Part 1: What’s a Clearinghouse?

In previous articles, I’ve attempted to present the fire service with real tools to use in improving their membership process and documentation including annual reports, prospective member guides and the interview process.


Recently, I’ve been working with a group of some 30 fire service leaders to offer solutions to the recruitment and retention challenges of their county’s fire service.


As part of that process, I’ve developed a three-tiered model to address what I call “recruitment and retention rescue and recovery operations.”


I call them “The Clearinghouse”; “T&E: Training and Education”; and lastly the “Trench Work” – where the hand-to-hand combat of recruitment and retention is won and lost.


For now, we’ll start to take a look at the bigger picture of recruitment and retention (R&R) problems and solutions. Here, we’ll talk about the top tier: the recruitment clearinghouse.


This is indeed what the term implies, the command center for all recruitment and retention efforts. In my model – recruitment inquiries, awareness campaigns, people management, leadership training, tools and resources, consulting – it all comes from and through the clearinghouse. This centralized approach can be accomplished at the regional, county, state or federal levels of government and/or the fire service.


In this and coming articles, I will cite several clearinghouse examples that have been successful in generating results for the volunteer fire service. It’s a proven system that does work.


I promise we’ll return to my three-tiered approach in a future article but right now my mind is restless, and I have to beg the question:


Have you seen


The Pennsylvania EMS Community has hit a home run with this recruitment campaign targeting young adults to fill volunteer and career EMS vacancies across their state.


Although the campaign is two years old already, it was love-at-first-sight for me. The web campaign, designed like a movie trailer, uses the same edgy, in-your-face marketing style that the 18-25 year old segment responds to. (FYI – I was once in that market segment but can no longer consider myself an “active member.”)


For the benefit of the ‘more-experienced’ members of the fire service, this 18-25 demographic is commonly referred to as Next-Gen, the Pepsi Generation, or the Web-Generation.


Next-Gens are accustomed to having messages shouted at them, or in this case, sung to them. Web-Gens are visual learners and multi-taskers. Thus, the trailer is set to a fast paced rock theme with rap-like lyrics.


While the promotion’s appeal is targeted at this younger age group, I think that the campaign certainly has enough “meat and potatoes” of a recruitment message to capture a broader interest and acceptance.


Following the initial music video intro, you’re directed to one of five well-organized sub-areas of the interactive web site: learn more, get started, find a job, stories, and contact us.


Under “learn more” you get the skinny on the training necessary to become a certified first responder all the way to paramedic. “Get Started” includes an interactive map of Pennsylvania and a simple online inquiry form.


The “stories” section includes separate and compelling personal reflections from an EMS customer and an EMT as well. Lastly, the contact page offers an easy-to-remember phone number: 1-877-PA MEDIC and an e-mail contact: [email protected]


Historically, EMS has handled recruitment locally. This statewide effort is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania.


According to Steve Lyle, executive director of the Emergency Health Services Federation in Harrisburg, “The truth is that Pennsylvania’s EMS industry is rapidly reaching a crisis situation. New recruits are down and the turnover rate of existing professionals in the field is high. If we don’t act now, our ability to quickly and effectively respond to medical emergencies will be in jeopardy. That’s why we are taking action now to drive both recruitment and retention.”


I don’t think it’s much of a stretch for us to say the same thing about the fire service in our state, our county or our community. The question is: what are we going to do about it?


The original campaign ran in the major movie houses in large segment markets such as Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia. At last count, this campaign raked in 8,000 new EMTs statewide.


You read that right: 8,000 new EMTs.


That’s innovative!


The campaign is supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s EMS Office and includes partnerships with cable provider Comcast and the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters. The broadcasters association encourages its member television and radio stations to run the trailer as a public service announcement.


That’s smart business.


The dynamic, high-impact 60-second movie trailer targeted at younger Pennsylvanians spotlights the fast-paced and exhilarating nature of the emergency medical services industry. It began airing on 376 screens in 50 movie theaters across the state in November 2005.


Their plan is for young EMTs to take the movie trailer into schools, and by sharing their experiences in the field and answering questions from students, recruit new members.


That’s aggressive marketing.


By establishing the toll-free phone number, e-mail address and web site, Pennsylvania’s EMS community has taken the bull by the horns and has declared as the clearinghouse for the recruitment of emergency medical services personnel in their state.


That’s the right approach.


I was so impressed by the campaign that I immediately fired off an e-mail to the executive director of the National Volunteer Fire Council ( I let her know that I thought this campaign was a “no-brainer” and one that should be adopted nationwide and expanded or paralleled with a similar fire/rescue theme.


No local, county or state emergency services agency should have to come up with this kind of idea – or bear the cost of developing this type of tool on our own. This is the perfect opportunity to take advantage of economies of scale by distributing a national campaign down to the local level.


This is exactly the type of resources the NVFC should be mass-producing for us but it appears they have some awareness issues of their own.


I conducted a purely non-scientific poll of the same group of fire service leaders recently (Let me see by a show of hands…) and asked them if they knew which national fire service association was acting as the clearinghouse for all volunteer recruitment efforts?


Surprise, surprise; no one could give me a definitive answer. None of them are members of the NVFC. Actually, some had never heard of the NVFC. In fact, I never received a reply to my e-mail.


For the record, I asked the same group of leaders which statewide organization is acting on their behalf to create broad-based excitement about becoming a volunteer firefighter. Unfortunately, I was faced with the same deer-in-the-headlights stare.


That’s disappointing.


In their defense, the NVFC does offer a significant selection of recruitment resources on their web site, most of which were created and submitted by volunteer fire departments from around the country.


The NVFC also promotes the 1-800-FIRELINE program, a primarily outdoor advertising campaign designed to drive prospects to the volunteer fire service. While the 1-800-FIRELINE phone number provides a useful hotline for inquiries, the program lacks punch – a powerful message tied to it.


The FIRELINE program originated back in 1994 in New Jersey and was adopted by the NVFC in 1997. I question how many fire departments are even aware of it? I know that we had one billboard in our county years ago but we’ve never seen any results.


We all suffer from best-kept secrets so I’m not saying the program can’t work; it just needs to be updated and upgraded.


In an attempt to prevent a looming health-care crisis, Pennsylvania’s emergency medical community joined forces for the first time to launch a statewide recruitment campaign using the “Roll With It!” theme.


“Joining forces” is what the NVFC and FASNY are for in the first place – to be the ‘force’ behind the volunteer fire service. It’s these kinds of organizations that need to pick up this ball and “Roll With It!


The reality is this: while easily recognized by existing firefighters and first responders, the age-old practice of slapping a Maltese cross and the word “volunteer” on a street sign, vehicle magnet, billboard or bumper sticker just isn’t enough to attract today’s prospective volunteer.


There’s hope.


Our recruitment efforts and the FIRELINE program need to get “jacked up,” or perhaps “fired up” in order to successfully boost our ranks.


How about a web site or an [email protected] e-mail address directly associated with the campaign?


Not for nothing but, when do you think was the last time a Next-Gen actually picked up a phone to learn about a volunteering opportunity?


That’s the second-to-last means of communications they would ever choose. The last method would be actually writing and mailing a letter.


Like it or not, today’s prospective volunteers, firefighters and today’s learners are web driven. They’re text messengers and instant messengers. They demand immediate feedback and gratification.


Need more proof? Watch two very cool videos posted by Chief Billy Goldfeder at that, in his words, may help us older ones, understand the interesting challenges that we have (and will have) with the current and upcoming generation of firefighters. I’ve posted links to them at my blog as well.


Intuitively, the site immediately fires off an automated e-mail response to your inquiry, only to be followed up with a personal contact shortly thereafter.


If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past several years in Erie County, it’s that our customers and our prospects want a fast and easy way of communicating with us. We offer them that in the form of and [email protected]


You need to have a strong web presence if you have any hopes of capturing the interest of today’s prospect in volunteering. You need them to “catch the wave” as they’re surfing your site.


Integrated marketing is not a new concept but the results speak for themselves. Through the integration of fax, web, phone, e-mail and our own fire radio system, we’ve more than doubled our training business, offering hundreds of outreach courses to thousands of firefighters each year. As a result, we see thousands of unique visits to our web site each week.


Through our clearinghouse concept, we receive dozens of recruitment inquiries via the web and e-mail each month. Qualified prospects add up pretty quick, and I think we’re just scratching the surface of possibilities.


The proof is in the pudding. Our stats demonstrate that we’re bringing in 500-600 new recruits each year countywide.


With a little updating, I think a re-engineered 1-800-FIRELINE program can be effective. I have my own ideas but, regardless of what we call it, the time is now for a national, state and/or county sponsored recruitment effort to save and support the volunteer fire service.


My helmet is off to the folks in PA for their ability to think outside the box while staying inside the box of reality when portraying life in the emergency services community.


I firmly believe that it’s the role and responsibility of county, state and federal government and fire service organizations to build the awareness as to the need for volunteers, bringing prospective members not only to the Fire Department’s doorstep, but their web site, voicemail and inbox too.


Ultimately, it’s still the local fire department’s responsibility to do the “trench work,” the street fighting, leveraging the proper recruitment tools we provide them to get the prospect in the door and keep them there.  That’s something that no one can do for you. You have to be dedicated to doing it yourself, always and forever, in order for the volunteer fire service to survive and thrive.


As stated in a previous toolkit, I believe that the survival and success of the volunteer fire service relies on our ability to create more opportunities – for more people – to volunteer less time.


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.”


Visit, or Google “volunteer firefighter recruitment videos” or “volunteer firefighter recruitment campaigns” to see what others are doing about it.


Remember, firefighting is the best damn job in the world. It’s our obligation to ensure there are always enough of us around to get the job done, consistently and effectively.


For a comprehensive offering of R&R resources, visit my blog at Click or call if you’re looking for ideas or want to offer your own. I’d love to hear what you have to say.


Until next time… “Stay safe. Train often.”

  • I was woundering if you could take a look @ R&R video on the site. I would like to fresh in it up. Do you have any poionters?

    Thanks in Advance,

    Jeremy Karlin
    Franklin Square & Munson Fire Department
    Recruitment and Retention Committee Chariman

  • I was woundering if you could take a look @ R&R video on the site. I would like to fresh in it up. Do you have any poionters?

    Thanks in Advance,

    Jeremy Karlin
    Franklin Square & Munson Fire Department
    Recruitment and Retention Committee Chariman

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