Can Diversity Save the Volunteer Fire Service?

By Ed Rush

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 this country is dying a slow death.We all know the reasons.

We are losing a steady number of volunteers because of the need for two incomes, increased family responsibilities, generational differences, training requirements, government regulations, etc.

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? There is no one answer and no magic solution, but one place to look is diversity.We have all heard the phrase that the fire service represents

We have 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 am certainly not trying to downplay the importance of women, but that is not the focus of this article.

I am talking about the inclusion of the racially and ethnically diverse segment of your population that is steadily growing. We must tap into that growing population to increase our volunteer ranks. We need to take a good, hard look at the makeup of our communities and increase our effort to have our volunteer fire departments mirror that makeup.

Check the results of the latest census. What percentage of your population is Hispanic? Asian? Black? Does the makeup of the membership of your department even come close to those percentages? If not, you may need to identify which of these groups represent the fastest growing segment of your population and focus your recruitment efforts on them.

Several departments in Westchester County have done this and have seen their volunteer numbers grow steadily as a result. A New York Daily News article from April 2013 highlighted the situation in Port Chester, where the 2010 census showed that 59.4 percent of its population was Hispanic. They have been aggressively reaching out to the Hispanic community.

Once they got a couple of Hispanic members joining, 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 members.Elmsford is a small village in the New York City suburbs.

Elmsford is a small village in the New York City suburbs. For years, the volunteer fire department had relied on family and friends of current members to maintain its ranks and therefore remained mostly white and male. The makeup of the village has changed dramatically with the 2010 census showing the population to be 38 percent Hispanic, 29 percent white, 20 percent black and 10 percent Asian.

Through aggressive recruiting throughout the community, including participating in the RecruitNY campaign sponsored by FASNY, 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 are targeting, including possibly producing literature in the native 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 accepting of the fact that your department needs to change. Its existence may depend on it.

Ed Rush is chief of the Hartsdale Fire Department. He is also a 40-year member and past chief of the Elmsford Volunteer Fire Department and a member of the board of directors of the Volunteer and Combination Officers Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.