This article is one in a series of toolkits focusing on recruitment, retention, fire service marketing and leadership.
In Part 1 of our discussion of the clearinghouse approach to recruitment and retention, I outlined my theory that there are three levels of recruitment activities, three distinct angles of attack, if you will. I identified them as “The Clearinghouse”; “T&E: Training and Education”; and lastly the “Trench Work.”
In discussing the clearinghouse concept, I stated my feelings that the role and responsibility of building awareness as to the need for volunteers falls on regional, state and federal fire service organizations or government itself.
I introduced you to a revolutionary approach to recruiting new volunteers with www.rollwithit.com – the State of Pennsylvania’s high-tech, in-your-face movie trailer/music video targeting the next generation of EMS providers and first responders.
Here, I’ll introduce you to a few other successful campaigns in an effort to further demonstrate the value of attacking the R&R challenge at the highest level – the clearinghouse.
Part 2 – Samples of Success:
ERIE COUNTY NY:
We might as well get my county out of the way early. I haven’t told you much about myself so I guess this is an appropriate moment.
My entrance into the R&R arena started 18 years ago when our Fire Chief John Latimore asked me to attend a meeting about a proposed county-wide recruitment campaign and come back with a few ideas.
I attended the meeting and drafted a 15-page field action plan of how we were going to recruit 5 new members that year and bring 5 inactive members back to active status.
Well, unbeknownst to me, he sent my plan to our county commissioner of emergency services. When I attended the next recruitment meeting there were about 125 people in the room and they all had my plan sitting in front of them. Imagine my surprise!
Needless to say, that catapulted me to the forefront of the local fire service. That was the spring of 1990. That year we doubled our fire company’s membership from 45 to 90 members – in four months time.
For all intents and purposes – they were knocking down our door.
We brought them in 10 and 15 at a time. They wanted to be Firefighters, EMTs, Fire Police and our new form of membership: Corporate members.
Yes. That’s right. We doubled our membership from 45 to 90 members in four months. I don’t recommend it to anyone, but that’s a story for another day. For the record, we were not the only fire department in our county to breed such success from this campaign.
County-wide, the campaign recruited 525 new volunteers for our fire service. Our ranks were up. We were on a high.
Our county administration then turned the tables on the fire service and challenged them by asking what they were going to do for themselves? Jim Guy, who was deputy fire coordinator at the time, conceived the idea for a county-wide newspaper to promote the volunteer fire service to the public.
He convened a group of fire service leaders [and I was invited too] to discuss the possibilities and logistics of such a venture. I was quite skeptical at first, telling him that we didn’t have the know-how, the funding, the manpower, the experience nor the ability to pull off such a huge undertaking.
Just to prove me wrong, they named me managing editor of the Erie County Volunteer Fire Fighter Newspaper four months later and I served in that capacity for seven years. The paper (www.firefighternewspaper.com) was an instant hit and is still in print today with a distribution of 15,000 copies of each quarterly edition. Uniquely, it remains the only sustaining fire service publication whose target audience is the public – not the fire service.
So, as is human nature, with everything going so well we sat back and didn’t really do much maintenance. Why should we? Our rosters were fat and happy.
Quite predictably, our recruitment and retention problem reared its ugly head once again.
As the answer to this recurring situation, the Erie County Department of Emergency Services created a new position in the Division of Fire Safety to specifically address our looming recruitment crisis.
Chosen from a field of ten candidates, I was hired nine years ago for the purpose of coordinating the roll out of a new state training initiative as well as the recruitment efforts of our county’s 94 volunteer fire departments. In return for what started as a part-time gig, I gave up a lucrative 15 year career in engineering, sales and marketing management to market the product I love: the fire service.
To the best of our knowledge, I was the first dedicated county-based volunteer firefighter recruiter in the nation. I count my blessings every day that I was chosen for this opportunity and I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.
IF YOU’RE TOUGH ENOUGH:
As part of my duties, I developed a large-scale recruitment campaign based around the theme: “If You’re Tough Enough; If You’re Smart Enough; If You Care Enough to Volunteer – VOLUNTEER TODAY. Make Friends for Life.”
The program leveraged a grant from our county legislature with free and discounted advertising to effect a campaign with a street value of $160,000 that has netted us 500+ new volunteers a year ever since. That’s a 10% influx of new recruits into an estimated population of 5,000 volunteer firefighters in Erie County every year.
We track our recruitment statistics by the number of volunteer firefighter arson background investigations completed by our County Sheriffs Department each year. (All prospective volunteer firefighters in New York State must have their records checked for an arson conviction, the presence of which precludes them from becoming a firefighter.) We can tell department-by-department how many new firefighters are joining our ranks.
The three-pronged “If you’re… enough” slogan elicits the physical, intellectual and compassion qualities needed to be a volunteer firefighter today.
While different people join for different reasons, spiking their adrenaline rush is still a proven means of getting many people off the couch and into the fire station.
We need to take advantage of the fact that the fire service offers many people an alternative to “driving a desk by day” – by giving them an opportunity to drive a fire truck at night.
The campaign effectively used outdoor advertising, scripted radio commercials and collateral print materials to get the message out. We’re still using much of those same materials today although I readily admit that our efforts need refreshing. [Inner monologue: “If only we had a budget for that…”]
The marketing effort promoted a second theme as well: “Firefighting isn’t for everyone – but volunteering can be.” As I like to say, there’s plenty to do on and behind the scene.
As I’ve stated in previous articles, not everyone has to be the person running into the burning building as all the sane people are running out. For those who can’t or don’t care to perform emergency duties, there’s FireCorps, a program that my fire company has used for more than 15 years under a different name: corporate or associate members.
FireCorps [www.firecorps.org] is a program that has the potential to double the effectiveness of the volunteer fire service while cutting the average volunteer’s time commitment in half.
I’ve shared with you before that the key to survival for the volunteer fire service is our ability to create more opportunities… for more people… to volunteer less time.
That means allowing people to specialize, to be good at a few things instead of poor at a lot. That means creating flexible memberships. That means thinking outside the box.
Managed properly, the same or better job gets done in the end. FireCorps is a means to that end.
Like the 1-800-FIRELINE program I described in the first part of this series, FIRECorps needs a lot more buy-in from the emergency services community despite having the potential to be a tremendous resource if adopted and directed effectively.
IF YOU’RE SMART ENOUGH:
We put our money where our mouth was with the “If you’re smart enough…” theme when in 2000 we created Project: V-FIRE – the Volunteer Firefighter Incentive for Recruitment and Education.
This tuition reimbursement program traded college scholarships for long-term fire service commitments. Underwriting the cost of completing a four-semester associate degree program at our local Erie Community College gave us a 4-7 year return on our investment in terms of years of service from the recipient.
Each candidate first needed to join a volunteer fire company to become eligible to apply for the scholarship. Thus, many more people joined than received scholarships – so that put us “in the black” right off the bat. Our legislature donated about $50,000 a year towards the program which allowed us to award 15-20 scholarships annually.
Each semester, we reimbursed the student-firefighter’s cost of tuition in return for the recipients meeting both their academic and fire department obligations during the semester. Each semester reimbursed equated to one year of service – which started after they were done going to school.
However, we had to tread cautiously for fear that we were potentially creating a system for failure instead of a system for success. V-FIRE combined the rigorous study requirements of a student and the time consuming duties of being a volunteer firefighter. If not managed properly, we were creating a losing combination that could ruin the academic standing and/or fire department status of the student, or worse.
To address this issue, we insisted that the scholarship recipients, their parents and a chief officer attend a mandatory orientation and that all parties sign a V-FIRE commitment form. The form clearly outlined the student’s obligations to the program and the fire department’s commitment to ensuring the student achieved success by balancing their priorities of family, school, work, play and the fire service appropriately.
The program garnered great acclaim and has been modeled in several other counties around the state and country. Unfortunately, the county’s budget crunch of 2005 ended that streak of success. The program yielded more than 60 new firefighters and over 300 years of fire service commitment as a positive return on our investment.
Naturally, other terms and conditions applied. Visit my FirefighterNation blog to download a sample administrative guide and review the details of the program.
Although it was not the first scholarship for volunteer firefighters, Project: V-FIRE was certainly one of the largest and most comprehensive programs in the nation. The goal of our clearinghouse has always been to create solutions to the challenges of our largely volunteer fire service.
IF YOU CARE ENOUGH:
“Nothing breeds success like success itself.” I always hated it when my old boss used that line every day, but now it sounds so much better coming from my lips. [Thanks Tom Woodside!]
That’s what my fire company did back in 1990 and continues to do so today. We simply leveraged the awareness created by our county-wide recruitment campaign with our own local efforts to create success.
We held press conferences, bought inexpensive print ads in our local penny saver, held open houses and publicly announced and promoted our new members. It’s psychological peer pressure. We made people think, “If all those folks are joining, then that must be an organization I want to belong to as well.”
Recruitment and retention, like any other business, requires an organized team approach. Partner with your town, county or state fire service and government leaders to build a bigger, better team. Leverage the opportunities they offer for your success. Get off the day-room couch and do it today.
I start out my R&R conversations with telling the audience that, “The difference between those who are successful at recruitment and retention – and those who are not – is simply those who make a conscious decision and continuous commitment to do something about the problem.”
As with any recruitment efforts, the clearinghouse is just one tactic, one component of what needs to be a systematic approach to addressing the challenges we face.
I don’t know if the father of the fire service had the fire service in mind when he said this, but Benjamin Franklin’s definition of insanity is: “Doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.”
If the fire service doesn’t embrace the ideas and efforts of the organizations at the top level, they shouldn’t expect to see any different results at their level.
Your county or state firefighter organizations can generate as many sales leads as you need, but if you don’t close the deal by following through to on those prospective members to get them in the door and keep them there, theirs are wasted efforts.
Visit rollwithit.com, www.erie.gov/fire or Google “volunteer firefighter recruitment campaigns” to see what others are doing about it.
Next time we’ll discuss SAFER Grants from the Department of Homeland Security and how you can get the federal funding to be a major player in the recruitment and retention arena.
For a comprehensive offering of R&R resources, visit my blog at www.firefighternation.com/profile/tiger5. Click or call if you’re looking for ideas or want to volunteer your own. I’d love to hear your experiences.
Until next time… “Stay safe. Train often.”
Editor’s Note: Recruitment slogans, programs or themes described herein may be the copyrighted intellectual property of the author or other parties. Please contact the author before reprinting or using such content.
Tiger Schmittendorf is a proud FASNY member and serves the County of Erie Department of Emergency Services (Buffalo NY) as Deputy Fire Coordinator. He created a recruitment effort that doubled his own fire department’s membership and helped net 525+ new volunteers countywide. He is a Nationally Certified Fire Instructor and has been a firefighter since 1980.
He suffers from an extremely dry sense of humor and routinely makes an ass of himself, often in public.