John R. Kowalski Integrative Marketing Fusion

The Volunteer Fire Service is Burning

The Volunteer Fire Service is Burning

A firefighter sprays water on a fire.

Did you know that volunteer firefighters are the backbone of the American fire service? In fact, according to data from the National Fire Department Registry and other sources, a whopping 70% of fire departments in the U.S. are staffed by volunteers. These brave individuals step forward to protect their communities, often without any expectation of remuneration.

It’s important to note that these percentages can vary slightly depending on the source. For instance, the National Volunteer Fire Council states that 65% of firefighters in the United States are volunteers. Regardless of the minor discrepancies, one thing is clear: volunteer firefighters play an indispensable role in our nation’s emergency response system.

Just imagine, out of the estimated 1,041,200 firefighters across the country, around 676,900 are volunteer. They answer the call of duty, day and night, battling blazes and saving lives. Truly, they are heroes in every sense of the word.

But despite their numbers, volunteer fire departments face challenges. Fewer volunteers are answering calls, and those who do show up tend to be older. This indicates a need for more people to step up and join the ranks of these selfless servicemen and women.

Some factors that are lead to this decline of membership include:

  • Limited resources and funds
  • Lack of recruitment opportunities
  • Difficulty in conducting training due to time constraints

This is a significant challenge as most volunteer firefighters have full-time jobs, and finding time for training can be a hurdle. In addition to their regular work schedules, these volunteers must dedicate hours to both initial training sessions and ongoing skill development. It’s a substantial commitment, which can deter potential volunteers.

Here’s a glimpse into a bit of my world as a volunteer firefighter.

Recent membership survey

We recently took a membership survey at my department and with my marketing background I agreed to facilitate the survey, collect and analyze the results, and then present those results to the board and members. I knew things were somewhat fragmented, but wow, I had no idea the level of issues ran so deep. At first glance those who chose to participate (67%) come across like a bunch of whiners and complainers with little to offer in terms of solutions.

So recently over Labor Day weekend this had been on my mind on how to reset the department on why we’re all here – to serve our community. The exact mission statement:

To protect lives and property. We serve our community and mutual aid partners by suppressing fires, responding to medical and fire emergencies, and educating the public about fire prevention. The health and safety of our department members and those entrusted to our care is our highest priority.

This is the focus. This is the brand.

One thought that keeps coming to me is to come at this from a different, and non-typical fire department approach. Something similar to what I did with my marketing department.

The primary functions needed

  • Incident/on-scene operations
  • State and mutual aid participation
  • Public information & social media
  • Incident reporting
  • Training
  • Emergency Medical Response leadership & equipment
  • Apparatus & equipment
  • Communications equipment
  • New member orientation
  • Recruitment
  • Events & local fundraising
  • Major gift and FEMA grant fundraising

Aside from interpersonal communication issues, I think trust, along with commitment are the key challenges. We need to begin trusting each other, while those interested, need to step up. Leadership also needs to trust in the members and to delegate responsibilities.

I see shifting our organizational model into more of a democratic and a member-responsible department. We are all shareholders with each one of us having unique skillsets and backgrounds to best assist the department moving forward.

Would something like this work? And then assign personnel to be responsible for each of the sub-segments and report to the chief?

volunteer fire department, org, organization, structure

With every action, it all must support why we are here, or the mission. If that action or behavior doesn’t support it, it’s off strategy and non-productive.

Things that damage our department and mission

  • Going outside of the chain of command
  • Freelancing
  • Gossiping without a full understanding
  • Spreading and participating in the rumor mill
  • Non-respectful communication
  • Not asking questions, instead making assumptions
  • Not taking ownership of decisions
  • Complaining and not offering solutions

These things weaken our team, dilute our mission, and chip away at our credibility.

In order to keep morale high and the department running cohesively and effectively it is important to continuously focus on why we are here – the mission statement. That’s what needs to be part of every decision we make.

Without this focus, our department will continue to splinter and become inefficient. We need to remember why we are here and keep improvement moving forward in everything we do. If it doesn’t fit the mission statement, move on.

By proactively addressing any issues, both internal and external, we can continue to protect the lives and property of our community, while building camaraderie within our volunteer fire department.

All in all, with a strong focus on why we are here – the mission statement – and by professionally executing our duties every day, we will continue to serve our communities for many years to come. Thank you for your service!

Some things that help our department and mission:

  • Working together
  • Identifying strengths
  • Building people up
  • Direct and respectful communication
  • Working hard to stay organized
  • Seeking knowledge and educating one another
  • Focusing on the right goals for success
  • Working towards being a team, not just individual members
  • Taking ownership of mistakes and learning from them
  • Participating in activities when possible
  • Encouraging new members and recognizing their contributions

The fire service is hard enough without interpersonal issues and the training requirements certainly take a toll. I understand the need for the requirements with safety being the top concern, but see that commitment being the largest hurdle in recruiting new members at our department and throughout the volunteer fire departments of the country.

We have support personnel, but that’s an easy requirement (16-hour Intro to the Fire Service, CPA/AED certified, and a blood borne pathogens certification. I think that’s it, but I may be forgetting something. The more difficult personnel to get are certified Driver/Pump Operators, Emergency Medical Responders, and, of course, firefighters.

We hold events that all include an aspect of recruitment, as well as have a website and Facebook presence. Our area is quite rural and the population is limited, so we have a limited pool of people to draw from.

Some volunteer department recruitment ideas

Fan the flames online

In this digital day and age, let’s not limit ourselves to our small-town borders. Let’s reach out to the world wide web and light up online platforms with our recruitment drive. A dedicated website, engaging blog posts, and interactive webinars can all serve as beacons, guiding interested individuals towards us.

Community outreach events

Picture this: a lively town fair where children can try on firefighter gear, adults can learn about fire safety, and everyone can meet our friendly firefighters. Such community events not only strengthen our bond with the locals but also ignite curiosity about joining our ranks.

Collaborations with schools and colleges

Imagine if we could plant the seed of community service in the fertile minds of young students. By partnering with local schools and colleges, we can deliver informative sessions about firefighting, potentially kindling the interest of future volunteers.

Referral incentive program

There’s nothing like a warm thank-you to encourage our current volunteers to bring their friends on board. A referral program that rewards successful recruits can be just the spark we need to expand our crew.

Social media sizzle

Let’s turn up the heat on social media! Through compelling stories, captivating images, and catchy hashtags, we can generate buzz about our recruitment drive and fan the flames of interest in becoming a firefighter.

Cultivating our brand image

We’re not just firefighters; we’re protectors, lifesavers, and community heroes. By emphasizing the crucial role we play in safeguarding our community, we can inspire more locals to don the helmet and join our brigade.

Next steps

I think the first step is to strengthen our current membership and hit reset on things. Once that’s stable it’s time to develop a good, old marketing campaign. Know of any marketing people? 🙂

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National Fire Department Registry NFPA report – U.S. fire department profile Volunteer Fire Service Fact Sheet

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