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Volunteer Recruitment and Retention: Technology versus Tradition

Volunteer and combination fire departments across the country struggle with the recruitment and retention of active volunteer firefighters. With 80% of the fire service consisting of volunteers, recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters can present significant staffing and response challenges if not properly addressed.

Most departments perform recruitment activities, but are these activities effective and do they maximize the use of the department’s resources?

Over the past two years, the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association (VFCA) in partnership with the IAFC, George Mason University and the Environmental Systems Research Institute has studied recruitment and retention best practices throughout the commonwealth of Virginia. The program, called the Virginia Volunteer Workforce Solutions (VWS), compared traditional recruitment methods against newer technology-driven methods over 16 months between June 2011 and October 2012; 20 departments participated with 10 using traditional recruitment methods and 10 using technology-driven methods.

Traditional recruitment methods included recruitment events, mailings, posters, school visits, open houses, etc. The technology-driven method used geographic information systems (GIS) to conduct a community-level profile and analysis (tapestry report) to identify the types of people who best fit the profile of firefighter candidates.

The data in the tapestry report allowed departments to identify more-targeted recruitment strategies based on the interests and locations of ideal candidates within their own communities. For example, in some departments, the tapestry report showed that hunting and country music were popular among their ideal candidates, so hosting a recruitment event at the local sporting goods store and partnering with a local country-music station for advertising support was an effective recruitment strategy.

So what were some of the results of the VWS program? What was more effective, traditional or technology-driven recruitment? Similar to fireground operations, effective recruitment should rely on performing the basics (size-up and conducting a 360) and relying on technology (thermal-imaging camera). Effective recruitment should be hybrid; that is, using a blend of traditional methods targeted at ideal candidates identified by technology-driven methods.

The major findings of the Virginia VWS program are:

  • The study had 1,539 potential recruits across 20 participating departments: 956 using traditional methods and 583 using the GIS methodology.
  • Referrals and the personal ask are key. Personal interaction with a potential firefighter is the overwhelming impetus to join; technology can help departments reach the right people at the right place in order to make the personal ask. GIS reports, social media, QR codes and online videos are all great tools to use in recruitment if done well and in conjunction with other more traditional recruitment methods.
  • For the GIS group, recruitment nights, printed and distributed materials, community posters, community-business contacts and media activities proved to be significant.
  • Fall had the highest recruitment totals (30%), with the highest monthly total in October. Summer had a similar total (29%) followed by winter (21%) and spring (20%). December had the lowest monthly total for each group. 
  • Recruits listed special events (19%), friend/family referrals (17%) and webpage/internet searches (8%) as the leading mechanisms for learning about volunteer opportunities.
  • Service to the community (17%), EMS response (14%) and fire response (12%) were the top three motivators for recruits. The top five motivators accounted for 60% of the motivating factors for recruits.
  • The top three primary recruit occupations, which accounted for more than half of the responses, included student, health care and the military.
  • 73% of recruits thought social media is a good recruiting tool.
  • Overall, the majority of recruits volunteered for passive reasons (42%), such as referrals, combinations, memberships and departments, compared to active reasons (39%), such as events, displays, media and face-to-face activities.
  • Tenured firefighters are more likely to enjoy administrative duties and less likely to enjoy response duties and community outreach.
  • Firefighters believe people leave the fire service due to a lack of leadership, poor fit with others and politics within the departments.
  • Departments with a full-time volunteer recruitment coordinator, a centralized application process and standardized policies and procedures were more successful in their recruiting efforts.
  • Departments with antiquated bylaws, application processes and a lack of an immediate and coordinated response to potential recruits were less successful in their recruiting efforts.
  • Departments with mentorship and leadership programs were more successful in their recruitment and retention efforts.

Based on these findings, departments should examine three main areas to improve volunteer recruitment and retention: leadership, processes and personnel. Following are recommendations based on the findings of the VWS program.

  • Ensure all personnel create an environment that includes a sense of belonging, achievement, increased responsibility, self-respect, challenge, recognition, reward, growth and development. Make sure personnel are treated equally and eliminate all hostile work environments.
  • Implement a leadership program to enhance leadership on the fireground and in the firehouse.
  • Establish and enforce leadership and promotional guidelines and training requirements to ensure solid leadership and equity within your organization.
  • Implement a mentorship program.
  • Create a recruitment and retention plan and stick to it. Develop strategies that will work for your department.
  • Recruitment and retention are ongoing processes and they must be managed and executed on a continual basis, not every couple of months or years.
  • Establish policies, procedures and standards so members know how to perform as agents of the organization (operations, training, communication, etc.).
  • Update bylaws and the recruit application and approval processes to meet today’s challenges.
  • Establish a centralized application process.
  • Conduct exit interviews in order to identify the reasons for leaving, then address any issues.
  • Involve all personnel in recruitment and retention efforts.
  • The best recruiters are current, satisfied volunteers who can relate their positive experiences and encourage others to become involved. Ensure that current volunteers act, speak and appear in a positive light. Personnel should be trained on department information and talking points.
  • Maintain amicable relationships between independent fire companies and between volunteer and career personnel to achieve positive recruitments efforts.
  • Assign a full-time volunteer coordinator.

The Virginia VWS program will continue to study recruitment and retention best practices. VFCA was recently awarded phase II of the VWS program through a FEMA SAFER Recruitment and Retention grant and is currently seeking 20 departments to participate in the GIS-based recruitment methodology. If your department is interested in participating in phase II, contact the program by email. If your department has implemented a successful recruitment and retention program, we would love to hear your experiences and achievements as well.

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