By Chief Kevin D. Quinn, National Volunteer Fire Council Chairman
If your department is like most volunteer or combination departments in the U.S., you struggle to maintain the staffing needed to provide the adequate level of service to your community. The numbers are clear.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that in 1984 there were 897,750 volunteer firefighters compared to 786,150 in 2013, a 12 percent decrease. In that same time period, call volume has tripled, largely due to increased medical emergency calls.
Why are we having problems recruiting new members? There are a lot of factors, including increased demands on people’s time, increased training requirements and geographical shifts as people move away from smaller communities for job opportunities.
But, there is another challenge as well: lack of awareness among the public about the need for volunteer firefighters and EMTs. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) conducted a national survey last year that found that 41 percent of respondents didn’t know if their local department utilized volunteers. Perhaps even more telling was that 79 percent of respondents did not know their department was seeking volunteers. It is hard to expect people to step up and serve if they don’t even know the opportunity is available.
The survey did uncover some promising news. It found that 29 percent of the U.S. population is either “definitely interested” or “might be interested” in volunteering as a responder in the fire and emergency service. Among under-represented audiences, the numbers were even higher. Some 44 percent of millennials (those aged 18-35) expressed at least some interest in volunteering, which is encouraging for an industry whose population is aging and needs new blood to secure its future. In addition, 36 percent of minorities expressed interest in volunteering, shedding light on what has to date been a largely untapped recruiting market.
What do we do to bridge this gap in awareness to get new members in the door and diversity in our ranks? It is a challenge for many departments to focus on recruitment when they are already short-staffed and under-funded. That is why the NVFC has launched a volunteer recruitment campaign to help.
Funded by a federal SAFER grant, the “Make Me A Firefighter” campaign aims to connect departments with potential volunteers and provide personnel with the resources and training to successfully recruit new members. This is the first national campaign of its kind and features messaging and materials that have been tested to resonate with target audiences. And best of all, it is completely free.
Here are the steps you can follow to take full advantage of everything available at http://portal.nvfc.org
Post your volunteer opportunities.
The campaign features a searchable database of volunteer opportunities at local departments so potential recruits can connect. But, they can’t find your department if you aren’t listed.
Register and post your volunteer opportunities today. This enables interested members of the public to find you from a variety of volunteer opportunity search databases, including www.makemeafirefighter.org and www.allforgood.org. In addition, you can track the progress of potential recruits who connect with your department through the database.
Make sure your department is ready for new recruits.
As you bring potential members to your department, make sure your current members are ready to welcome them. No one wants to join an organization where they feel like an outsider or are disrespected or ignored. Current members need to remember that they were all new to the department at one time as well, and should be there to provide information, assistance and support to potential volunteers and new recruits. Train your members in diversity and inclusion, and when younger members have ideas or input, let their voices be heard. The NVFC will be releasing a series of online courses to help departments reach new audiences, embrace new members and retain those who join.
Let your community know you need volunteers.
While the NVFC is doing national outreach to let the public know about the need for volunteer firefighters and EMTs, the best way to inform your specific community that you need volunteers is to tell them. The NVFC has developed a series of ready-touse materials you can customize for your local audience. These include ads, emails, flyers, social media messaging, tools for working with the media and more.
Utilize personal invitations and hold sampling events.
NVFC research has shown that personal invitations and sampling events are key draws for people when making the decision to join their local fire department. Personal invitations mean that someone has specifically invited them to join, and sampling events are activities that allow the potential recruit to get a glimpse of what a volunteer firefighter or EMT does. A sampling event may be a ride along, open house, or booth or recruitment station at a local fair.
The NVFC has a list of ideas and tips for holding a sampling event as well as template invitations to help you invite community members to join your department.
Promote the campaign.
The public website at www.makemeafirefighter.org contains information to help potential volunteers learn what it means and what it takes to be a volunteer in the fire and emergency services.
It also contains a search engine to help these individuals connect with your department. Let your community know about this website. If you have contacts in other departments, you can also share the campaign with them and let them know the resources that are available to help them recruit new members.
Recruiting takes effort, but the resources available through the “Make Me A Firefighter” campaign help reduce the burden and simplify the process. The bottom line is that we need more boots-on-the-ground firefighters and EMTs, and the only way to get them in is to reach interested individuals. Use the “Make Me A Firefighter” campaign to reinvigorate your recruitment efforts, expand your target audiences and access materials and resources to make your local campaign a success.