Going against tradition may be one way to recruit new members to a volunteer fire department, said Chief Hank Teran of the Bainbridge Island (Wash.) Fire Department. Teran has been with the department for more than five years. Prior to joining Bainbridge, he was a deputy chief with the Long Beach (Calif.) Fire Department, where he served for more than 29 years.
Indeed, it was changing the way the department viewed its recruiting strategies that won it the 2011 Tony Pini Award. Here, Teran discussed the challenges faced by the department and what it took to convince stakeholders about the importance of changing tradition and adapting to the times to keep volunteer numbers up.
Your department won the Tony Pini award in 2011. What for?
In 2010, we changed the department’s philosophy on how we recruited volunteers, a long-standing practice of only recruiting volunteers on the island. We decided to go outside of the island to recruit. This was a huge cultural shift. I met with the volunteers and the careers and both saw the value of doing that. With the support of the commissioners, we went outside and recruited off island volunteers, which brought more diversity into the department that we hadn’t seen before. There was almost a ten-fold increase in our volunteer participation. We were fortunate enough to be awarded the Tony Pini for that program.
What steps needed be taken to pitch outside recruitment to career and volunteer members?
It was interesting because I am an outside chief. I came here after being with the Long Beach Fire Department for 29 years. There was a cultural shift I had to make as well as to gain the trust of the individuals here. My hope was to remain a combination department. So after a lot of one-on-one time with the careers and volunteers, they realized I had the same mission: to improve the service to the community. Then, when we started to look at the changes. Everyone was involved with brainstorming together. They were part of the change. Once I had their support and the officers, I went to the commissioners who were very supportive of the concept.
How did you then recruit new volunteers?
We tried traditional avenues, including advertisements in the newspaper, and were not successful at all. I was surprised. What we found to be our biggest selling point is the value of our program and word-of-mouth. In the fire service, word gets out. I would say 90% of our recruiting is word-of-mouth. They hear about the program, they hear the volunteer and career have the same training and education opportunities and are treated the same. He quality and value we put on volunteers. Our volunteers if they showed at your home you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
Explain your experience funding and providing incentives to attract new volunteers.
We also have educational incentives for college. At one point, we had a four-year, $650,000 annual allocation from a SAFER grant award for incentives for volunteers. We had everything from health care to education. Bottom line, they said it was the quality of our programs and not the incentives that brought them back. About four or five took advantage of the incentives per year.
Are incentives a good or a bad idea to recruit new volunteers?
The incentives didn’t hurt. We had education, health care and other programs. But very few actually took advantage of the programs. We need to look at flexibility when it comes to volunteers. What may be attractive to me might not be attractive to you. In the educational incentive, we opened up the door for education degrees that as long as they were department approved beforehand, they would receive the benefit. It didn’t necessarily have to be fire science. For example, one woman decided to use it for her nursing degree. Volunteers have to be paid somehow. They don’t take pay, but you pay them with recognition and incentives. But what brings them back? There has to be some kind of pay off for them. That’s human nature. It has to have value.
Should chiefs be flexible with training or time requirements?
Another benefit was we changed the way people could volunteer. We opened up an EMS and tender-operator volunteer program, which was important for us to keep those volunteers who didn’t necessarily want to fight a fire or meet all of the training requirements needed to fight a fire. We were hearing that there was too much training. Flexibility is really important these volunteers.
We also have a home response pilot program that lets volunteers check in and offer a guaranteed response. They get credit towards their response criteria for the month, even if they don’t go on a call. For us, that is a guaranteed staffing. It helps us, and it really helps the volunteer.