Was there a person who invested in you?
By Nicholas Marshall
The battle cry of nearly every department is currently, “How do we find and keep new recruits?” In the mid-2000s, departments were happy to retain one out of four or five new members who came through the door. This statistic still holds true today. If you retained 50% or more of the new members for the past 15 or 20 years, what would your roster look like?
What are recruitment and retention? Recruitment is getting new members (or reinvigorating old ones). Retention is defined as the continued possession, use, or control of something–in this case, keeping new members interested and active in the fire department.
A recruit is like a new fire apparatus. When you start dreaming of what you are looking for in a new apparatus, you don’t normally go to the archive and pull out the specs for your 1977 Ford Sanford with a naturally aspirated 195-hp V8 diesel engine, 1,000-gpm pump, and 1,000-gallon tank and run to the dealer and say, “I want one just like this,” do you? No! You spend months in the back of the station kicking the thought around. You collect ideas from everyone and overcome opposition from anyone who may resist this next addition to your fleet. You examine whether your constituents will benefit from an improved ISO score. You go through all of this before you even sit down with any manufacturers and spend the next year or more designing and building your new truck.
If new members walk through the door, are you as willing to commit to their development and forming them into new firefighters as you are to plan a new apparatus? Have you laid any of the groundwork needed before getting the next wave of members? If you answered yes, then you are on your way to membership retention solvency.
Not unlike new apparatus, you want your new recruits to be cutting edge. The old steel has given away to stainless steel and lightweight aluminum. However, when building with different building materials, you must adjust the process you go through. Likewise, the training methods for new firefighters must be up-to-date and tailored to everyone’s interests.
Working with Recruits
The following are some pointers for working with new recruits:
Keep your drill integrity high. New members will get bored and quit if there is nothing for them to do. For example, at drafting drills, instead of just using a deck gun, let them work a handline or two. Watch for code words like “Hey, when is our next drill?” which equates to “I have time and want to do something at the station.” If you don’t use their time, someone/something else will. Give them something to do!
Mix them into the fold. Some will become wallflowers if you let them; make sure to involve them in what is happening. Some will be overly rambunctious; be ready to direct their energy. Help find them a role to feel involved. Consider a buddy system, pairing a current member with a new member for the first few months.
Line office needs to engage them. New recruits can tell who really cares about the recruitment and retention program and who does not. They are watching you as the “leaders.” If some of the leaders are not participating in drills, new member gear-ups, and off-site training, it will make them question why they must. Include them in your scheduled reminders–i.e., SCBA drill tonight at 1900 at the station.
Look for a job that they can do with only in-house training. We encourage all our new members at structure fires to roll in the tanker. From there, they can see all the sides of a structure fire operation and see the different pieces come together. This helps to grow their enthusiasm. At EMS calls, with just a little training they can be great scribes helping capture data. And you can probably even read their handwriting!
Their first class should NOT be Firefighter 1. Firefighter 1 is just plain too much for them to start. It requires too long of a commitment, and you risk scaring them off before they have invested themselves. Start them off with a class that has hands-on learning and is between 12 and 24 hours–i.e., EVOC, Rescue Tech Basic, Vehicle Extrication, or similar. By starting them with a lesser class, they feel confident in their abilities and get their first certificate quicker. It also makes them feel like a valued member of the team. Members and officers should never bad talk the training, even if you think they added too many hours. It is what it is for now (until it changes again).
Try to get a wave of them. New members like company; they will be happier not being the only new person. Encourage them to get their friends to join!
Give them swag! Shirts, hats, and hoodies are not that expensive and get your next generation carrying your brand, which makes them feel included. Be sure to discuss code of conduct expected while wearing your department’s logo.
Set a goal! They have for the school years of their lives had a goal or multiple goals. For many, that is to graduate or make it to graduation. If you as a group are working toward a common goal that you are always referencing, they will feed off that–i.e., state best practices, higher score on ISO rating, number of interior firefighters, or number of EMS personnel. We currently have a challenge for our members to get new recruits.
They love technology. They love your gadgets, they love computers, they love their phones, they love almost anything that has batteries and is expensive.
They want food, shirts, hats, pagers, your trust, your time–and maybe not just fire related, and to feel like they belong before they are voted in.
Appreciate what they give. We can all probably lean back and say, “Back in my day, I would have been here every time the doors were unlocked.” If they get the impression that you feel like they could give more, you might as well tell them to quit. IT COSTS NOTHING TO SAY THANK YOU!
If you lean back and think about the department that you joined, what was it like? How was your welcoming? Was there a person who invested in you?
Now, let’s fast forward to when you entered the line office position: What did you inherit from those who came before you? Were you structured for success? As a leader of your organization, what are you leaving for the leaders of tomorrow?
“You can’t control the feedstock of a new member, but you can control how you keep them.”
Nicholas Marshall is a third-generation firefighter. He joined Lacona Fire Department’s Explorer Program in 2003. He was an active member of that department until he transferred to Orwell (NY) Fire Company. He has held the offices of assistant treasurer, treasurer, captain, training officer, and assistant chief and is currently chief of the Orwell Fire Company.