As I was driving in the Pacific Northwest along the Washington-Oregon coast, I noticed a recruitment trend among the volunteer fire departments throughout the area: outdoor mobile signs sitting on the bay apron with the message:
We Need You
(Insert phone number)
Or Walk Inside
Depoe Bay, Yaquina, Yachats, and Colton in the state of Oregon were among the many that I saw using this "tried and true" recruiting technique. In Ohio and some other Midwestern states there is a similar program where many volunteer fire departments have permanent signs near their stations that use the phone number 1-800-FIRELINE (800-347-3546). Locally this is sponsored by the Ohio State Firefighters Association and answered on a 24 / 7 basis by the State Fire Marshal’s Office. The individual’s contact information is then referred to the caller’s closest volunteer department for follow-up.
About the same time as my visit to the Pacific Coast, FIRE CHIEF Senior Editor Mary Rose Roberts wrote a blog entitled “An Open Letter to the CFSI." In it, she shared the frustration that some volunteer chiefs have with their difficulty in obtaining a SAFER Grant and an idea by some that SAFER should be eliminated for volunteers and instead the money be made available for the purchase of apparatus for volunteer departments. While I have also heard similar frustrations expressed by chiefs at state and national conferences, I can’t help but think what good it would be to have new apparatus without an adequate number of properly trained firefighters or EMTs to staff them. Both new apparatus and adequate numbers of personnel contribute to firefighter safety which should be the overriding goal for every department.
In her blog, Roberts wrote that she had expressed these concerns to’s Elizabeth Harmon and Cathie Patterson, two of the mainstays of the FIRE Grant programs. Patterson indicated that an ongoing initiative is to have successful SAFER applicants share with others through case studies how their strategies were effective. While I am not going to say that my department is among those deemed ‘successful’ or among the ‘best practices’, none the less I think it might be helpful to other departments to give an overview of our recruiting and retention efforts after the completion of our first year of a three year SAFER Grant. Probably the hardest thing for some chiefs to understand is that preparation and planning are the keys to any successful FIREGrant, but probably more so for a successful SAFER Grant.
In 2009, the Wyoming City Council indicated to the officers of the department that they wanted to maintain Fire and EMS delivery to Wyoming and our surrounding communities utilizing predominately volunteer firefighters, EMT’s and Medics for the next ten years. Council knew the worth of the department which constitutes approximately 6% of the City’s total budget; saves over $2.7 million when compared to a comparable all-career department; and provides Advanced Life Support and an ISO Class 3 Fire Rating all for a cost of $ 65.25 per resident.
We took the council’s request as a directive and formulated plans for the recruitment and retention of volunteers in two categories: First the continued recruitment of citizens from within Wyoming that mirrored the demographics of the community: men and women, young and older, representing every ethnicity that makes up our city. Secondly, to recruit from several non-traditional groups including college students that are majoring in the study of emergency services, public administration or related academic fields at several area colleges.
During August 2011, Wyoming Fire-EMS received a 2010 SAFER Grant in the amount of $ 215,000. Our application took some foresight, preparation and planning that began before the announcement of the grant submission period. First, in 2010 we attended one of several FEMA sponsored workshops in our state. At that time, it was hoped to have a workshop location both day and night held within 50 driving miles of any department. Subsequently, the number of workshops was reduced and now it appears the driving distance may be as far as 100 miles.
At the workshop, our Region V FIRE Grant coordinator, Lori Smith, explained what the emphasis would be for each of that year’s forthcoming grants: FIRE, SAFER, or Fire Prevention and Safety. She also recommended reading the grant tutorial and Program Guide before starting to submit an application. The combination of both of these tools is the essence of the workshop presentation, so even if you can’t make a workshop, the information needed is available if you just know where to look. Using this information, the staff officers of the department outlined a process that would implement our two fold recruitment; retain our current active volunteers; and offer incentives.
In order to administer these programs, the SAFER Grant also allowed us to hire a part-time Volunteer Coordinator who would help promote the department through many mediums from the use of classic marketing such as a table at college job fairs to the use of social media and the internet. This was a new position designed to alleviate extra work for the staff officers and utilize fresh ideas to accomplish our recruitment. The choice of a coordinator required us to develop a Job Description of the general duties assigned to this position, and then advertise, interview, and choose the best candidate available. We selected a young lady from outside the immediate department, but one whose husband and father-in-law were both in public service. No matter who you choose, make sure that you educate the successful candidate in the culture and traditions of the fire service and especially the culture of your own department.
In addition to the Volunteer Coordinator position, the Grant had line items for office supplies; equipment including turn-out gear for a limited number of new volunteers; training; tuition incentives; and contractual services – the largest item in that category being for marketing tools such as the production of a recruitment video for use within the community or at college events. (See www.wyohfire.org ) All of those individuals shown in the video were actual Wyoming firefighters or members of our fire service family.
Here are the results in our first year of the SAFER Grant:
- Recruitment of five firefighters and /or EMT’s from within the Wyoming area.
- Recruitment of an additional five firefighters and / or EMT’s from the college program.
- Accepting our first fire cadet (High School student) from outside the Wyoming area.
- Providing training for all of these recruits to at least the F/F I level with most enrolled or already at the F/F II level.
In September, we held a comprehensive review of our goals during the first year to try to capitalize on what has worked and further refine those that haven’t met our expectations. We also reviewed the duties of the Volunteer Coordinator who takes responsibility for the majority of the administrative duties and increased some of those in the area of Human Resources to more uniformly handle both recruits and existing members.
If the current economic climate continues, the fire service will find that the ‘new normal’ will be with us perhaps into the next decade. Don’t be surprised if traditional career / part-time combination departments once again turn to the recruitment of more volunteers while using a smaller cadre of career firefighters. That will make the recruitment of volunteers even more competitive. Rather than through up your hands and become one of those who want SAFER Grants to be eliminated for volunteers, why not take up the challenge and submit an application that fits your needs through planning and preparation.
SAFER Grants, whether for career, combination or volunteer departments, are designed to provide adequate numbers of firefighters at an emergency scene and to increase firefighter safety. Use the upcoming SAFER Grants to your advantage. Begin today by outlining your needs; set a desired personnel level for your department; then determine how you would recruit candidates from both traditional and non-traditional populations. Once on board outline how you’d adequately train, equip them, and give incentives to stay.
If you have any specific questions on our application, program or recruitment and retention efforts, contact me through FIRE CHIEF magazine, and I’ll be happy to try to help wherever I can.