The Marketing Dilemma
The main obstacle to bringing new candidates through the door is a complete lack of understanding when it comes to marketing the department. Gone (for the most part) are the days of local farmers and shop owners turning out to answer calls in the middle of the day. Farms and other small family-owned businesses have been pushed aside for jobs in the IT sector, marketing, and business worlds. People are just not routinely showing up on the doorsteps of firehouses asking to volunteer. So, once again, instead of being a reactive fire department, you need to go out and aggressively recruit new members. Professional sports teams do it, colleges do it, and successful businesses do it as well; firefighters shouldn’t be any different. What many people fail to remember is that, just like any other successful business, the volunteer fire department must market itself.
Today’s potential firefighters are looking for what the fire department can do for them rather than what they can do for their department (and community). Although many of us can sit back and easily say, “They shouldn’t be doing it for those reasons,” the reality is they are. Having the outlook that “we’ve always done it this way” is slowly extinguishing the fire service and our culture. It’s time that we adapt to fill our ranks and save the fire service that we have come to know and love. Unfortunately, millennials aren’t going to change for us, so we are going to have to change for them. So, what can we do to show these candidates that they have something to gain by volunteering? This is where recruitment comes into play.
Your Target Audience
Before diving into the world of recruiting, ask yourself, “What is my target audience?” Do you live in a community with several universities and colleges nearby? Or, do you volunteer in a retirement community and people are looking for a hobby? Maybe your target audience is not located in your run area but rather in your surrounding area. Outside of my fire district are several municipal departments that are staffed by career staff only. So, by branching our recruitment efforts outward, we can capture potential volunteers in their area that have no other opportunity to volunteer. We have something that they cannot offer, and we need to use it to our advantage.
(1) This image illustrates where our members have come from and where they are going. I also realized I had too many patches and they wouldn’t all fit in the frame, which shows the impact our recruitment efforts have made on not just our department but those larger departments around us. (Photos by author.)
As a department, you may have to focus on several groups to have a successful recruitment. One group that we struggle to recruit are career firefighters who live in our district. Understandably, most of these career firefighters don’t want to spend more time at “work” than they have to. However, by offering reduced hourly commitments or giving credit for training at work, we can make our department more appealing. Anyone willing to recruit needs to first identify his target base. This, in turn, will determine the type of recruiting needed to captivate this pool of personnel.
Each fire department is different. Although some recruitment techniques may be applicable to your department, they will still need fine tuning and refining to fit your needs. In my volunteer department, we have slowly begun to market ourselves as a “stepping stone” for careers.
In my surrounding metropolitan area, there are little to no opportunities to volunteer. Travel 30 minutes outside of the city, and you are in “volunteer country.” However, this bridge to career conversion comes with a significant cost.
My department retains only about 20 percent of its membership for longer than five years. Over the past year alone, more than 13 percent of our membership had started new careers with surrounding departments. This number almost doubles when we consider those outside of the fire service who take jobs in law enforcement, the military, and even the private sector. The fire service can provide them with the tools to succeed. For years, the stigma has preceded these applicants in that “they are only using us as a stepping stone.” The old saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” applies here; rather than fight the inevitable, maybe it is time we embrace change and use it to our advantage.
Encouraging young people to flourish and grow is tough, but it builds their confidence and character. If you invest in your people, they will feel a sense of loyalty to your department. Since this process has begun gaining traction in my department, our turnover has decreased; these members now feel a loyalty to the department that has helped them establish a foothold in a very competitive field.
Don’t look at this revolving door as having a negative impact on your department. Although people are revolving out, you should work hard to ensure that it is revolving people in at the same time. So, how do we market ourselves?
Technology is the number-one marketing tool available. You can’t walk down the street without seeing most people with their faces in their phones. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms are very useful for grabbing the attention of those around you. One mistake that a lot of departments, groups, and businesses make is that they are not engaged on social media. If possible, post public content on your pages every couple of days or so, once a week at minimum. Let your followers know about upcoming events and ways they can support you.
I learned early on that the more popular the social media post (based on “likes” and interactions), the more the platform boosts your post. In addition, you can also buy packages of advertising based on the number of clicks you receive (good for a limited budget) or for a specific duration (good for an open budget).
Want to spice things up? Offer a giveaway on your social media page for people who like and share your posts. This boosts your online interactions twofold and offers you good publicity through the giveaway of a free T-shirt or other promotional item from your department.
Department members with a rudimentary understanding of technology could even complete a simple Web site design to catch someone’s attention. There are preformatted Web site designs that allow you to plug and play your videos, pictures, and information easily.
Make your Web site more appealing to motivated individuals by posting some “in action” photos and videos of your department. You can set up many of these services for around $10 per month. In addition, Web sites such as the National Volunteer Fire Council’s www.makemeafirefighter.org are free and allow you to add fliers, job announcements, videos, and much more to your social media page and Web site that you can disperse throughout the community.
Next, capitalize on the local businesses in your area and surrounding areas. Local radio stations will often give air time to local nonprofits (especially fire departments) for little or no charge. Also, get involved in your community by being active and standing by at events.
My department was contacted several years back for a community day at the local hardware store, which was approximately 10 miles outside of our run area. The department that provided the hardware store’s service refused to cooperate and stand by at its event. For a couple of hours, we set up our aerial (the ladder and American flag captures the attention of anyone nearby) and talked to citizens, gave apparatus tours, and snagged a few new volunteers. In addition, this large chain hardware store offered to supply us with discount items and even donate scrap wood, drywall, and other building materials with which we could build training props.
Another potential asset is your local Chamber of Commerce. Often, nonprofits can join at a reduced cost, and it provides a wealth of advertisement. When we finally joined our Chamber of Commerce, just one out of six departments was listed with it. When someone out of area called the Chamber and asked to contact the fire department, the only contact information that was given was for the department that was a member of the Chamber. This customer who needed information regarding an issue was more than 20 miles away, but because of the Chamber’s affiliation, the customer was directed to our department. Making yourself accessible is key to a quality recruitment program.
(2) Although the last thing everyone wants to do after a job is gather for a photo, it is priceless to have one to reflect on after performing a good job. These members were on a high for weeks after a commercial fire. A quality photo can show others that your department isn’t just about T-shirts or serving up pancakes; members are here to do a job.
Although $10 a month may be easy for some departments to pony up, other departments may have trouble justifying the expense if they don’t understand the potential outcomes. One way to justify this and other recruitment expenses is to recruit local business with an ad campaign. For instance, a local business once contacted my volunteer department looking to donate to us before year’s end. Rather than have it donate directly to the fire department, it picked up the bill for the public Web site. In return, we created a Facebook post thanking it, giving it and us exposure.
Some departments have embraced this concept wholeheartedly. Most recently, a well-respected fire department in the West allowed the local Chamber of Commerce to pay for and place its names on the side of one of the fire engines; this is ingenious. The department now has extra income to spend on recruitment, tools, vehicle repairs, or for whatever the money is needed. If NASCAR does it, why can’t we?
Budgets are shrinking and demands on fire departments continue to skyrocket. Most importantly, with financing, once you show members a return on investment, it is easier to sell to them on the need for funding in the recruitment sector.
(3) My first night at my second career department. Don’t forget where you came from, and always remember those who helped you get to where you are today. I owe a lot to my volunteer department, and I wouldn’t have made it this far without it.
One recent addition to our marketing campaign is an online store where people can buy fire department merchandise. The proceeds of these sales go directly back into the recruitment funding campaign.
Start out small. Our store began with decals and patches; hopefully, it will soon grow to include challenge coins, T-shirts, and sweatshirts. Our biggest advice on funding is to find a niche that can promote your organization, and the money can stay where it belongs. For example, set aside the money you make selling T-shirts to spend on more marketing campaigns.
What can your department offer as a draw to potential new members? This is where the ability to really get creative and think outside the box comes into play. As previously stated, we have realized a draw for members who want to transition into career departments. So, what can we offer them to help them succeed? How about training and experience? Experience is tough to get; the calls dictate what experience we gain. However, a volunteer on call 24/7 stands a greater chance of catching that experience than someone putting in just 56 hours a week on shift. In fact, most of my experience has come from a pager going off at home in the middle of the night rather than being at the firehouse.
Many departments turn to a “live-in” program, which offers discount lodging (maybe even free) to members who live in the firehouse. This may have a higher appeal in areas that have local colleges, where people may not want to stay in a dorm. In return, you get members who are out the door every time a call goes out.
Training is something we can control and focus heavily on. Every even year, we offer one of the area’s only complete fire academies, tailored to members’ needs and desires, that encompasses International Fire Service Accreditation Congress standardized state classes. We tailor these classes to the schedule of nonshift personnel and hold classes two evenings a week and on Saturdays for six months. When members have completed the academy, they can walk away with a sense of accomplishment as well as certifications for Firefighter I and II, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, first-aid, and hazardous materials operations. Our previous academy graduated more than 20 students. In some departments, many of these students can walk straight to the floor already trained and certified.
However, it’s possible your department isn’t quite “there” yet. So, how about offering to support them in attending training classes elsewhere? Provide them with a department vehicle to drive to and from class and pay for their books, the cost of class, and a hotel if needed. Paying for all (or even one) of these items reduces some of the student’s burden; you are taking care of your firefighter and showing him that you have a vested interest in his success. Why? Because you do! If you are not invested in the people in your command, then you have no business leading them. Benefits can be so much more than just training. Providing uniforms, life insurance, line-of-duty death benefits, scholarships, tax breaks, volunteer pensions, and even a paid-on-call system are all tools that you can use to recruit members.
Not only has recruitment bolstered our ranks and given us some great volunteers, it has come back to us twofold in forging better relationships with surrounding departments. For instance, six members of your volunteer department being hired by a neighboring career department really opens their eyes to what is going on around them. They begin to see that you and your members are into the job and are valuable assets.
The positive word of mouth regarding the success of our programs has increased recruitment as well. When people tell others how our volunteer fire department helped them transition to their career, their peers become interested. Not only has this boosted the moral of our department, but it has put us in a positive light among other departments. We know we are not some hotshot technical rescue team or “salty jakes” catching a job every night; we have found our niche, and we are very good at it. By marketing our organization as a stepping stone, we have capitalized on our volunteer pool. Each department needs to identify the situation that applies directly to it and capitalize on the desires of its potential volunteers.
Unfortunately, we must look at ourselves as recruiters. How do the armed forces lure young adults? They may be looking for a sense of adventure, duty, world travel, training, or college tuition. Those benefits appeal specifically to their target base and may be reflected differently throughout the country. Professional sports teams recruit athletes; firefighters are also athletes, so we should recruit them the same way. Find out what you can do for these potential members, and do it. Don’t make empty promises, but figure out a way to attract these folks. Put your people first, and you will be rewarded.
THOMAS W. CASTELLOW is a federal firefighter, NREMT-P, and volunteer firefighter in Moyock, North Carolina. He has more than 14 years in public safety and has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration and an associate degree in fire science from Columbia Southern University. He is a member of the North Carolina State Fireman’s Association as well as the International Association of Fire Fighters.