Make the Sale: Recruiting Volunteers

By John M. Buckman III

Volunteer firefighters aren’t full-time employees. Today’s volunteer expects you to respect and accommodate to their schedule. This is different than it was in the past. Accommodating is not better or worse, just different. To be accommodating means leaders will be flexible and adaptable. Previously, we expected volunteers to be “all in” or not. Be upfront about communicating organizational needs. Today’s long-term volunteer will keep his personal priorities in order: faith, family, work, friends, fire department.

Evolutions in demographics, technology, and workplace structures are changing volunteers’ availability. These shifts are challenging leadership to consider new strategies. Being a volunteer firefighter is not a traditional “volunteer opportunity.” Volunteer firefighters have a tremendous education and training commitment—they are expected to get out of bed from a sound sleep, dress quickly, go the fire station, board a piece of fire apparatus, respond quickly to someone’s emergency, and take care of the public.

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The challenge for volunteer-staffed fire departments today is to break the traditional model, seek out new ideas, and try them. We must adapt our different expectations and needs. Many people today are not really looking for long-term volunteer opportunities. To secure someone for more than three years, the organization must have competent and qualified leadership that creates a friendly atmosphere; realistic policies; and procedures that are enforced fairly, firmly, and in a friendly method.

Setting and Communicating Realistic Expectations

Make sure the volunteer fully understands the expectations. A head nod during the communication is not a good indicator that he actually understands the expectations you have laid out to him. Also, recruiting volunteers means asking people to work in your organization without pay, minimal benefits, and with a tremendous responsibility to train and prepare for a variety of emergency events.

Recruitment is a sales job. Volunteer recruiting offers no guarantee that someone will stick as a volunteer just because they signed up. The reality is that, no matter how hard you work at this sales job, some people will find out rather quickly that being a volunteer firefighter is not something they want to do. The sales job has to accurately point out the advantages of volunteering with your organization so that people will not only be eager when they begin but will also stay enthusiastic and continue to volunteer for a long time.

Recruit volunteers formally by asking candidates to fill out application forms, authorize a criminal background check, and create a list of tangible and intangible benefits. You may also ask potential volunteers to complete specific tasks at a specific time such as administrative functions or, in a more general role, as a firefighter or emergency medical responder.

Although, for the most part, volunteers work without pay, they do it to receive something; no one does things for no reason. Some reasons that people might be willing to volunteer include the following:

  • They seek career opportunities.
  • Someone asked them. Many people respond when someone tells them they’re needed.
  • They have personal experience from an encounter with the fire department during an emergency event and want to be a part of it and/or contribute.
  • They seek external recognition and an internal good feeling from becoming a firefighter.
  • They want to pay back their community for a variety of reasons.
  • Successful people want to help out.
  • They have untapped skills that they believe they can use by becoming a volunteer firefighter.
  • They believe they will enjoy the work of being a firefighter.
  • They are looking to have some fun.
  • They enjoy the social activities associated with being a volunteer firefighter.
  • They believe they will add value to the organization.
  • They are looking to expand their contacts with other volunteers, participants, community members, and leaders.
  • It will make them feel needed and useful.

When Should You Recruit?

All the time! Never miss an opportunity to recruit volunteers. Don’t wait for a specific time period. When a person expresses interest in joining the fire department, begin the on-boarding process immediately. Any delay may result in the potential volunteer to find something else to do with his time and energy.

To help with recruitment, conduct an annual “volunteer recruiting drive.” Focus on a 30-day period as one example where you are posting posters, flyers, brochures, public presentations, and so on. Also, think about potential volunteers as consumers. There are many ways motivated individuals can give their time and talents to the fire department. “Build the box” in such a way that the walls are moveable and interchangeable and allows volunteers some flexibility in the services they offer.

From Potential Volunteer to Active Volunteer

Once you’ve made contact with potential volunteers and they’ve shown interest, “complete the sale” by convincing them that volunteering will be a good decision. Invite potential volunteers to meet with the membership and top leadership to get a “feel” for the department. Also, invite them to observe training activities and be flexible in scheduling. Volunteer is not the same as career; volunteers have different personal and professional lives that provide unique challenges in scheduling, especially for training.

Show that you take volunteers seriously by creating an “expectations” agreement and ask them to sign it. This agreement should also clearly state that the department provided support. Conduct an annual awards dinner, include potential volunteers in social activities, and show potential volunteers the intangible and tangible benefits. It’s all in the way you sell it!

Photo by Tony Greco

JOHN M. BUCKMAN III has served 47 years as a volunteer firefighter and 35 years as chief at the German Township (IN) Volunteer Fire Department. He was president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in 2001-2002. He has presented in all 50 states, Canada, Dominican Republic, Mexico, and China.


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This commentary reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fire Engineering. It has not undergone Fire Engineering‘s peer-review process.

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