The Erie County (NY) Department of Emergency Services had noticed a shortage of volunteer firefighters for a long time. Aside from the statewide and nationwide reports indicating a decline in the ranks of the fire service, volunteer departments in Erie County had for years complained of manpower shortages, especially during weekdays from 9 a. m. to 5 p.m., when most of their members are at work and unavailable for emergency response.
In May 1989 the Erie County Eire Chiefs Mutual Aid Association requested the assistance of the Department of Emergency Services for a recruitment drive to increase the manpower of the county fire service. In response to this request, the Division of Eire Safety of the Department of Emergency Services conducted a survey of the county’s 94 volunteer fire departments to determine the extent of the problem. Questionnaires were mailed inquiring about the following: the number of active firefighter positions per company compared with actual firefighters on duty to meet the demand for both day and night hours, and whether the company felt it had a recruitment problem.
The survey results confirmed that a serious shortage of volunteers existed in Erie County. Of the 66 fire departments that responded to the survey (a 70 percent return), 42, or almost twothirds, reported a manpower shortage. The statistics showed that on a countywide basis the volunteer fire departments were operating at only about 70 percent of their authorized strength. Immediate action was needed to increase the ranks of the county fire service.
One option was to switch to paid departments. This was ruled out due to the extreme cost. Figures showed that suburban Erie County would need a minimum of 2,000 firefighters to properly man a paid department; the projected cost to county taxpayers exceeded S100 million.
The survey data and the high projected costs of a paid fire service made apparent the need to increase the volunteer recruitment effort. The Erie County chiefs subsequently appointed a Recruitment and Retention Committee (RRC) in August 1989 to deal with the problem.
The purpose of this new organization was to establish a recruitment and retention program throughout Erie County to ensure the stability of the volunteer fire service. To accomplish this, it sought to educate the public as to what the volunteer fire service is about; prepare and train educators to convey a sound recruitment and retention program; establish a resource pool; identify problem areas and address possible solutions; and establish a recruitment and retention program as a permanent and ongoing program.
At its initial meeting in September 1989, the committee decided to request the county’s financial assistance for a recruitment drive. The plan was to spend at least S 50,000 on an advertising campaign and to have members of local fire departments do the actual hands-on recruiting. The committee met with the county executive in October 1989 and again in November 1989, and he committed S50,000 from the county’s general fund to the program and formally requested the County Legislature’s approval.
Following legislative approval, the committee, the leadership of the Erie County Fire Chiefs Mutual Aid Association, and the Department of Emergency Services held its initial planning/strategy session. Scores of volunteer firefighters attended to help in program development. The county was divided into 13 geographic areas (fire controls), and individual firefighters volunteered as coordinators. Eventually the number of program volunteers grew to 110.
At the RRC’s initial planning meeting it decided the following: April 1990 would be Firefighter Recruitment Month in Erie County; the S50,000 would be used to maximize television, radio, and newspaper advertising; the 13 geographic areas (fire controls) would organize the recruitment program locally; teams of recruiters from the fire service would blanket area shopping malls, visit schools, and attend public gatherings to recruit potential members; a consultant would be hired to coordinate the media campaign; and corporate cosponsors would he sought out. The group felt the paid advertising would get the public’s attention but that a hands-on recruitment effort at the local level would be required to attract volunteers.
The program group held three additional meetings to fully develop the recruitment program. In addition to the previous plans, the group decided that a Super Sign Up Day would be held to pass out brochures and take in applications. They also planned two days of open house at all of the fire stations in order to familiarize prospective volunteers with the stations.
The budget had a number of additions of its own. Aside from the S 50,000 appropriated by Erie County, a cable company and various television and radio stations donated S81,000 in advertising spots. Other businesses contributed money for brochures, posters, and other promotional resources. A number of community organizations also helped the recruitment effort. In all, almost SI00,000 was amassed in addition to the county’s appropriation.
The recruitment drive results turned out to be no less than astounding. Five hundred twenty-one residents of Erie County filled out applications for the volunteer fire service-exceeding the program’s original goal of 200 by more than 250 percent. This translated to a 20-percent increase in the number of volunteer firefighters responding to emergencies throughout Erie County. We consider the recruitment drive a great success.
The RRC will continue to meet and plan for the future and intends to continue the recruitment drive for many years to come. We firmly believe that an organized, aggressive, countywide, and continuous strategy is critical to the future growth and development of the volunteer fire service.