Recruiting Volunteers

How many articles have you seen or read over the past few years talking about recruiting volunteers for your agency,? More than you can count? This one will not be any different from those, but the point is to keep making progress on recruiting and retaining the volunteers that come in to your organization. Two or three years ago I received an article from a newspaper from a fire chief in Houston, Texas. It started off with the title, “Where Have All the Volunteers Gone?” and continued to mention all the reasons we are still talking about today in the fire service. The thing that makes this point interesting is the fact the article was over 30 years old, and we are still having the same issues as we were then. Fewer people are coming out to volunteer and the ones that do are not staying very long. image

While participating in the IAFC/VCOS Symposium in early November with a group of seasoned volunteer chief officer’s, we were having a panel discussion about volunteers and how we are challenged to recruit the Millennials today. Several points were discussed and someone commented on how their volunteers averaged staying four years in their agency. Various studies show that this number is about the average all over the country. We need to keep that in mind when recruiting the next generation. This reinforces the need to continue recruitment efforts every day, every year. By the time you feel like you have a new recruit up to speed and confident in his job he is gone either to a busier department or off to fulfill a career position. The recruitment efforts must be constant and focused and should have a single person in charge of the efforts. Many people or a committee should be involved in the process, but someone has to be in charge and most likely it should not be the chief. The chief should appoint a recruitment officer with people skills. These skills should reach all age groups, especially the youth, as they are the future and they are more physically fit.

One of the presenters, in fact the moderator Dr. Bill Jenaway of VFIS, spoke to the fact that millennials prefer to be reached by social media, but also learned by some of the audience that Facebook was for old people. We need to keep up with the times. There were also some others in the audience that were not very happy being labeled as “Millennials” so Dr. Jenaway changed the whole Power Point presentation to read “the next generation” and this sums up what the fire service must do; we must keep up with the changes. On the fire ground, we adapt to the changing environment, why are we having such a hard time adapting to the changes in our communities?

Using professional help in marketing and recruitment efforts is sometimes the best way to get the word out in your community. This can be a costly choice but there is money available through FEMA SAFER grants to fund these methods. However, this is best done by larger entities such as state or county associations that reach more of the population. States such as South Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut and Maryland all have received FEMA SAFER grant money for recruitment and retention and have been very successful with their projects.

You must make your agency attractive to the people you want to attract. Market your agency by talking about the good things you do for the community and make the department a place the new members would want to come and spend time. If you have a place for the members to spend their time, such as large day rooms or recreation rooms, this gives them something to do other than sit and watch television. If your station has sleeping quarters you could seek volunteers from other communities that would otherwise have longer commutes to and from the station, encourage them to do overnight shifts spending more time there. Large flat screen TVs and gaming consoles, and several computer monitors set throughout the station for homework and personal projects is a good ideas, although most people have their own laptop they bring with them. With all of the competition you will have from other agencies, a well thought out plan of action is a must. This recruitment process must be an ongoing process that is managed on a constantly, day to day. Make certain that your existing membership is engaged in the process of recruiting new and younger members. See that everyone is on the same sheet of music and that the message for the new members is consistent.

When looking for the new recruit, are you looking to encourage everyone to become FFII, or are you trying to fill other voids in your agency.? Think about positions of just truck drivers, just EMTs, volunteers to clean the station and apparatus, volunteers to do the filing or some administrative duties such as completing the run reports. Not every person on your roster has to be a FFII, and there are several duties on the fire scene that could be accomplished with non-firefighting personnel. This could fill any gaps with manpower to keep the firefighters doing the task they are trained to do. Too many of the departments that I have spoken to feel they need all personnel to be able to do everything required as interior firefighters, but some of the other departments that are using the members in non-firefighting roles works for their agency. There is no silver bullet or magic potion to fix every department and if this approach works for you it should be considered. The departments that think outside the box are the ones that are most successful. You can be creative in your approach and there are several agencies across the country that is doing different things to accomplish their mission.

There is help for the departments that may be looking to consider some of these options. I would suggest talking to your peers that have made some of these changes to see how they would work in your agency.

Two contacts to consider would be the Volunteer Combination Officer Section of the IAFC, and the National Volunteer Fire Council, NVFC. If you are not a member of these two organizations you should consider them, as they are your voice on a national/international level for the fire service.

Helpful Websites

Scroll over to the Vision Tab for Recruitment and Retention, or find items under the Recourses and Education tabs.

Scroll over to PROGRAMS. Look at the “Fire Corps” tab, and the “Make Me A Firefighter Program” tab.

Or you can always call or email me for more specific information of departments across the country with working programs.

Chief Ron J. Cheves (ret.) has 40 plus years as a volunteer in the fire and emergency services rising to the position of Fire Chief. He currently leads the Red Ribbon courses for the VCOS section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and in 2012 was appointed to NFPA 1720, the standard for Organization and Deployment by Volunteer Fire-EMS Dept. He is a columnist/lecturer for several fire service publications and participates in numerous conferences throughout the country. Cheves now serves his local community as the Safety Officer for the Robinson Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department, a progressive Fire-Rescue provider for about 5,000 residents. He can be reached at 704-557-5781 or

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