Recruiting and Retaining Members

If you haven’t noticed lately, emerging fire department videographers have been displaying their work on several video Web sites throughout the Internet. YouTube and others such as Vimeo have grown exponentially over the past few years. Many volunteer fire department videos have become overnight viral sensations, whereas others offer great training value through critical assessments. Fancy helmet cameras are seen quite regularly, and more than a few booths at FDIC International and other conferences offer video equipment for helmets, drones, and trucks.

These uploaded videos may or may not have been vetted by peers for sensitive footage. A decent number of videos showcase the inability to properly use personal protective equipment (PPE). Other videos show precarious scene actions or station horseplay that drives rage and criticism from weekend armchair firefighters. It appears that no fire station is without PPE sin. It makes you wonder why fire departments display such behavior for the electronically connected world to see, pause, and replay.

Recruitment videos showcase the pinnacle of what the public believes firefighting is-spraying copious amounts of water on a raging inferno set to some type of hip-hop, fast rock, or heavy metal music. The tribute videos demand viewers to look inside the firehouse with an emotionally striking ballad slowly playing in the background or maybe a heavy metal anthem to match the type A personalities. All of the videos are there to stir interest and, hopefully, generate new applicants for the local volunteer department. A common problem most volunteer fire stations share is the lack of available volunteers.

My department, the Highland Township Fire Department-Ayersville in Defiance, Ohio, is no different when it comes to the need for more firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs). Earlier this year, we were gradually facing the inevitable. Our membership numbers were dwindling. The number of active personnel who responded to fire and emergency medical services (EMS) calls had dwindled. People’s lives today are different from those of our parents and grandparents. Grandma and Grandpa lived in a single-income household. Today’s world has both household adults working for a living just to enjoy the same level that our grandparents’ income provided. Decades ago, rural fire department members were the area farmers, who could drop their tasks and respond.

When I talked to a life member of our fire department, he spoke of the early days when there were more than 20 people in the station while the Cadillac hearse was out on a rescue run with a full crew. He added that the big V-8 motors in those old Cadillacs were quite fun as well.

Today’s world has changed. Among their other obligations, members find it difficult to give a few hours a day for response, much less training.

Member Priorities

Family, career, firehouse: This is the order of priorities we use to help our members make decisions. We tell them that the volunteer fire department should not jeopardize the standing of their family and career; keeping their important life metrics from distractions helps them to feel safe and happy, and safe and happy people are, in turn, better firefighters and EMTs.

Social media have become more important than station Web sites. We operate a successful Facebook page for a rural fire department, but people were not knocking on the door or slowing down as they passed the driveway. We offered a free cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) class to the public, which was booked solid, but no new members were cultivated from that venture. We needed some type of breakthrough if we were to make some headway on the membership issue. We possess video only from our jurisdiction.

Our department had been producing private “end-of-the-year” videos for seven years. We did not release all of them to the public because it was possible that some demographic or we might find the content damaging or offensive or we may become involved in court action. Because of this, our station does not participate in posting recent scene photos or videos on social media sites. The last thing a department needs is litigation. The video footage was from my helmet camera and drone, which I personally purchased. The videos were painstakingly compiled during the first two weeks of January each year, just in time for our annual membership banquet. The video-producing duties were transferred to my teenage son two years ago in the spirit of continuous improvement. The local school system had a technology class that included video production.

Recruitment Video

This past summer, we selected some of the video highlights from the past few years and created a recruitment video. We made sure that the video would not be offensive to any demographic or showcase “bad habits” that can jeopardize firefighter efficiency and safety (according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health line-of-duty fatality reports, it appears that all fire departments have some). We chose music that matched the tone of the video and that could be appreciated by most audiences-meaning that the local radio station would find it acceptable to play it.

We were stunned by the results of this video initiative. Local media picked up the video, wrote news articles about the department and its need for volunteers, and interviewed me (the chief) on the radio. During the first three months after the release of the video, we received eight new membership applications.

Today, the long-empty turnout bunks are full. The department is about to start a waiting list for new members (something we never even imagined before-a volunteer department with a waiting list in 2015). Yes, it can happen. But, we must understand that today’s fire department needs more personnel to cover the same number of operational hours. This brings more challenges-higher equipment costs and maintaining a larger, happy team. The work does not stop once the applications are accepted and people are voted in. An effective video is not enough.

New Members Pose Challenges

Among the challenges faced when departments sign up new members is building enthusiasm. This new generation of members has different needs and wants. The way we have always done something is now in question, and we must respond appropriately to the questions/challenges, or our own team will not trust us. Long gone are the days when people were content only with being on the fire department. These days, people want to be recognized for a job well done, and their accomplishments need to be celebrated with everyone. Look at social media. It delivers immediate information and allows people to show immediate approval of what you have done with a mouse click. We must aggressively support our personnel because they want to do a good job and want immediate feedback. Relationships matter more than ever. Teach, coach, recognize, and-most importantly-empower. How do we drive enthusiasm in the firehouse? Start by saying thanks. Communication is most important. The oil for the machine is called “feedback.”

Next, learn to trust in the team. People want to be respected and responsible. Stop micromanaging. We are adults, and everyone is capable of some level of responsibility without having to obtain “kindergarten” permission for each step of a project. To ensure productivity, assign each team member a task that contributes to the overall goal. Celebrate by publicly recognizing or even distributing a $2 box of ice cream sandwiches. Rewarding loyalty matters.

Station officers must be open to the questions raised by younger members and not automatically view them as being “incompatible” with the officers’ purported years of experience. Experience and seniority do not hold as much weight for the new members who are asking questions and who want to improve the way things are done. Innovation has changed safety and efficiency in the fire service in many ways. All members, new and long-standing, must be open to continuous improvement. Years of performing service in the same manner does not necessarily mean years of perfection.

Chiefs must be prepared for change. Positive change will bring the team together and set the cadence for new members. Make your department one that firefighters are proud to be part of. Listen to ideas. If you discourage a member making a suggestion that may be subpar, you may be turning away future excellent suggestions. Challenge your members by asking questions that guide in taking on projects and solving problems. Encourage those who identify problems to become problem solvers. Send your team for business leadership training. Don’t be afraid to tell your people, “I don’t know, but let’s figure this out together.”

Unless fire department leaders understand today’s psychology, they will continue down a path of dwindling membership. A successful department will install leaders who trust the team and make the members feel empowered. Change is hard, but it is also necessary when you consider the future.

BRIAN BERRY, a firefighter II and an advanced EMT, began his fire service career 26 years ago in the Toledo, Ohio, area as a Basic EMT. He is chief of the Highland Township Fire Department-Ayersville in Defiance, Ohio, and a manufacturing engineer for General Motors. He is a member of the Ohio chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators and a member of the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association. He has an associate degree in applied science from Owens College and a bachelor’s degree in vocational education from the University of Toledo; attended the Northwest State for Criminal Justice/Police Academy; and is enrolled in the fire science program at Bowling Green State University.

Recruitment + Training = Retention
Guide to retention and recruitment available free online

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