Thursday, November 05, 2009

Recruiting and Retaining Volunteers in Fire/EMS

I spent about one year on the membership committee on our department. I was responsible for accepting,processing applications for prospective volunteer members into our department.

For some reason, in the last few months I have received quite a bit of traffic here (a couple hundred hits a day) for people searching for info on bringing in more volunteers to their department. So, I figure I would write about some of the things that have been done in my department and some of the techniques used that I am familiar with. Failures and successes. I am not an expert on this by any means. But I'll share what I have learned.

Some of these ideas are not going to work everywhere. Factors like population,call, volume, and the economy will have a big impact on your efforts.So you will need to adjust some of these tactics to fit your own area.

Step 1 - Getting your name out there

You have to let people know you exist. Just because you have a firehouse, some firetrucks and are seen out in public. Does not mean that the public knows or cares that's your a volunteer fire department. In general, when you roll up on a call, all the caller cares about is that you take care of the reason they called. This is especially true in larger communities, where everyone doesn't know everyone else like they do in a small town.

Theres always the basics, that are tried and true. Sign boards in front of the station, parades, fundraisers, public education events. I've never been a fan of the whole signboard out front of the station with some cheesy saying on it. I saw one the other day one county over that said " Save a life, become a volunteer". The one the week before said " Become a hero, join as a volunteer". In my opinion, not only is that a cheesy ass slogan to use. Its misleading. You cant make people think that as soon as they join, they are going to be running into burning buildings every day and pulling out babies, or running 10 car pileups every week. Because, that's just not how it is in most departments. If your using the signboard, try something simple like " We need your help, call XXX-XXXX or visit If the public doesn't know you need MORE volunteers, then they cant help you.

Everyone has a computer now and has access to the Internet. This is probably one of the most cost efficient tools you can use besides going door to door. Not only are YOU controlling the content, you can gain valuable data as to who, from where, how and when someone checked out your website, you can use all that data to your advantage. If you have a resident computer nerd (we have several on my FD )set up a website, and let people know about it. If you already have a site, update it, make your recruiting link the most prominent thing on the site. My Chief who runs our website has ours right at the very top of the site. One of the things I hate to see is a department who sets up a website, and then doesn't update it ever again. If Joe Public comes across your site, and sees it hasn't been updated since 2002, chances are they wont find the information they are looking for and may leave or not contact you because the information may no longer be accurate. I have even seen some department websites where they don't even have any contact information listed. If the point is to get the word out and they cant contact you, then whats the point? There are companies out there that will build AND UPDATE your site for you. If you don't have the time or manpower to build and update a site your self, and you have a little bit of money in the budget, this is great way to go. You will get a professional looking site for somewhere between $300 and $500 initial setup, plus a monthly fee depending on what you are looking for. By far the most successful company that offers this service is .

Now.. we have a new social networking tool Facebook at which isnt going to fade off into the sunset like is. Right now, a little bit over 5% of all the time spent online is spent on Facebook. The average user on facebook is 30 something and older. Compared to which was quickly deemed only suitable for the " Tween" crowd and left people fleeing and coming over to facebook.

As an example, I set up a facebook FAN page a few weeks ago for our department, in that short period of time, we now have over 600 fans. Your probably asking yourself, So what? Well, we now have 600 people, that we can update on fundraisers, membership campaigns, tell them about calls or anything else with very little effort. Cost is $0

Not only does setting up a facebook fan page show you WHO is looking at your page, it has what it calls " insight" data that allows you to see more in depth information like how many times certain pictures or videos or articles have been viewed. This is invaluable data, find what people like and seem to respond to, and do it again.

The county I volunteer in, and most of the adjoining counties are combination system, with a mix of volunteer and career staff. As you head farther south, towards Fairfax county , you see less and less volunteers for a variety of reasons.

The economy, people have less time to dedicate, less fires or calls are all things are working against you.

Step 2 - Application Process

This is something that varies widely from department to department. In our department, you fill out the application online at the website or in person. The application goes to the membership committee, who does the orientation, follow ups, background checks etc. If you are not doing background checks on your applicants, your only putting yourself, your department and the community your protecting at risk. We all see people from all walks of life who have nothing but the best intentions to serve their community. But you will occasionally run into someone who has no business being in Fire/Rescue. Its your job to find that out before its too late. Check their references!

Once that's completed, the potential member has to have his or her application read at 2 of our monthly membership meetings. The first reading is just to familiarize the membership that this person is interested in joining and put a face with a name, and gives us time to complete the required paperwork for background checks. The second reading the following month is where the membership votes yes or no to allow this person into the department or not. Once they are in, they get their physical completed, get assigned to a crew and start training for fire school if they aren't already certified.

Some departments leave the decision to accept someone up to the Board of Directors, others the decision is solely up to the Chief. Just depends on the by-laws of your corporation.

NOTE: You need to check your local laws or FRG's,SOP's and ensure you are following them in regard to any required paperwork, background checks etc. Just like a regular job, you cant deny someone membership based on race, age, sex etc.

We have been lucky enough to be bringing in around 4 to 6 new members a month over the last 6-9 months or so. The other departments on the east end of our county have been having similar success lately as well. All of the volunteer companies in Loudoun County get help with recruiting from the website which is run by our countywide volunteer coordinator.

Step 3- Follow up

When someone contacts you with an interest in joining, they should be treated as a potential valuable asset to your department. You should have readily available literature or handouts for people to read with information on what they can expect when they join. This information should be truthful, don't mislead people about the time they will need to spend in training, duty, fundraisers etc. But.. you also need to keep your potential member interested, motivated and wanting to join. Pictures of calls, maybe a short blurb from the Chief or a firefighter. If your department allows it, set them up for a ride along or have them come to a training to watch and see why once people join, many stay in the fire service for life. Career or Volunteer.

A website, or a pamphlet wont make up for actually meeting a potential member in person. Your accomplishing several things here. Your getting your general impression of the potential member, they are getting an impression of you and the department. I would like to stress the importance of representing your department in a professional manner when you have this first face to face interaction with a potential member. If I roll up, and I meet a 400lb guy, in a torn, stretched out "I fight what you fear" T-shirt, with a big wad of chew in his mouth, and a cup full of spit.. I'm out. <--- this actually happened. Hopefully, you don't want your department represented in that way to a member or the public. Alot of the volunteer departments in this area (Northern Virginia) have a one night a month orientation where potential members watch a video or PowerPoint, meet some of the officers and firefighters and tour the station. Usually conducted by a senior firefighter or officer, the goal is to knock out all those things I touched on earlier in one shot. The tour, the impressions, expectations etc. Time is valuable to everyone, if you can do it this way I would recommend it.

Step 4- Don't make this mistake!

Don't drop the ball! FOLLOW UP FOLLOW UP FOLLOW UP. Assuming all has gone well at this point and you think this person might be a good fit for the department. If you don't hear back from someone who submitted an application in a week or so. CALL THEM! Find out what their intentions are and move forward. Maybe they still have some more questions they didn't get to ask, maybe they have been busy. Or maybe, they decided against it, if you can, find out why and see if you can address it. If you cant, then move on to someone who is interested.

Hopefully you will gain someone who can help contribute to your department for years to come.

If you have a question or idea you can always drop me an email at

Here are some great resources:

Does your Department do background checks?