Firelines: March 2017
By David Balding
By David Balding
Like many areas, our community of 4,000 residents is incredibly well served by a fire department that comprises committed volunteers; I am the only career member. Although our members are paid-on call, they truly are volunteers in terms of the time and talent they donate to Golden Fire Rescue.
Attracting new members to volunteer or paid-on call fire departments is becoming a greater challenge: the obstacles to recruitment are numerous, yet appear to be consistent regardless of location or the size of the community being served. There are increased demands on parents and a general waning in volunteerism across all sectors.
Despite these challenges, I maintain our recruiting processes must be more structured and demanding than ever. We rightly expect peak performance from our existing members, and I believe we owe it to them, to our departments and to the public we serve to bring in the highest calibre new members possible.
Gone are the days when an applicant can show up on a practice night, have a set of turnout gear issued and respond to a callout that evening. The first step in our process, which is documented, is to meet with the recruit, who likely knows little about the fire department, fire service, our expectations and what’s in it for him or her. I use this opportunity to ensure the must-haves are met – factors such as residency and availability. This meeting is also my first step in making the candidate aware of the expectations, such as physical fitness, competence, commitment and attendance: I make it very clear that the fire department will, at times, take all the time a new member has, and then some.
Experienced members from other jurisdictions are a blessing; they typically come with valuable training. The initial meeting with these candidates becomes more exploratory – a chance to assess their adaptability and share some of our local practices. An application form and joining package is then provided, which includes several thresholds the new member must meet. A subsequent, more in-depth interview is then conducted. Selecting the right people to join your firefighting team is far easier than having to get rid of a member who has proven to be a bad fit due to a lax intake process. There is no cookie-cutter approach to engaging new personnel; use what works for your department, fine tune your process, try new systems, but above all, ensure you have a recruiting strategy that suits your department and its needs.
Recruiting should take place in advance of an identified need for personnel. Our department experienced some attrition in 2016, and when we put the word out that were accepting applications, we had reasonable success; I’m convinced it was because we did some things right ahead of time. Promoting your organization plays a role in recruiting. If your department is quietly doing good things in the fire hall and simply responding to emergency incidents, you are doing your department a disservice. For example, our members train in the community away from the fire hall at every opportunity; this gives our members familiarity with different parts of our area and it gets us out into the public eye. What better way to boast about how we do what we do than to let folks watch us in action? We do everything we can to maintain a positive image of an organization people would want to become a part of; shiny trucks, participation in public events, and creating awareness around successful responses. Strong leadership is critical to recruiting; it creates a vibrant, forward-moving department and people notice this. Training is another aspect of the department that is evident to the public. A well led, highly trained department with a great image is sure to attract more interest than the alternative.
The culture of the fire service, and our individual departments, plays a massive role in attracting new members. Ironically, the public perception of who we are and what we do can work against our desire to find new members. Hollywood creates the illusion of us as selfless heroes who do things truly unheard of in the real firefighting world. There is also a perception that the fire department is a closed, or exclusive, club. These myths can only be dispelled by us, whether via word of mouth or various media platforms.
Attracting and evaluating new members is more work than in the past. Recruiting members to join our fast-moving, highly trained firefighting organizations is now much more than putting up a help wanted sign. It is also time very well invested.
Dave Balding joined the fire service in 1985 and is now fire chief in Golden, B.C. Contact Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @FireChiefDaveB