When the chief speaks from the crystal palace and says “We need more volunteers,” how many of us high-five one another and look forward with delight to going forth to seek fresh bodies? It tends to be right up there with root canal and playing goalie for the pistol team. Here comes the begging, the prostration before our neighbors, as we pursue the same 10 percent of the population being pursued by every other volunteer organization.

Yes, we are noble; yes, we are needed; and yes, we have a proud tradition, but our approach is the same as that of those other organizations with which we compete for people. The sales and marketing folks would say that we need a gimmick or an edge-something that makes us stand out, that makes us unique and more desirable than the competition. The competition? We don’t have any competition! The heck we don’t!


The Marine Corps had a similar dilemma: how to make its branch of the service stand out and be more desirable than the other services. Somebody, somewhere-probably around a fire station coffee table-said “In every weakness there is strength.” The Marines took their high dropout rate and low recruiting statistics and came out with “The Few, The Proud, The Marines.” Advertising and recruiting were then based on the concept of an elite service that is selective in personnel, rigorous in training, high in setting standards, and the epitome of pride. Although I, as a sailor, know better, it has definitely worked for the Marines, and it can work for us!

This approach will not cause rapid weight loss or cure the common cold, but it will improve your department’s morale, reduce the number of short-term personnel, save money, and increase the half-life of your membership.

Applying the Corps model to fire department recruiting might sound like this:

“Do you have what it takes? Are you ready to be challenged? The Best Fire Department, Inc. of Everybody Wants To Live There, Nevada, is currently seeking the best of the best. Our department has a proud tradition, rigorous requirements, and excellence as its benchmark. Out of every 10 recruits, male or female, only two are accepted. Contact us at 555-1212, or e-mail us at for details. Thank you.”

Well, this might do. We think it’s good, but will it work? Before you use a new pumper, you pump test it, right? Before you use an SCBA, you test it, right? Before you use a new recruiting tactic, you test it. Right! Show it to the membership first. Don’t just show it; sell it. Will they all love it, elect you king, or pay your club dues? I think not, but a majority is a start. Don’t be surprised to hear something like “It won’t work here” or “What’s wrong with the way we are doing it now?” Instead, be prepared with the facts. How many members did we have 20, 10, or five years ago? How many new members have we taken in and then lost within a one- to two-year period?

With a majority onboard, next approach fraternal or service organizations such as the Elks, Eagles, Lions, Rotary, Kiwanis, Moose, Royal Order of Raccoons, VFW, American Legion, and so on, and ask if you can make a presentation at one of their meetings. Most of these groups actively search for speakers and will be happy to invite you to speak. It also normally involves a freebie meal for the speaker- not a bad deal!


The next statement may sound insulting, and it is. Ask not what should you wear to the meeting, but ask what they are wearing and dress to match. I heard an excellent presentation from a fire officer from the local fire department. Just as with a meal, a lot of the taste of a talk has to do with the presentation. The information was solid, and the presentation was flawless, but the presenter looked like a slob. The off-white, perma-wrinkle, multipatched shirt was surpassed only by the brown unpolished hunting boots worn jauntily unlaced. The audience was at the jacket-and-unstained-tie level. Folks remember what they see a lot longer than what they hear.

Explain to the audience what you are trying to accomplish, and ask for their evaluation. Ask them to be open and honest, and encourage them to provide feedback or ideas. Now, the hard part: You have to accept what they give you and revise, alter, and dump accordingly. Is it a risk? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. As a worst-case scenario, you may have to go back to the drawing board. As a best-case scenario, you might not only get positive feedback; you might even draw some recruits.

After testing your recruiting campaign, establish your delivery system. Another great term, “multimedia marketing,” comes to mind. Get your campaign set to go on the Internet, in the local newspaper, on the radio stations, and on cable access TV. Have professionally looking posters made and placed in town offices, local churches, and fraternal organization headquarters. If there is a college within one light year of you and it has a business degree program, you may be able to get its students to take you on as a project at no cost.


Once the recruiting campaign is in place and ready to roll, it is time to quickly do an image check. Evaluate your personnel and the manner in which they represent the department. Does the image match the campaign? In marketing, this might be called “repackaging”-you know, “new and improved.” There are some jokes about us out there, normally generated by us, about that “other” department-you know, the one just down the road. The jokes go something like this ellipse

To be a member of that department

  • The light bar must cost more than the pickup; the radio, more than the light bar; and the gear must be hung, prominently displayed, where it can be destroyed by UV.
  • The department ball cap needs an oil change.
  • You must console one grieving family member with a Grateful Dead or Johnson T-shirt on.

The list goes on and on. Are these extreme examples? Yes! Have we all seen them? Yes. Remember, to someone else, you may be the “other” department.

Having checked the visual, how about the audio? How is the phone at the station answered? The prospective recruit calls the station for more information. The phone is answered by someone trying for the Don Giovanni role: “Fy-yah Staychun, wha da ya want?”

“I’d like some information on becoming a volunteer please,” she says.

The Don replies, “Hold on a second” and puts the phone down and yells far in excess of Occupational Safety and Health Administration decibel levels: “Hey Charlie, ya got some fresh meat on the phone.” Charlie is surprised to get a dial tone instead of a potential recruit. Would a better impression be made by answering the phone in this way: “Best Fire Department, Firefighter Ito, may I help you? …. Oh yes, let me place you on hold for one moment while I get Captain Daring; she will be right with you.”

Just a few thoughts, a few ideas, and some important final words: We say we are the best. Well, let’s live it. Let’s embrace it, and be the proud, the few, the best!

Oh, and by the way, the Marine Corps is the only service currently meeting its recruiting goals.

CHARLES F. BRUSH is a career deputy chief in the Lebanon (NH) Fire Department and a call firefighter in Hartford, Vermont. He chairs the Vermont Fire Service Training Council’s Curriculum Committee and is a member of the NFA adjunct faculty.

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