The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: Recruitment

By Thomas A. Merrill

If your volunteer fire department is like mine, you could always use more members. Like most, it can prove very difficult to attract new members. Even harder sometimes is retaining them once you have them. We must make the most of every opportunity to attract and retain members.

Let's talk about recruiting. What can we do? I firmly believe that one of the best ways to recruit new members is through word of mouth. Friends bring in friends just like family can bring in family. Talk it up! Sure, ad campaigns might work, as well posters and other announcements. But my department has had tremendous success talking it up face to face with people throughout our community.

TALK IT UP

There are plenty of opportunities to talk it up. Take advantage of every one of them to discuss the role your volunteer fire department and firefighters play within the community. At block parties, community events, races, and even at emergency calls you can easily spread your message of service, dedication, and professionalism. But don't just talk about it--display it. Let people know that what they are experiencing is being provided and accomplished with volunteers--professional volunteers--who are always looking for others to join their ranks.

Use your firehouse to help recruit members. Show it off! Have firehouse pride! Your firehouse does not have to be a brand new, state-of-the-art facility to send a professional message and attract members. Just have it squared away and invoke the impression of preparedness and send the message that you are ready to respond to your citizen's call for help. Let people see firsthand just how well-prepared you are to respond to the emergency call. Consider hosting a community open house where you can open the doors and show off what you do. In my area, all local volunteer departments host an open house in conjunction with fire prevention week. Not only is it a great opportunity to deliver the fire safety message, but it is a great opportunity to show off what you do and advertise the fact that you are volunteers and looking for additional members. 

When kids walk into the firehouse with their parents, talk it up as you show them the equipment. In many cases, your residents will be surprised to learn they are actually protected by volunteers. Celebrate that fact and talk about everything you do. At the same time, don't be afraid to let them know you are always looking for additional volunteers.

Show off the wide variety of tools and equipment and let visitors know that your firefighters are skilled in handling them. Usually, all these actions generate excitement and interest, which you may be able to convert into interest in joining your department.  

Consider using some of today's social media to advertise your department and membership needs. Facebook, Twitter, and other Web sites are a great way for people to learn more about your department. Create a department Web site with a professional-looking membership recruitment page that highlights the need for volunteers and outline duties and requirements. Applications can be made available online and e-mailed directly to the chief or recruitment chairperson. It's great to be able to refer people to your Web site when they are considering joining the department. They can look over a wide variety information while learning about the department's history and heritage. They can learn about the membership requirements and duties and responsibilities all in the peace and quiet of their own home. Lots of people like that because there is no pressure.

Press releases are a great way to bring attention to your department and highlight some great accomplishments and again remind the public that the professional service is being delivered by volunteers. A designated public information officer should ensure accurate press releases are sent out after interesting or significant incidents. The public is reminded of the great service being provided by their local department, and from time to time the opportunity will present itself announce the need for additional members. 

THE BENEFITS

When discussing membership with interested parties, in addition to talking about all the "official" requirements and duties involved with being a firefighter, don't forget to mention all the intangible parts of being a volunteer. Yes, the training and emergency responses are part of it. But highlight the benefits for both members and possibly the benefits extended to member's family, as well. Let the new member (or prospective member) know that when a person joins your department, they immediately become part of a large extended family. If your department has a nice family picnic, holiday parties, kids parties, and assorted other events designed to reward and recognize the firefighter's family, celebrate that fact. Let prospective members know that there is so much more to being a volunteer firefighter than simply training and responding to emergency calls. Maybe there are great conventions to attend, sports teams to play on, or field days to participate in. Let them know that the entire family can benefit and participate and have fun.

Does your department have a junior program? This can be a great way to attract young members and hopefully keep them for years to come. If there are scholarship opportunities available in your area for department members or family members, be sure to make mention of that in all your discussions and advertisements. Parents love to hear about those. I also like to point out the many positive role models the junior members will be exposed to as a member of the fire department. We encourage our junior members to hang out at the firehouse and we provide a wide variety of perks for them to enjoy while hanging out such as TV, games, refreshments, and snacks. When talking with the parents of prospective junior members, we like to ask: "Where else would you rather have your teenagers hanging out on a Friday or Saturday night?" The firehouse is never a bad answer. From time to time we have visited the local high school to discuss the fire department and advertise the need for additional members. I suggest even doing it on career day. Many people over the years have certainly made a career out of being a professional volunteer firefighter.

Many departments have experienced success by offering a variety of membership levels a person can apply for. This has allowed them to attract members of all ages, abilities, and interests. Some may not ever even operate a hoseline! A person possessing great accounting skills may join as a social or administrative member to be the department treasurer. A retired truck driver may volunteer to be trained as a regular driver. Others may want to help do fundraising.  This idea of attracting people possessing such a wide variety of skills might be worth investigating.

At no time do we want to overdo it. I am not suggesting that as you render emergency care or show off your firehouse to visitors that you obnoxiously over-deliver the volunteer message. I am suggesting, however, that there certainly are many appropriate times and appropriate ways that it can be done. At some point in your conversations with people, the opportunity may present itself and you can gauge the feasibility of discussing it further based on the response you receive back. Many times people will ask questions and want to talk about the service in more detail. They may even ask about requirements and duties. If there is a hint of interest, talk it up.

THE APPLICATION PROCESS

If your department uses a formal application process, keep applications handy and easy to get to. Having members running around looking for an application when a prospective member is at the door certainly portrays an unprofessional image. Even worse would be for that person to leave without an application. Another good idea is to keep applications on your rigs or take them with you to community events. Again, it does not mean you pester people to join, but be ready if somebody expresses interest in joining. 

Whenever somebody does express interest or takes an application home with them, I always like to get their name and phone number before they leave. If after a couple weeks I have not received the application back, I would always follow up with the individual. Sometimes they just need that one additional phone call to get them to turn it in. There might have been one fear or stumbling block that was preventing them from do it and that one final phone call might be all it takes to alleviate a fear or answer a question and get them to join. I would make just one phone call, often with tremendous success. If, after that, they did not turn it in, I respected their decision and moved on.   

Once they turn that application in, there should be some sort of formal process that moves things along or at least ensures clear communication with the candidate keeping them informed and ensuring them that the application is being acted upon. Nothing would be worse than to lose prospective members because of a poorly organized program that delays brining members in or gives off an unorganized and unprofessional image. Make sure prospective members understand the application process.  

All over the country, the demands of everyday life are siphoning away the time people have to give to various organizations, and many volunteer fire departments are having a hard time filling their ranks. The professional volunteer fire department works hard every day not only to attract new members, but to retain them as well.

Tom MerrillTom Merrill is a 30-year fire department veteran in the Snyder Fire Department, which is located in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks, and recently completed five years as chief of department. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the town of Amherst fire alarm office. He can be reached at tamerrill63@aol.com

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