BY LEZA RAFFEL
More than two-thirds of the United States’ approximately 30,000 fire departments are staffed entirely by volunteers. However, across the nation, the number of volunteer firefighters is shrinking, down 13 percent since 1984. In Pennsylvania, a state where suburban and rural communities are mostly served by volunteer departments, the ranks shrank from about 300,000 in the 1970s to somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 today.
The Abington Township (PA) Fire Department (ATFD) is comprised of five volunteer fire companies that enjoy a stellar reputation within a grateful community. However, those appreciative residents did not always realize that the men and women fighting fires and otherwise keeping township neighborhoods safe do so without getting paid. With volunteer numbers dwindling, ATFD officials realized they had to do something to keep their numbers stable. “We decided to be proactive,” said David Schramm, fire services administrator for the department in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “We didn’t want to wait until we were faced with declining membership. It’s hard to recruit volunteers when people don’t know you’re a volunteer department.”
|(1, 2) The Abington Township (PA) Fire Department’s (ATFD’s) new branding campaign was brought to life through a series of recruitment materials such as these posters. (Photos courtesy of the ATFD.)|
A group of community stakeholders gathered to provide input on the department’s 2009 strategic plan and decided that, if they hoped to persuade more residents to become firefighters, they must increase awareness and improve communication with the township’s 55,000 residents. The group began a multifront campaign that included a cohesive brand that went to the core of ATFD volunteer identity, a vibrant social media presence, and an increase in the traditional media coverage of ATFD services and good works. This effort has resulted in 101 new ATFD volunteer firefighters and counting.
Every fire department loses volunteers who relocate for work, go off to college, or experience another big life change. Schramm explained, “Fortunately, the combination of recruiting efforts that brings people in as well as the quality training programs and leadership that make them want to stay has kept the ATFD’s membership consistently stable at around 235.”
Following is the story of what the ATFD did to get there.
Strategic Planning Provides Direction
The ATFD developed a plan that has since been updated and which the department continues to follow. One of the first steps of the ATFD’s community awareness campaign was the hiring of Communication Solutions Group, a public relations firm based in nearby Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. Communication Solutions started its work by applying time-tested techniques such as the printing and distributing of a quarterly newsletter filled with well-written stories and dramatic photos showing residents how much they needed their volunteer fire department and how much the department needed them.
The ATFD didn’t need to take on new projects to get publicity; it just needed to show residents and the media what the department had been doing all along. When the ATFD held training programs at the department’s own fire training facility, photos were taken of volunteers learning cutting-edge techniques, and related stories appeared in regional media outlets.
Like the need for volunteers, the need to remind the community of what the department does never goes away. Public relations activities continue regularly around community outreach events from Fire Prevention Week open houses at the fire stations to simulated crashes that show the dangers of drinking and driving to high school students. The ATFD believes that these everyday events are also opportunities for recruiting new members.
Inviting the Next Generation to the Firehouse
Fire Prevention Week provides a chance for direct outreach to potential volunteers since it attracts hundreds of community members to the five ATFD fire stations. In addition, the ATFD fosters a strong relationship with Abington Senior High School that goes far beyond an annual visit. The school has a Volunteer Firefighters Club where ATFD firefighters meet with club members once a month and lead activities that provide some basic training as well as offer a great sense of what volunteer firefighting is like. Club members also assist the ATFD with events at the school and in the community. High school students are required to earn community service credits to graduate and, since volunteering at the fire department qualifies, the high school’s service learning program has proven to be another vehicle that drives young volunteers to the ATFD.
As ATFD outreach efforts grew, there became a need to upgrade recruitment material and expand it to social media. In 2011, the ATFD was awarded a Federal Emergency Management Agency Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant that provided funding dedicated to recruitment efforts. The next step was to conduct a visioning session with ATFD volunteers, from the department’s most seasoned veterans to the newest members. This session got to the heart of who the volunteers were and created for them a brand with which they could identify. Firefighters spoke; their words were shaped into phrases designed to succinctly describe themselves and what they do and to attract others capable of doing the same. The session distilled everything down to the essence of the new brand-“Gear up. Get in the action. Volunteer” and “What’s keeping you from the experience of a lifetime?” (photos 1 and 2). These new slogans are now used consistently on recruitment posters and brochures, in print, and in social media. It’s the reinforcement of what the ATFD is and why potential volunteers would want to be part of this organization. The themes also reinforce that the ATFD is made up of volunteers.
The Web and Social Media Aren’t Optional
People in their 40s and younger get much of the information they consume online, and they communicate regularly through social media. Therefore, it was essential for the ATFD to have a dynamic, information-packed Web site and a Facebook page with regular updates. Every newsletter, poster, and press release refers back to the ATFD’s Web site and Facebook page, where much more information is available not only for possible recruits but for the entire community. In addition, ATFD firefighters starred in a series of video public service announcements on fire safety tips that were then posted on these sites.
Digital communication is also important, but it is not enough. The Web site offers a response form for potential volunteers. The ATFD receives notification when a form is filled out, and a current volunteer will quickly make contact with the potential recruit. “Research tells us that the best way to get a new member is to have a current member ask that person to join,” Schramm said.
Attraction Is Just One Step
Attracting new volunteers won’t do a fire department much good if they don’t stay. Building a recruitment campaign that is intrinsically designed around the characteristics of the ATFD’s successful volunteers has helped bring in other volunteers who are like them and, therefore, are also likely to possess the mindset and other characteristics necessary to thrive in the volunteer firefighter environment.
However, even the most dedicated and resilient volunteers won’t stay if the experience is unpleasant; no one wants to belong to a dysfunctional organization. The ATFD believes that you must have respect for your volunteers’ time and offer quality training and community programs, good equipment, and good leadership. Fire departments compete with work, home, hobbies, children, church, and other community activities for volunteers’ limited time. Respecting the value of that time goes a long way.
The ATFD’s newest volunteer retention project focuses on firefighter families. Volunteers and potential volunteers in their late 20s and 30s have often finished their education and have settled into career and community, and this geographic stability makes them potential long-term members. However, they are also getting married and having children; these are life events that can lead a volunteer to give up firefighting. Work has begun on a new brochure that will offer spouses and significant others of volunteers advice on what they can expect, how to manage the unpredictability, and the unique stressors the volunteer life brings.
Accreditation: an Honor and a Roadmap
In spring 2014, the ATFD became the only all-volunteer department in Pennsylvania to receive accreditation from the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. The process of earning this esteemed designation became a roadmap for making the ATFD the type of department in which volunteers want to take part.
The ATFD met more than 300 performance indicators, core competencies, and criteria in areas such as fire suppression, fire training, strategic planning, fire prevention, public education programs, fire investigations, finances, physical and human resources, and firefighter safety and wellness programs.
Accreditation took years of applications, assessments, and plans submitted to the Commission. The department had to conduct a self-assessment that included a detailed community risk analysis, response strategies, standards of cover, and strategic planning components. Consistency in membership, the number of volunteers who respond to a call, response times, and skill level are all part of that review-all factors linked to the ATFD’s ability to attract and keep its volunteers.
Publicize the Services Your Department Provides to the Community
Few professions get as much respect and admiration as volunteer firefighting. However, don’t assume those fond feelings equal a familiarity with the way volunteer fire departments work or their need for more personnel. Every volunteer department must publicize the services it provides, that those services are provided by volunteers, and that more volunteers with a variety of skills are needed.
“Maintaining a highly visible presence in the community is a great place to start,” Schramm said.
This approach has clearly worked for the ATFD.
LEZA RAFFEL is the president of the Communication Solutions Group in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a full service public relations marketing firm that provides recruitment and communication support for the Abington Township (PA) Fire Department, the Bucks County (PA) Fire Chiefs and Firefighters Association, and several other fire departments. Raffel is a past speaker for the Eastern Division of the International Fire Chiefs Conference, where she addressed recruitment strategies. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Ithaca College.