Messaging for Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment


Recruitment messaging is about more than just posting a “Help Wanted” sign or “Volunteers Needed” on social media. The crafted communication should spark emotion. Recruitment messaging, as with any type of persuasive communication, is about getting other people to adopt your views and help them understand the emotion behind your words. Although the left side of your brain accepts the facts that you need volunteers, the right side thrives on emotion.

Recruitment messages that take the audience on an emotional journey have a greater probability of catching the attention of your next new recruit; emotions help us remember the message. I am not talking about the emotions you feel from a relationship, although that is one definition. Rather, I am talking about the second Oxford definition for emotion: “Instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge.” Emotions produce actions, can drive us to act, and help us align our audience with our cause.


Messaging should include facts, emotional triggers that resonate with a potential volunteer, and a call to action. A neuroscience professor from the University of Southern California indicated that emotion is a required ingredient to almost every decision we make. A call to action, such as “Click here to join our team,” tells your audience what they need to do. This type of request should be part of every social media post and marketing advertisement.

Creating emotionally charged messaging for fire service recruitment is easier than you may think. The following tips will help you spark emotion.

Image Selection

Messaging—accompanied by photos that trigger emotion—is one thing the fire service does not lack. Your recruitment message should include an image that connects the emotional benefits. For example, a photo of all your members in front a fire truck with the message “Help Wanted” does not spark emotion. This type of photo tells facts including the number of members you have and their demographics.

A photo of a young father holding his child’s hand while in turnout gear in front of a fire truck sparks emotion. Phrases like “Role model,” “A child’s hero,” and “A giving heart” start to pop in the minds of those who see it; it sends a message that if a busy parent can be a good dad while serving his community, so can the person reading it.

Choose Happiness

The most shared articles on social media from The New York Times were those with a positive spin and which offered an emotional appeal. Messages focusing on the positive can lead to higher engagement and social media shares.

The fire service can be full of complaints and negativity; if we are not careful, this negative energy can wreck our marketing efforts. For example, when members complain about the hours of training required, the city’s lack of support, or poor leadership, potential and new members will run. When we focus on the good in the department, the volunteer opportunity becomes more attractive. When we share the stories tied to laughter, true brotherhood, and making a difference in our community, our organization becomes contagious. Focus your conversations and messaging on the positive.

Promoting a Culture of Trust

We are living in a world in which some members of the public safety industry have shamed the badge, and that has caused a lack of trust. Trust triggers a response. Using testimonials on your Web site and social media page can spark the emotion of trust.

Testimonials can come from members and those in the community the fire department has impacted. These stories show the human side of public safety—real human faces that are serving or have been served. Testimonials of diverse members thriving in your organization also establish a culture of trust based on inclusiveness. Look for the stories, promote them, and encourage others to join to become the story.

Offering an Outlet for Belonging

Psychology has proven that a sense of belonging is a key need for humans. People want to feel as if they belong to something. The fire service can use this emotion to make potential volunteers feel as if they are part of a group.

Using messaging to promote and demonstrate the fire service “brotherhood” can lead to interest. Offering events that bring members together such as cookouts, family movie nights, softball games, and so on are a great emotional appeal and can be highlighted on social media, with a call to action inviting others to join the “fire service family.”

Showcasing Pride

In 2016, I conducted a doctoral study on retention in the fire service, and the uniform was one of the top nonwage benefits and motivations that attracted volunteers. One officer in the study responded, “They come here because they get to wear a uniform, they get to march in a parade, they get to show themselves off as a professional, you know, in uniform.”

Fostering personal pride is something the fire service can offer a potential volunteer. Appealing to the desire to look like a hero and be proud is something that can be done by showing men and women in uniform and offering a call to action for the audience to earn the uniform.

No matter what emotion you choose to use to trigger a response, do it with intent. With every message you create, identify the emotion you are using (i.e., humor, trust, excitement, pride, empowerment, and so on). Think about what the objectives of your message are and about what it would take to get you or a loved one to take action; this will help you select a desired emotion and craft your message. Remember, you are working to develop emotional messaging that will make your organization more memorable, make people want to share your message, develop stakeholder loyalty, drive excitement, push people to take action, and inspire.


Damasio, AR. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York, G.P. Putnam, 1994.

McDonald, CM. “Retention of Internal Stakeholders in the U.S. Volunteer Fire Service” (2016). Walden Dissertations and Doctoral Studies. 3180. Retrieved from

CANDICE McDONALD has served two decades as a firefighter, EMT, EMS officer, EMS CE instructor, fire inspector, and public information officer. She is the second vice president for the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association, a trustee with Women in Fire, a member of the Fire Department Instructors Conference International educational advisory board, and a National Volunteer Fire Council fire corps state advocate. McDonald works for NASA in the Office of Protective Services as a special agent/physical security specialist and is an adjunct professor for Eastern Gateway Community College. She has a doctorate in business administration with a specialty in homeland security, a master’s degree in organizational leadership, a bachelor’s degree in organizational management, and an associate degree in human services.

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