By Brad Patton
Volunteer Vision columnist Brad Patton, fire chief for the Centre Wellington Volunteer Fire Rescue Department in Ont., shares his department's effective and defendable nine-step recruiting process.
By Brad Patton
Department’s nine-step recruiting process efficient, effective and defendable
|Taking stock of your department’s needs and understanding your hiring spread saves money by broadening the hiring timetable.
We have a nine-step hiring process that has been refined over the years and has proven to be very successful in hiring the right people. I define the right people as those who fit into the organization, will help us grow, are constant learners, have a high degree of commitment to provide excellent service and have great retention value.
Step 1: Evaluate how many firefighters you need. Sounds simple, but you would be surprised at how few chiefs really do this. They simply hire to the same number of staff as they have always had and no one questions the number or the history behind the number. Is it really 25 or should it be 27 or 32? This is a good time to ask the officers and firefighters what they think. Are they often short of staff or are there too many?
Whatever the number that works best for you, and before you go to council or the fire board for approval, you have to figure out the best number of staff, what the maximum and minimum number are and how often you want to go through the hiring and recruit-training process. For example, say a total of 26 per station works for your department – one district chief, five captains, 20 firefighters. The hiring process is complex and takes several months (as it should). It is followed by 100 hours of recruit training before the new guys are allowed to respond to alarms. It takes us almost a full year from advertising, selecting and training before we have a fully functional firefighter – each time we hire. If we have to do this every year or every two years, it is hard on existing staff and everybody can get burned out.
So, we made a report to council outlining the hiring process, the number of staff needed and the total cost. We requested approval for a hiring policy that stated we would hire to a maximum of 25 firefighters and begin the hiring process over again when we reached a low of 18 firefighters, That is our hiring spread – when we reach a low of 18, we then hire to a high of 25. The cost for extra bunker gear, lockers and pagers is saved by spreading out the hiring timetable from every two years to every five or six years. You need to look at your own staff to see what numbers work best for you.
Step 2: Advertise and then advertise some more. We all think we know our communities and word of mouth will spread the need for firefighters but I have found we miss a lot without advertising. Place ads in local newspapers, on radio stations and put up lots of posters. Put the posters up everywhere – in arenas, libraries, legions, halls and town office. The posters need to be as professional as you can afford to make them. I’ve found a strong first line seems to grab attention. For example, Are You Good Enough?, Join The BEST Team, Only the Smartest & the Strongest Ride Our Trucks. You get the idea. The posters should present a lot of information – qualifications you are looking for, catchment areas and contact numbers (day and night).
Step 3: Prepare and hand out recruiting packages. Each package should contain:
- Description of the complete hiring process;
- Physician consent form;
- Contacts to obtain a drivers abstract and police records search;
- Aptitude sample questions;
- Details of the physical test;
- Details on the interviews.
Step 4: Information nights. We have two or three mandatory attendance nights for anyone interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter. Everyone must sign in at the information nights, then we cross reference the applications. Applications of those who don’t attend an information night are discarded.
Application information nights have grown a lot over the years. Applicants are strongly encouraged to bring their spouses or close friends because being a good volunteer firefighter is a big commitment and successful applicants need the support of everyone close to them in order to go the distance. The information night is a time when we open up, lay all the cards on the table and tell it like it is: lots of training, few fires, lots of medical calls. The sessions usually last about 90 minutes.
We start off with a few words from the mayor, who thanks everybody for their interest in community safety, then the fire chief, district chiefs, captains and, finally, some words from the last recruits we hired about their thoughts when they joined and what they are now. Then we talk about the selection process.
The questions we get are amazing and underscore the value of the information nights. Can I just go to fires? I didn’t think we had to respond to calls 24/7. You mean we have to go to medicals on Christmas day? When can I drive a fire truck? Applicants often don’t really know what we do. The information night is the most important part of the hiring process. By the end of the night everyone has a lot more knowledge and can make a better decision about whether they want to continue with the process. This saves a lot of time down the road.
Step 5: Create a standard application and use a template to score it. Each applicant receives marks for education, references, daytime availability, past related employment, type of driver’s licences and so forth. Short list your best applicants.
Step 6: Administer an aptitude test similar to the ones that are used for applicants seeking full-time firefighter positions. (Really, it’s the same job, just harder with less pay.)
Step 7: Physical agility test. We do ours in-house, simulating actual duties.
Step 8: Interview. All our interview questions are prewritten, complete with expected answers plus extra space if the applicant gives a good answer to a question that we didn’t think of and it’s worth marks. The Interview panels are made up of three staff – a senior officer, a captain and a firefighter. Each takes turns asking questions. The final score is the average of the three interviewers’ total scores.
Throughout the process, applicants are notified of their marks in writing and are treated with respect. We are professionals and we treat all applicants like professionals. We constantly ask applicants for feedback on the process.
Step 9: All the scores from all the hiring steps are brought together for a total mark. Until this point, the only time someone is eliminated is at the application review or if they could not reasonably complete the physical test. We then pick the top scorers.
This is a long process and at this point we have not even started training the recruit. I have found this process to be open, fair and defendable. I have also found that we have hired long-term volunteer firefighters who have great potential for promotion.
These are the people who will, within a short time period, make life and death decisions. Your community will invest thousands of dollars in training and equipment on these recruits. They are your department’s ambassadors and its future. Be very selective. It’s time well spent.
Brad Patton is fire chief for the Centre Wellington Volunteer Fire Rescue Department in Ontario, one of the largest volunteer departments in the province, with stations in Fergus and Elora.