Every day, thousands of small communities across the country rely on the local volunteer fire department to keep them safe and protect their property. Yet, these same departments face increasing difficulty recruiting and retaining the firefighters they need to sustain the department and its ability to respond.
In 2011, the Connecticut Fire Chiefs Associations was awarded an AFG-SAFER recruitment and retention grant. The state launched a statewide recruitment campaign while participating in a research study to increase volunteer rates and offer insight into the difficulties and challenges of recruiting volunteers in today’s culture.
We’re already learning valuable lessons, which represent significant obstacles and challenges to overcome if the local volunteer fire department is to survive and thrive in the future. All offer opportunities to improve and increase the volunteer workforce, but leaders must make the tough, unpopular decisions and uncomfortable changes that determine success or failure.
Above all, we’re learning that recruitment and retention is an active daily process that represents a departure from more-traditional approaches we continue to see.
It’s easy to blame lack of volunteers on the changing attitudes toward service to the community and lack of a viable pool from which to recruit, but this is an easy excuse; often this doesn’t hold true. Volunteers are still out there—they’re just as altruistic and service-oriented as ever, but their needs are different.
What's changed is the ability of the fire service—and in some cases the community—to consider the needs of today’s volunteer, then adjust long-held practices and policies that prevent volunteering, such as membership, residency and training requirements. In many instances, departments are making it harder and pushing volunteers away.
We need to think in new ways and come up with alternative solutions. If a department sets requirements on volunteers, the department or community must work within those requirements to make them accessible.
If volunteer firefighters are required to live within a certain distance from the fire station, does the community offer affordable housing or can it provide housing assistance? Does the fire department offer alternative solutions to the residency requirement, such as on-site quarters for duty crews? If a department has requirements for volunteers, it should also be able to provide options to help meet those requirements.
The same is true for training. For example, offering incremental evening sessions over several weeks, weekends or months, so time away from work and families is more manageable, may work better in today's environment. It may take longer to attain certification, but you gain volunteers who are likely to stay because the opportunity worked within their schedules.
Recruitment takes a lot of work, but perhaps not in the way most departments think. Research shows that most people join a fire department because of personal interaction with fire personnel. They join because they know or meet a firefighter!
Every firefighter in your department is a recruiter, so look at whom you’re sending into the community and when you’re sending them. People want to join organizations because they see others with similar interests, similar values, ethics and morals as their own. Do your firefighters represent your department and the community?
Every encounter with the public is an opportunity to recruit another volunteer, so every firefighter has an obligation to represent the pride and professionalism of the department.
The same goes for department leadership. Be aware of the recruiting message you communicate every time you leave the station; no one wants to follow a bad leader or be part of a bad organization.
If your department is actively involved in the community and department members project a positive image every time they go out, chances are your department isn’t having any difficulty recruiting or retaining volunteers.
Social media influences its audience; it can be a great recruitment tool if used correctly. Use those channels that are most common within your community and keep them current and active.
Successful recruitment depends on strong, involved leadership willing to invest in new solutions that work and vacate practices that don’t. Recruitment programs must be individualized for the community, considering its unique culture, diversity and social dynamics.
It’s up to you to create interest in your department and show your involvement and presence in the community.