New Member Recruitment and Online Video: A Winning Strategy

By Lieutenant Josh Haygood, EMT, Ambulance Company Recruitment Officer

A couple of years back, I was asked by my previous EMS company to come up with some new ideas for recruitment. As I’m sure every agency out there can attest, getting new potential members interested in joining isn’t easy. The days of putting out a sandwich board with a “Become a Volunteer Today” message along the main road are over. People today consume content differently than they have in the past. Driven largely by social media, the landscape has changed and agencies like mine have typically been slow to adapt.

This led us to a major shift in how we were going to try and reach new members. We thought: instead of trying to pull people’s attention away from their phones and social media, let’s instead meet them right where they are. But how? With their feeds already saturated with news headlines and the Kardashians’ latest shenanigans, how could we get our message about volunteerism to break through?

Researching this issue, we saw a police recruitment video on Facebook from an agency in another jurisdiction. It was reasonably well produced. It touched on why some of their members chose to join, and what service meant to them. It was so memorable, two days later we were still talking about it.

We knew then that creating video content we could distribute on social media was the answer. But would it work for fire and EMS? After all, law enforcement is a full-time, paid gig, and we were asking people to sign up and work part-time for free. We knew just showing a few EMTs riding on the rig wouldn’t do it. We had to create something much more engaging.

I should note that in addition to my volunteer work as an EMT, I am also a two-time Emmy Award-winning television producer with a production company in New York City. There probably aren’t a lot of experienced filmmakers who also work in emergency services, and this seemed a unique opportunity to bring our powerful messaging capability to bear to help our agency gets its message out like never before.

After some discussion, we identified the core reasons people are shy about approaching agencies to volunteer. After all, we’re asking them to do something they’ve never done before, have zero experience with, and have no idea what to expect. That leaves too many questions for most people and scares them away. So we asked, how do we remove the mystery around EMS service?

Our solution? Take viewers on a virtual ride-along. Film an exciting video that replicates a real call, from pager tones to crew assembly to response to transport – the full experience of what it’s like to answer a real 911 call.

Since filming an actual call would be problematic for many legal and logistical reasons, we instead created a mock victim situation and allowed our EMTs to “respond.” We filmed the whole interaction, from riding the rig to treating the patients, and put the video online. We were stunned by the response. Area newspapers came to interview the corps. The local TV station played our video several times at no cost. Donations flowed in, and most importantly, new members came knocking on the door asking how they could be part of our agency. To our amazement, the video was extremely effective almost immediately.

For the agency, justifying the expense was easy. We looked at other expenditures we incur on a regular basis: $1,000 to send each new member to EMT school (whether they ultimately stayed with us or not), $3,000 per rig on burn kits that weren’t even Part 800 required, thousands on Epi-pens that don’t get used and ultimately expire, and thousands more on vehicle maintenance and other expenses that are certainly important, but aren’t helping to bring a single new member through the door.

The way we figured, for a one-time cost, we could have a highly effective video that could be displayed on our website, social sites, at community events and beyond for years to come. It was an easy expense to justify and almost immediately we began to see a return on that modest investment. My team of camera, sound and editorial professionals all worked for a fraction of their normal rates to support this cause and we were able to get the video done for about a quarter of what it normally would have cost.

As a result, many neighboring agencies began asking how they could get a video of their own. It goes without saying that agencies typically don’t have EMTs who are also in the film business that can guide them through something like this. They have no idea who to call, who to hire or how much to pay for services.

And even if they do hire a production entity, what assurance do they have that company will create a successful video that will help their recruitment efforts? Does that company even know anything at all about fire and EMS service? Do they have a track record of producing effective content for this purpose? It’s such a daunting task, agencies were saying “great video, but it’s too hard for us to make one on our own.”

Realizing nearly every fire and EMS agency in the state could benefit tremendously from having their own recruitment video, we looked for a broader solution that would allow us to help. We came up with a strategy that’s now being implemented throughout our county. We figured if several other agencies were signing up to have their own video produced, we could defray the cost by combining resources and offer production services to each participating agency at a very low cost.

The test of whether these types of short films actually attract viewers was proven again after the second video we made, this time for a law enforcement agency. They heard about the success we had with the EMS video, and wanted to see if they too could have success with this medium. We made a short video for them, and posted it to Facebook. In just its first week online, that video was seen more than 14,000 times, and was shared and re-posted many more times across viewers’ own social media outlets. Viewers were posting comments about how inspired they were, and how much they loved the message.

The agency was thrilled with the response and has signed up to make a new video every year to keep their outreach fresh. These examples show us that a good story that connects with viewers’ hearts and minds goes a long way. Of all the tools available to get our message out to prospective new members, we haven’t found anything else that can be completed this fast and have that large of an impact for such a relatively modest cost.

We are now working with several agencies in our county to produce recruitment videos of their own, and have started offering the same services to any fire or EMS agency in the state who wants to participate. We believe it’s very likely the only opportunity fire and EMS agencies will have to hire an experienced award-winning filmmaking team who are also first responders, willing to work for cost to help those fire and EMS companies succeed.

As agencies, we all struggle to find and attract quality new members. It’s an issue no agency is immune to. The problem seems to stem from trying to use old-school, low-tech methods to reach an increasingly high-tech, plugged-in population.

By meeting our potential new members where they already are – online, all the time, watching video – we’ve found a way to break into their attention stream and speak to them in a manner that feels current and relevant. The response to this effort has made one thing very clear – video content focused on relatable stories seems to be the most effective way to raise awareness for fire and EMS agencies. It’s memorable, entertaining, informative, and has an almost immediate positive impact on the recruitment and retention problem all of our volunteer agencies face.

To learn more about how to use video to overcome your recruitment and retention problems, please contact Josh Haygood or Tom Langan at