Recruiting Outside the Box

By Norvin Collins, MS EFO

The topic of recruiting in the volunteer and combination fire service has been on the minds of leadership for years now. It isn’t a new thought, yet the challenges we are facing are unique to the times.

In order to keep our organizations strong and resilient, we must take advantage of the recruitment opportunities available to us. Recruitment should be viewed for both career as well as for volunteer members.

Regardless of what we have heard in the service, there are as many or even more people willing to volunteer. The challenge we face is to have them volunteer for us. We might need to have a paradigm shift for this to happen.

Recruiting career people to our organizations doesn’t take a lot of effort, but adding quality members can pose a challenge. We used to look for new members to have education because the majority of new people came with a working knowledge of mechanics, practical know-how, and “street sense.” Today, though, we have a plethora of “educated” people interested in the fire service, yet we find ourselves with new people with very little practical experience.

I once sat on a new hire panel where questions were specifically designed to gather a baseline on practical knowledge of common tools. I kid you not, of the 10 items we had asked to describe what each item was and how it was used, the applicant could only describe what three of the 10 items were. For context, the items were … a nail, a screw, a claw hammer, a ball-peen hammer, female and male ends of a short section of garden hose, flathead and Philips screwdriver, adjustable wrench and a box end wrench.

Bottom line, we need to continue to attract educated members while assuring a basic level of mechanical understanding since, as we all know, we have to be able to troubleshoot on the fly while on scenes in a mechanical environment. Volunteers need to be held to that same understanding and exception and, at the same time, be recruited differently and with more flexibility.

Volunteers are attracted to us for many a variety of reasons. We also have far more flexibility in utilizing volunteers if we take the time to meet their needs while meeting ours and the community’s.

There are as many or even more people willing to volunteer. The challenge we face is to have them volunteer for us.

The motivation for many volunteer firefighters and EMS responders is the same as for their career counterparts. However, departments that think outside the proverbial box have way more flexibility in attracting membership. For some organizations, there is no paradigm shift; that is, they are already using support volunteers, auxiliary, non-response or whatever. How inclusive is that group? And what roles are assigned to them?

This group of talented individuals can help with many non-scene-related and some scene, non-attack tasks. Therefore, these assignments can reduce burnout in responders by taking on roles traditionally assigned on top of responding.

This can be a challenge for some if antiquated bylaws haven’t been updated. I’m not saying that tradition isn’t a wonderful thing. I am saying that support or auxiliary membership should not be held by only women or that all roles within the fire department should be predominately response-focused. Reach out to people interested in non-traditional roles and your membership and community will thrive for it.

Recruiting can be difficult in today’s society. Time requirements, regulations and leadership (or ineffective leadership) all play a part in recruitment and retention.

Start any recruiting effort with a brief needs/gap assessment to assure you are focusing your recruitment. Many times, we cast the net and hope to catch members. Consequently, we don’t always catch what we need and/or want.

Recruiting is more than just bringing in new members to the organization. It is about meeting the needs of the department, the prospective new member and the community all at the same time.

Thinking beyond what has always been done will drive recruitment to the next level and help our organizations remain resilient. Creating a culture that is supportive, welcoming and that meets multiple needs will attract people without additional future recruiting efforts because you will keep the members you have and others will seek you out so they can be a part of a great organization. Plan for the future by focusing on the now.

Norvin Collins serves as Chief of Sauvie Island Fire District, a 40-member combination department covering 26 square miles of predominantly rural Oregon state land. He previously served as Firefighter/Paramedic, Lieutenant, Captain, Battalion Chief and Division Chief at Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, Oregon’s second-largest fire department. Chief Collins presents nationally on a variety of leadership and development topics. A consultant for recruitment, retention and generational leadership, Chief Collins holds a master’s degree in psychology with a specialization in organizational leader development, a bachelor’s in fire service administration and executive fire officer credentials through the National Fire Academy.