Can Diversity Save the Volunteer Fire Service?

I don’t need to recite the statistics; we all know the problem. We need to be honest with ourselves and realize that the volunteer fire service in the United States is dying a slow death.

We all know we’re losing a steady number of volunteers because of many people’s need for two incomes, increased family responsibilities, generational differences, training requirements, government regulations and so on and so on.

The big question is, what are we going to do about it?

How can we save the volunteer fire service and reverse the trend of declining volunteer membership numbers? There’s no one answer, no magic solution. But one place to look is diversity.

We’ve all heard the phrase that the fire service represents 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress. Part of that tradition is the fact that the fire service for years had remained a predominately white male stronghold.

If the volunteer fire service is going to survive, that must change.

Much has been written about the inclusion of women in the fire service, and major improvements have been made on that front. I’m not downplaying the importance of women to the fire service, but they aren’t the focus of this article.

I’m talking today about including the racially and ethnically diverse segment of your population that’s steadily growing. We must tap into that growing population to increase our volunteer ranks.

We need to take a hard look at the makeup of our communities and increase our efforts to have our volunteer departments mirror that makeup.

Check the results of the latest census. What percentage of your population is Hispanic? Asian? Black? Does the makeup of your department membership even come close to those percentages?

If not, perhaps you need to identify which group represents the fastest growing segment of your population and focus your recruitment efforts there.

Several departments in Westchester County, N.Y., have done this and have seen their volunteer numbers grow steadily. A New York Daily News article in April 2013 highlighted the situation in Port Chester, N.Y., where the 2010 census showed that 59.4% of the population is Hispanic. They’ve been aggressively reaching out to this community. Once a couple of Hispanic members joined, those members reached out to their friends and family to bring in even more members. The department is now thriving, due in large part to the influx of these Hispanic members.

In Elmsford, a small village in the New York City suburbs, the volunteer department had relied for years on family and friends of current members to maintain its ranks. It therefore remained mostly white and male. However, the village makeup has changed dramatically, with the 2010 census showing the population to be 38% Hispanic, 29% White, 20% Black and 10% Asian. Through aggressive recruiting throughout the community, the department has grown its ranks to be more representative of the community.

How do you accomplish this in your department? Tailor a recruiting program to the specific populations you’re targeting. Consider producing literature in the first language of your target audience. Visit civic associations or community groups in the neighborhoods where large segments of the targeted population live. Identify key leaders of the targeted population and approach them for help in reaching out to their groups.

Most important, be open minded and accept the fact that your department needs to change. Its existence may depend on it.

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