The new volunteer: How to build a system for accepting first-timers and lateral-movers

Design a process to identify the new members who will fit the culture of your organization


The membership is the heart and soul of volunteer fire organizations. You may have an accountant, doctor or plumber who has joined your organization with the purpose of serving their community – or just to drive the big red engine.

Your members’ experiences can be priceless, but they can also impact your culture and direction. Further, how does the impact differ with members who transfer from another organization? Their experiences might create unique challenges for the organization, but they can also add significant value if you take the following “new member” approach.

Before accepting new members, though, it’s important that your organization has an established culture that fits the membership. The organization’s mission, vision and values are derived from the community’s needs and the organizational memberships values. Without a clear mission, vision and values, the culture of your organization will change directions constantly, like a weathervane in a tornado. Your members must have ownership in the culture to steady the course and successfully add new members.

And remember, as a leader, it’s not about you; it’s about your members and your community. Your personal vision should be a part of this process but only one part.

So, with that established, let’s shift to how your department accepts new members.

Build a system for accepting new volunteers

The first step is to develop an actual process to accept new members. For years, the volunteer organizations to which I belonged didn’t have a system to identify and select new members. We had a steady flow of random new members monthly and yearly. The system was essentially this: Show up Wednesday night and we will provide you a pager and gear. This never worked. New members struggled to connect with the organization, and old members would become frustrated by always training the new people.

Here’s how to build a system for new members without any experience:

Identify what you want in a volunteer: This includes the traits and characteristics that match your organizational culture. At our organization, we use these words: Humble, Hungry, and Everyday Street Smart. All of our interview questions are derived from these words along with our organizational values: service, ownership, unity and progressive. The values help us focus on attracting the right fit for our organization.

Create an interview panel: This panel should consist of variety of members, officers, veteran members and new members. You might think “we are just a volunteer department” and you don’t need to interview new members. To the contrary, I suggest that because you are a volunteer department, it is even more important to have an interview process that identifies the right members. If you take time to find the right people, you will see improved member retention and stronger participation of your new members.

Establish quarterly or yearly recruitment drives: Create energy around the process of interviewing and accepting new members. Make it an elite opportunity to join your organization. By adding value to the process, you will attract more and stronger applicants. Our organization has moved to bringing on new members every August, followed by a training academy in September. By doing this, we have seen better applicants and more success with retention.

Create an academy: I know it sounds scary and you might feel your members will shy away from this format, but we have found when we select the right members, they take pride in completing the academy. Your academy should fit your needs and be as long or as in depth as you need. Do not feel compelled to teach them everything in the fire service. Teach them enough to operate safely on your incidents. You will refine your academy curriculum as you grow in the process. It’s important that the academy fit your members’ time and needs. Our academy runs two nights a week and every other weekend for 10 weeks. They don’t learn everything, but they learn the basics to get on an engine and respond, which is way better than the old system where they didn’t even have the basics and were still getting on the engine. And we do continue more training to meet the state’s Firefighter I standard after the academy. Check out the Montana State University Fire Service Training School to see a training program for FF1 certification. This style of training program might be of a value for your organization to adopt or customize.

Celebrate their success: Upon completion of the academy, celebrate your new members’ success by holding a graduation. Invite the families to share in this process.

Following completion of the academy, invite the new members and their families to a dinner with your organization. Breaking bread with your new members and their families is a great way to start their passion in your organization, and it helps to develop the values you want in your members.
Following completion of the academy, invite the new members and their families to a dinner with your organization. Breaking bread with your new members and their families is a great way to start their passion in your organization, and it helps to develop the values you want in your members. (Photos/Jason Caughey)

Break bread together: Invite the new candidates and their families to a family dinner with your organization. Being a volunteer can require long hours of training and the inconvenient call during holiday dinners and other family events. Your new members will need the support of their families and the fire family to be successful. Breaking bread with your new members and their families is a great way to start their passion in your organization, and it helps to develop the values you want in your members.

Accepting lateral member or members with experience

While the above process is specific to first-time volunteer firefighters, let’s now turn to how your department accepts new members from other departments.

Keep the interview: For members who are coming to you with experience from other departments, the interview process is critical. Experienced volunteers bring value with skill sets and call experience; however, they also bring the culture from the previous department. It is important that you follow through with the interview process to ensure they fit your culture.

Create a lateral academy: Don’t forgo the academy. Create a lateral member academy that provides them the opportunity to learn your system. The lateral academy is much shorter and really designed to introduce the new member to your equipment, standard operating guidelines (SOGs), fireground operations etc. This is a key step to merge their experience into your organization. Don’t assume they have been trained, as you know training is not consistent. Just because they have 20 years in another organization means could mean they have one year of training celebrated 20 times. Train the lateral firefighter to meet your department’s needs.

Celebrate their success: Just like with first-timers, it’s important to celebrate their success after completing the academy.

A higher standard

Recruiting and retaining new members is one of the greatest challenges facing volunteer organization all around the country. Many of our organization have become so desperate for volunteers that we take anyone interested. This is a bad idea.

To gain new members and retain members, you must build a system that identifies your culture and builds value and prestige in being a part of your organization. Hold your organization to a higher standard, and you will see a long-term impact on your retention.

Editor’s note: How does your department welcome its newest volunteers? Share in the comments below.

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