By Blaize Levitan, FD Hacks
There is no question that volunteer fire departments have experienced a major decline in membership across the country over the last few decades. Calls for service are more complex and time consuming. Community demands and expectations are at an all time high. Yet we have fewer firefighters serving our volunteer departments. There is an exhaustive list of solutions out there about what to do to address the volunteer firefighter shortage. Many departments have implemented a variety of solutions aimed at addressing their volunteer deficiencies, some with great success and others to no avail. The right solutions depend on understanding the root cause of the problems specific to your department, and therefore vary by department.
That said, there are a few best practices that can help your volunteer fire department improve recruitment that are relatively easy to implement. Compared to other volunteer organizations in our communities, joining a volunteer fire department is time intensive and fairly challenging. Given the nature of our work, this is not a problem unto itself, but rather a point that we need to recognize and aim to mitigate. Simplify, streamline, and enhance recruitment and on-boarding processes for interested individuals wherever possible.
Here are three ideas you can implement today to help your volunteer fire department with recruitment.
1) Membership Interest/Inquiry Form on Website
Create an easy medium for individuals interested in joining your volunteer fire department to make contact about doing so. Create a form on your department website. The form should be simple, with a few fillable fields for contact information. If your department does not have the resources to create a form on your website, then at least provide an email address with basic instruction that members of your community may contact to express interest.
Rather than dive into detail about how to do this well, here are two good examples of volunteer fire department interest/inquiry forms:
2). Simplify Volunteer Fire Department Application
This simple action can be surprisingly effective in encouraging prospective applicants to complete the application and follow through with the process. Simplifying and shortening your volunteer fire department application helps reduce overwhelming a potential applicant at the start of the process. It was cited by the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee as a best practice for volunteer firefighter recruitment. Many volunteer fire departments have applications that range from 5-10 pages. Hampden Township Volunteer Fire-Rescue shortened their application to just one page. It’s surprising how much critical information you can capture in one page.
To do this, take a critical look at your fire department application. Try to imagine the application from an outside perspective, with special attention to wording. As you review, ask yourself:
Do we REALLY need this on the application?
Is the application the most appropriate place to collect this information?
Are questions redundant (i.e. requiring name on every page)?
Is terminology consistent and without acronyms across pages?
If you’ve been involved in firefighting for many years, this may be difficult. Ask a friend or colleague outside the fire service to review and provide feedback on your fire department’s application.
Consider reformatting so that essential information is grouped together on the first page of the application. If additional information is necessary, utilize attachments to collect it. For example, since not all applicants have military experience, there is no need to have a section at the beginning or middle of application, as many volunteer fire departments do. Instead, create an attachment to the application that a prospective member can fill out if relevant to them. Also, offer the applicant the option to attach their professional resume, rather than fill out pages of work and education experience.
3). Guide Volunteers Through On-boarding Process
Assign an officer or establish a committee to manage recruitment. Many volunteer departments are successful in this by creating a “membership committee” charged with overseeing the entire on-boarding process, as well as handling departure and personnel matters. When a prospective applicant submits an inquiry or application, act upon it quickly. If this is the initial contact with the individual, timeliness is of the utmost importance because it will instill confidence in the applicant and increase the likelihood of follow through. Hampden Township Volunteer Fire-Rescue has a standard to respond within two hours by phone and email upon receipt of an application. If this is not realistic for your department, set a standard you can reasonably accomplished and stick to it. However, initial contact with the prospective member should not occur after more than 1-2 business days. If you have a submission form on your website, or an email address for public contact, have it automatically send a confirmation to the user of receipt and some general guidelines about what to expect next. Most websites offer this feature for forms, an email addresses can easily be set to send automatic replies upon initial receipt on an email.
Actively maintain contact with the applicant throughout the process. Often, volunteer fire departments have a successful initial meeting or two with a prospective member and then provide them with a laundry list of requirements they must take care of on their own, including documentation, medical exam, background check, driving record, etc., and are only permitted to return once complete. This is not a welcoming business practice and can be improved by providing a concierge concept for managing it. If you don’t hear back from an applicant after a set number of days, reach out and find out what is going on. Consider scheduling physicals and other required appointments on behalf of the applicant. Provide an instructional checklist for the applicant to help guide themselves through the on-boarding process and encourage their questions along the way.
Track applicants as they progress through the process. Assign applications on a rotating basis to someone specific, such as a firefighter on the “membership committee” or a designated “volunteer coordinator” who will be responsible for overseeing an applicant until they are sworn into the fire department. They’ll serve as that applicant’s primary point of contact and build a relationship with the new member.
These three volunteer fire department recruitment ideas will not solve your recruitment shortage by themselves. But they will help reverse the trend of declining volunteer firefighters and you can begin implementing them today. These three tools really should be part of a comprehensive recruitment strategy for your volunteer fire department. Try to determine the root causes of problems specific to your department. Collect data, conduct research, and think critically about your recruitment and application processes. Take a holistic view of your entire application process, from initial contact through swearing in. Don’t delay action while you do so - you can start to address the low hanging fruit we discussed in this post above today.
What do you think? Have tried any of the strategies we discussed above? Do you have any questions? Do you have a recruitment success story? Let us know if the comments or contact us and tell us about it! We also HIGHLY encourage you to submit your own recruitment and retention ideas so we can share them with the firefighting community!
Disclaimer: For informational purposes only. Always consider department policies and procedures.