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We want YOU: What the fire service can learn from the military’s recruitment experience

We can all work from the same playbook

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It’s no wonder the fire service is having similar recruitment troubles, as we are often pulling from the same pool of young people as the military.

Photo/DALL-E

The U.S. military entered 2024 with its smallest force in more than 80 years after the service branches collectively missed their 2023 recruiting goals by 41,000 troops. Only the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), which bills itself as the branch for high-performing service members, and Space Force hit their target recruiting goals.

According to a Department of Defense (DoD) study titled “The Target Population for Military Recruitment – Youth Eligible to Enlist Without a Waiver,” released in May 2023, the pool of young Americans eligible to serve in the Armed Forces has dropped to 23%. This number was reached based primarily on enlistment requirements related to medical/physical factors, mental health, drug use, conduct (misdemeanors or felonies), dependents and aptitude. What does 23% look like? It means, in essence, of the country’s 33 million youths, only 7.6 million men and women ages 18 to 22 are eligible for military duty. Of those individuals, roughly 4 million (12%) are eligible for immediate duty, but only 2.1 million (7%) would qualify, be available, and able to score above the 50th percentile on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT).

With such a small proportion of the population eligible to serve, it is little wonder that the Army, Navy and Air Force are all missing their monthly goals at recruitment. Furthermore, it’s no wonder the fire service is having similar recruitment troubles, as we are often pulling from the same pool of young people as the military.

Working from the same playbook

According to the What Firefighters Want (WFW) in 2023 report, 94% of respondents said their department has experienced staffing challenges in the past three years. So, what can we in the fire service learn from the DoD study and military experience regarding our own recruitment efforts? What are some things we can do to get a fire service commitment?

1. Advertise

Taking a tip from the USMC recruitment plan (as a former U.S. Air Force officer, I never imaged we’d need recruitment plans!), we need to focus on advertising media that best fits a younger demographic, with a focus on the elite jobs we do – firefighting, rescue, EMS, USAR, extrication, community risk reduction, etc. We should emphasize, as with the Marines, that only the best can become a firefighter, EMT or paramedic.

2. Maintain standards and ethics

I know it is difficult, but the criteria and ability to become a firefighter should be the same for career and volunteer members. The dangers do not change based on your agency type. Our training levels may differ, but then our tactics should be channeled accordingly. As such, the standards to become a firefighter, EMT or paramedic should remain in place, which include:

  • Physical requirements
  • Weight control
  • Drug/alcohol screening
  • Aptitude
  • Conduct

Like with the military, conduct considerations should include an extensive background check and polygraph test. The fire service has a centuries-old bond with the public that is unique and unmatched at any other level of government. We can enter the home of an individual or business for the purpose of controlling a fire without a writ or warrant. No other group, not even law enforcement, has such trust or authority.

Interestingly, in a break from past process, the U.S. Navy recently announced it would lower the educational requirements for new sailors, allowing those without a high school diploma or GED to enlist. While 15% of WFW respondents said their department was also lowering educational requirements to attract new members, I would argue that the fire service should consider how to expand their recruiting methods, instead of lowering standards.

3. Offer educational reimbursement

The benefits of the G.I Bill have long been used as a recruitment tool of the U.S. military, with recruiters touting the educational benefits to high school seniors concerned about the price of college. Conversely, only 21% of WFW respondents say their department uses tuition reimbursement to entice new members to join.

Following the model of the military’s educational perks, the fire service should establish a national incentive that provides college tuition reimbursement for active career or volunteer firefighters. If the fire service had a reimbursement plan for achieving college credits that enhanced their ability as a firefighter/EMT or medic, it would be a win-win for the individual, the community and the fire service.

It should be noted that 36% of participants in the latest WFW report said their department does engage with local teens through a high school cadet or Explorer program. Coupling the success of those programs with an educational incentive could create a pipeline from school to the fire department.

Another idea is for a fire department to partner with either community colleges or universities that offer a fire science or engineering curriculum, in essence a co-op program that offers a practical application of their studies by becoming a firefighter who staffs the station or runs as a volunteer, even on weekends.

Furthermore, it’s important to remember that there is a population of younger Americans deferring college all together to gain some real-world work experience before enrolling in college. This is common in some other countries, especially in Europe, where some sort of part-time community-based universal service is required for up to two years for all young citizens. Some examples: volunteering at a hospital, coaching a youth sport or, like in Germany – becoming a volunteer firefighter or EMT. While the U.S. might not be ready for this type of system, it’s still valuable to remember that there are young people looking to gain some life experience before college – and a career in the fire service could be just what they are looking for.

Looking to the future

Now is the time to apply the knowledge garnered from the DoD study and move forward to shape the future of the fire service with our next generation of firefighters.

Stay safe!

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.

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