challenges – acknowledging the problem. We can’t pride deter us from doing what is right for the community and our brother and sister firefighters. Increasing personnel brings significant increases in firefighter safety metrics and fireground effectiveness.

What makes this first step so difficult is the number of stubborn, salty veteran firefighters who deplore change. But we must move past the “this is how we’ve always done it” mindset if we’re going to be successful in solving our staffing challenges. It won’t be easy, but it is absolutely necessary if you want to boast a full roster of committed firefighters.

With the total number of volunteer firefighters declining more than 12% in the last decade, it’s past time that we consider new recruitment tactics that will bring fresh blood inside the station doors.

The perception problem

For years we have seen a sharp decline in the membership numbers of volunteer fire departments. Too often we recruit members, outfit them and train them, only to see their attendance slowly taper off until we send them a termination letter. Why does this happen? Why have people quit coming around?

Here are some reasons I commonly hear:

  • The younger generation is constantly glued to their phones, have never had to do any manual labor; therefore, volunteering on a fire department is probably too much work.
  • We used to have people show up to the station all the time and ask to join. No one stops now because there’s no sense of community.
  • Recruiting members cost too much. Once you get them in the door, you have to train them and outfit them with gear, pagers and clothing. It’s too expensive.
  • New members are too much drama.

Are these fair characterizations of our staffing situation?

Sorry to burst your bubble, but none of these are actual proven reasons for lack of recruitment and retention among volunteer departments.

The National Volunteer Fire Council published a Volunteer Retention Report in August 2020. They polled volunteers who had recently left the fire service, current volunteers, and current leadership on why members joined, and why members left. The key takeaway: The reasons that we, as officers, think people join the department are simply inaccurate. I was astonished, being a contributor to this survey myself.

Leadership was a top issue that emerged in the study results, followed closely juggling busy lives with volunteering, and lack of clear expectations from the beginning on the commitment of volunteer.

Imagine the possibilities

Another NVFC study surveyed 1,224 random people between the age of 18 and 65 about their believes around volunteering for the fire department. The findings:

  • 29% had high or moderate interest in joining a volunteer department.
  • 40% indicated they would be open to helping in a non-operational way.
  • 77% reported they had a desire to be involved in their community but weren’t sure how.
  • 80% responded they did not know their department needed volunteers.

Wow! Nearly 30% (335 people) said they had high interest in volunteering on their local fire department. Those numbers are great – simply unbelievable. Think about it, most of our district’s populations are at or above that 1,224 mark. And what if in our district we could garner interest by even just 10% of those who showed high interest? That’s 33 people right there. And if you add 10% of the folks who showed interest in the non-operational side, that’s another 49 volunteers.

Here is the question: What have you done to reach these potential members in your district? Have you reached out to every household? Have you expressed your need for help? Have you explicitly asked them to join? If you can answer yes to all of these questions, for every person in your district between the ages 18-65, then bravo, you have done everything. But for the rest of us, we need to sharpen our pencils and get to work – and it all starts with a recruitment plan.

Develop a recruitment plan

Tackling this issue within your department requires some real time and effort from you and your officers.

I am a huge proponent of creating committees, and this is the perfect place to start. By establishing a recruitment committee, you can spread out the responsibility and give members some stake in the department. You’ll want to assign a recruitment coordinator to head the committee and report back to you as needed.

Task this committee with developing a complete recruitment plan. This plan should include how many members you need to meet NFPA 1720, what methods you plan to employ to recruit them, and how you will train them once recruited.

Take the time, discuss it with your officers, and take the leap to ensure your department continues to operate with a full roster for years to come.

Your recruitment playbook

There are multiple ways to recruit within your district, many of which requires little budgetary support.

Word of mouth: This is by far the most relied upon method in today’s volunteer fire service. When people join a department, it’s usually because they have a buddy who is an active member that invited them. This method works very well in small towns, at least every couple of months. Current members should be reminded that the need for volunteers remains paramount and to please spread the word.

Mailed brochures: 1,500 recruitment brochures can be purchased for as little as $200. Mailing a brochure to households within your district will allow you to reach every single person in your district for $200 plus postage. Some websites offer free printable recruitment flyers, reducing costs to postage only.

Social media: If you have a need for volunteers but don’t express that need all the time on your department page, you have no one to blame but yourself. It takes 10 seconds to copy and paste a message, and you never know when the right person will see that post. Take the 10 seconds. Social media is the #1 recruitment tool at our disposal. For a few extra bucks, you can boost the post to target a specific audience within your service area.

Recruitment events: Do you hold an annual fundraiser? Do you have a table dedicated to recruitment? Why not? If you don’t want to host an event dedicated primarily to recruitment efforts, then piggyback off your own fundraiser or grab a truck and set up a table at a community event. People are already there to support the community. Strike up a conversation about the need for volunteers.

Event crashing: Same as the previous but at someone else’s event – all you need is a simple request to set up a table, and it only costs a few hours of the day. Consider having your apparatus close by to garner attention. Again, strike up some conversation, work in the need for volunteers. People, especially kids, are attracted to big red trucks. When they wander over, talk to their parents about their interest in volunteering.

Outdoor signage: If you have an outdoor sign with a message board, post your need for volunteers. This is a 100% proven method at my department. Six members to date have seen our sign and stopped in to talk. Note: Four of the six members remain active firefighters who are considered assets to the department and community. Two moved out of district.

Recruitment videos: Recruitment videos can be homemade or professionally done and posted on a website or social media. A video on social media is likely to get three times as many views as a text-heavy post.

Explorer program: By allowing teenagers (ages 14-18) to join the department as an Explorer, you can begin teaching them the fundamentals of the fire service. You can also use this time to weed out those who cannot commit to the life of a volunteer firefighter. Having members who know and understand department protocols and expectations join at a young age are more likely to remain long-term members of the department. Explorer Programs can produce a steady flow of one to three new members each year. Programs like the Boy Scouts of American can aid in assisting with this program.

Radio/newspaper messages: Many rural community members still get their news from the local newspaper and radio station each day. It’s a great way to reach them – and it’s easy. Most of us have been contacted by the local newspaper reporter requesting information on a recent incident response. Newspapers around the country are hurting for quality media to fill their pages. Work out a deal with them, provide them with the details of the recent call in exchange for the opportunity to share your need for volunteers in print or a 20-second radio spot that could be heard by hundreds within your district several times per day.

Door hangers: This one requires a little funding and some work; however, 1,200 door hangers can be purchased for as little as $200. Break into groups and walk the town, hang these slips on doors or hand them to folks you see out and about. Use fire trucks to hold the spares so you’ll have them on handy when you talk with people out in the community. This is also a good place to get members’ families involved. Placing your department, positively, in the eye of the public is one of the best unwritten recruitment tools out there. A bright smile and friendly conversation can result in an informal and subtle invitation to join without even asking the question.

Website: Find the most tech-savvy person on your department and have them create a website. You can learn anything on YouTube, including how to create, design and update a quality department webpage. High school and college students in computer classes are always looking for projects and typically jump at the opportunity to use fire department help for a class project. Make sure your membership application is available on the website.

Fire department culture

The next phase in the quest for quality recruits is to ensure that your agency requirements are hospitable enough for new recruits to have a fighting chance of getting accepted to join the department. What I mean is this: Are your requirements so tight that only CrossFit champions, the town’s financially elite or active/retired career firefighters would be invited to join?

Remember, there are likely multiple people in your district who are willing to volunteer with your department, but likely only a small number will be ideal candidates. Take a quick look around your current membership and consider how many members could perform 50 pushups, 50 jumping jacks, and run a mile, all within the next hour? Probably not many (and that’s an article for another day).

It’s important that we be realistic about our expectations while not compromising the ability to serve our community. Some of the best members on my department aren’t necessarily the most fit or drive the top-of-the-line vehicles. I recognize though these members don’t have any less of a drive than the member who can rip out 75 pushups in a 5-minute span. We must judge these folks on what they can do for our community, not how they look or whether they hang out at the local country club. Consider their value only in the number of lives and property that could be saved with them as a member. Otherwise, why are we here?

Once they are inside the door, ensure that your culture is one of listening to understand, not listening to respond. Hear what they are saying with the intent to understand where they are coming from and what they need from you. Give them the time of day and your attention and they will return the favor by giving commitment and respect in return. Different perspectives are the drivers that steer the “this is how we’ve always done it” bus away from your agency.

Remember, our duty as chief officers doesn’t end when we retire; it’s our duty to set up our departments so that it can continue to provide quality services well after our departure. If you want to change the future, you must change what you’re doing in the present. Be the change.


Read next

Your volunteer retention playbook: How to maintain membership

Four common retention pitfalls, plus simple solutions for improving department culture and keeping firefighters happy

Dan Rogers joined the Witt Volunteer Fire Department in 2005 as a third-generation firefighter. Working his way up through the ranks, Rogers spent six years as captain before being elected assistant fire chief. Rogers writes first responder grants in his spare time, and has accrued more than $3 million in firefighting assets for communities. Rogers is employed full time as an Operator for Phillips 66 Refinery, where he is a member of their Emergency Response Team fire crew, rope rescue team and medical team.