Last year, the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) was awarded a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to develop and implement a national volunteer firefighter recruitment and retention campaign.
Recruiting and retaining volunteers are two of the toughest challenges facing the fire service. Nearly 70 percent of firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers, protecting their communities from hazards and emergencies of all kinds. Nationally, these volunteers save communities an estimated $140 billion a year. However, the number of volunteers has declined by about 12 percent in the past three decades while call volume has nearly tripled. At the same time, the average age of the volunteer fire service is increasing. It is critical for the safety of our communities and our nation that we continue to have a strong volunteer fire service now and in the future.
The NVFC is working with Salter>Mitchell, a behavior change marketing firm, to develop the campaign branding, messaging, and strategy. The initial phase included reviewing existing research and conducting in-person interviews, online discussion groups, and a national survey with both current volunteers and non-volunteers to identify the specific target audience, their characteristics, and to determine what motivates them to volunteer.
The results of the national survey are very encouraging and highlight the significant interest many people have in becoming an operational member of the fire service, especially among young and minority audiences. Key findings include the following:
- Based on the responses, 29% of the U.S. population as a whole is either “definitely interested” or “might be interested” in volunteering as responders in the fire and emergency services. The highest interest is among the 18-34 age bracket, with 13% definitely interested and 31% possibly interested in operational roles.
- There is considerable interest among minority groups, with 7% definitely interested and 29% possibly interested. The current make-up of the fire service suggests that this is an untapped recruiting market.
- Based on a target of younger, interested individuals, Salter>Mitchell has identified the initial target market as over 34 million individuals. This number is comprised of adults in the 18-34 age range who have shown at least some interest in volunteering as well as adults in the 35-49 age range who have shown a high interest in volunteering.
- The research confirmed that there is indeed low awareness of the volunteer fire and emergency service and a lack of knowledge about the national need for volunteers. When asked, 41% of survey participants were unsure if their local department was volunteer, combination, or career, and 79% of participants did not know if their department was seeking volunteers. This means that a large portion of the potential recruit market is unaware that their department is staffed by volunteers and that volunteer opportunities are available.
Questions were also asked specific to retention challenges. Respondents identified several retention barriers, including:
- Poor leadership
- Lack of recognition
- Time requirements
- Poor communication
The research also looked at how interested individuals decide to make the commitment to serve. Current recruits cited personal invitations as the main catalyst for joining the department. For individuals who indicated an interest in becoming a volunteer firefighter or emergency responder, a lack of an invitation or lack of information was a key reason they had not yet volunteered. This reveals a key disconnect in translating potential volunteers into recruits: many of these individuals are simply not asked to consider becoming a volunteer. Invitations from family, friends, colleagues, or other acquaintances are more likely to result in action than a less personal outreach attempt.
The research showed that sampling, or allowing potential volunteers to gain first-hand experience of the emergency services, is more likely to lead to a commitment to serve. Sampling activities can include ride-alongs, interacting with current firefighters, or programs such as Juniors/Explorers and Fire Corps. Additionally, prospective recruits place high value on experiencing a sense of belonging and accomplishment within a tight-knit, community context. It is also important for new recruits to receive support from their peers and from their family to counterbalance the demanding fire service environment.
The NVFC and Salter>Mitchell are using the findings from this research to craft campaign messaging, create ready-to-use recruitment and retention materials, and identify outreach opportunities. In addition, an interactive web site is being designed to serve as the information hub for the campaign for both fire departments and the public. The ultimate goal of the campaign is to create a jumping-off point for departments looking to enhance or improve their recruitment and retention efforts by promoting research-tested themes and motivators while simultaneously allowing for personalization at the local level.
More information on the campaign will be available in the coming months. Contact the NVFC at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or would like to share best practices your department has experienced with recruitment and retention.