How do we get new members into the volunteer fire service? To answer this, we must fully explore the problem that exists in many communities. We must understand three things our people, our department, and our community. Understanding these three things will enable the department to meet the mission of the organization and be better prepared to deal with barriers and challenges that exist in the community.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (2017), "70 percent of all firefighters in the United States are volunteers." That number is diminishing at an alarming rate. Many problems exist in the community that contributed to this problem over time such as the economy, socioeconomics, time commitments and constraints with other civic activities and associations, technology, etc. A lack of communication and understanding between the local volunteer fire department and local municipal officials has also contributed to the downfall of new members in many communities. Not one solution is going to fix all the problems that exist in the community. Different communities may have different challenges than neighboring communities. Some communities may have similar challenges that networking between communities will help find a solution to a problem.
A marketing strategy for recruitment should be utilized. Marketing will answer the following questions, Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Who will perform the marketing, who are we searching for, what brand (department) are we marketing, what are we looking for within the new member, when marketing will be performed, where marketing will be done, why are we marketing, how to market our department. Effective businesses have successful marketing campaigns that strengthen their company to maintain sustainability.
To have a successful volunteer fire service recruitment campaign marketing must be done all the time by everyone within the organization. Every avenue must be explored to get the word out to whom the volunteer fire department is searching for and what qualities in the person that the department is looking for. A good starting point is to use the census data provided by the United States Census Bureau to better understand the local demographics and challenges that exists in the primary response area. Recruiting challenges must be solved locally.
Some people may say incentives will draw new members into the department. Different incentives mean different things to different people. Incentives may aid a little bit though it will be a band-aid solution to the problem. We must understand why we are here in the first place. To find the answer we must examine the mission of the organization and what it represents in the community.
Volunteer fire departments must understand that not all new recruits that come through the door will be active fire and emergency services responders. Volunteer fire departments must recognize what kind of new members they are searching for to enable the department to meet the mission of the organization. Some new members will not have the desire to perform as an active fire and emergency services role and will provide more of support role such as fundraising, physician or a nurse to perform physicals, immunizations, clerical duties, etc. Some new recruits will be denied because of their past criminal history or history in other fire departments. Some new recruits will have trouble or cannot pass the written or practical testing for certification. Some may not pass an entry medical physical due to medical issues if your department has an entry medical examination for new candidates in place.
Our people in our organizations are our greatest asset in recruiting. Without them the word would not get around. Word of mouth is one of the most effective ways to attract new members. Sometimes recruits will come from family, friends or other organizations within the community. Some may come from businesses that our current volunteers are employed at within the community. Our people are our recruiters within the organization. If our people really love what they do within the organization, they will spread the word.
Leaders must promote a positive work environment that will empower, inspire, and enable subordinates within the organization. Leaders must not deny training that will promote professional development of the member. When professional development stops so does the growth of the department. Professional development within the department will increase the development of the team. Having a successful mentoring program will enable the department to plan for the future.
Our people must be valued within the organization. We must value their time and dedication to the department. They must be recognized and rewarded for their efforts. A simple recognition ceremony prior to a meeting for completing a long training course or certification, or completing a fire and emergency services degree. An annual awards banquet should recognize members dedication for the previous year. An organizational outing that involves their family such as a barbecue, picnic or other event that builds unity.
It's simple; we need people to tasks within our organization. Training is ever-changing and ever-evolving, fire and emergency services responders must stay current on topics that potentially kill them or injure them. Training is the backbone to what we do. Without training we would not know how to do things. Training must be relevant to the mission of the organization.
The department must have sound and safe policies, procedures and guidelines that are align with current business practices. We must be prepared for everything that could happen such as a line of duty death, injury or illness. We shouldn't create policies, procedures, or guidelines after someone did something wrong. Then we are just naming it the "John Smith" rule. Thanks to John Smith we have this. We must be prepared to think of everything we do within the organization and how to properly safely protect our members within the organization while delivering quality fire and emergency services to the community.
Does the department make current business practices mistakes and change policies, procedures, and guidelines to prevent it from happening again? Do leaders within the organization understand the policies, the procedures and guidelines that are set forth within the organization and do they follow them or do they pick and choose what they follow each different day? Does the department want to change for the better or do they want to maintain the status quo? Maintaining the status quo is not good for any organization because it lacks a sense of adaption to changing environment conditions that exist in today's world.
The department must have their stuff together. Departments must have a mission, vision and core values. These are the cornerstone of what the department provides and what it is about. They should be displayed throughout the department and everyone within the organization should understand them to align themselves to the organization. The department must have proper strategic plans in place to replace equipment on an equipment cycle. The department should not buy big capital equipment or capital building projects on a whim, they should be thought of years before. Proper strategic planning comes from leaders within the organization.
The community must be engaged by our current members. In many communities, people don't realize that a volunteer fire department exists in their community. Constant public education and risk reduction efforts must be in place. This will be a daunting task of having to re-educate the community on how they can protect themselves, keep their families safe, and how they can protect our lives. The department must have a good image within the community to gain support from the community. The public image must be thought in the eyes of the consumer.
Departments must fully understand the demographics of their primary response area. Identifying the demographics will enable the department to fully understand the barriers and challenges that exists in their community. For instance, the department may not fully recognize how many people live in their primary response area and how many people speak different languages. Recruiting new members from different ethnic groups who speak different languages within the community will enable the department to be better prepared to deal with an emergency involving people who speak a different language and have the ability to communicate with community members about risk reduction efforts. This will also improve your marketing campaign and the public image within the community.
Sometimes departments must recruit members outside their primary response area to add to their manpower staffing. If someone who lives outside the primary response area and can devote 24-40 hours a month at the station for staffing. That's a plus. The time they invest will improve overall operations. Having adequate staffing will enable emergency operations to be safer for everyone working on that emergency incident scene. Emergency operations tasks require people in the race against time to save life, property and the environment in a safe manner.
Departments must understand our people within the organization, our department and our community that it serves. The department must be willing to change and adapt to survive to meet recruiting challenges that exist in the community. Without adapting to changing environments the department will be in the dark and the doors will be closed for good. The department must fully educate and branch out to the community to recruit new members that will benefit their organization, and their communities.
National Fire Protection Association. (2017). Retrieved from http://www.nfpa.org/news-and-research/fire-statistics-and-reports/fire-statistics/the-fire-service/administration/us-fire-department-profile
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