By Linda Willing
If you’re like many fire chiefs, you know you have a recruitment problem. Maybe your department has never really represented its community in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender. Or maybe you’ve had good luck with recruitment in the past but lately seem unable to attract a diverse candidate pool.
Or perhaps you have more than enough people applying to be firefighters, but the majority of them are unsuited to the job for some reason. Or you may be getting all the way to hiring what seems to be a diverse and qualified class of new firefighters, only to have a number of them leave the job after a brief period.
In a time when good jobs are hard to find, it seems counterintuitive that fire departments should have trouble with effective recruitment. Yet more and more, fire service leaders say that recruitment is a persistent problem in their organizations.
In order to improve recruitment outcomes, it helps to start by redefining what recruitment is. Many fire departments define recruitment as the effort made to get members of diverse population groups to show up for the entry test. This narrow approach does not serve the organization or the community in the best way.
Happens every day
The most important first step toward effective recruitment is to recognize that it is happening all the time, and everyone on the department is a member of the recruitment team. Every time an engine crew responds to an emergency call, or does a fire inspection, or goes shopping at the local grocery store, recruitment is taking place.
Members of the public see firefighters and form impressions about them and the organization they work for. They form opinions about what kind of people are likely to be firefighters and the value of the work they do. They consider whether they themselves would want to be part of that organization, and whether they would encourage a friend, neighbor or child to pursue work as a firefighter.
So the first step in recruitment is to get all existing department members to accept and hopefully embrace the role they play in representing the department. This should be done consciously and in a way that empowers members rather than threatens them.
Next, the media must be included in any recruitment effort, and not just at hiring time. Fire service leaders need to manage their media presence through the use of newer communication forms such as social media and also in developing relationships with traditional media sources.
Most traditional media sources have experienced staffing cutbacks in recent years. This means that individual reporters must produce more articles or features per week.
Human interest and public service stories are always useful in both print and television. The fire department is a great source for such stories as people generally like firefighters and their work can be exciting and photogenic.
The more you can do to craft a story for a media outlet, the more likely it will be used and the more control you will have over how your department is represented. So do the footwork ahead of time: create a detailed news release, identify good interview subjects, set up interesting photo or video opportunities. The journalists you deal with will appreciate your efforts.
Be creative about story topics. It is not necessary to consciously profile department members or promote the department. Look for interesting story hooks, such as a “green” station remodel or a new firefighter fitness program.
The media can be a real help in reaching diverse populations within your community, but there is also the problem of trying to attract certain groups if few or none of that group are currently represented within your department. How will you indicate that your department welcomes diversity if it currently does not include much diversity?
You will need to put a face on your message, but it is not surprising that members of underrepresented groups may not want to always be the token minorities in the recruitment photo shoot.
One way to mitigate the pressure on individuals is to create a diversity consortium among regional departments. When recruiting, you are not only trying to attract the best candidates to your department, but should also be trying to attract them to the fire service in general.
Having diverse members from a number of different departments serve on a team that promotes fire service careers is a winning proposition for all involved.
Ultimately, the goal of recruitment must not be about getting a large number of people to apply for the job, but to get the right people to apply. In some ways, the most successful recruitment efforts will narrow your application pool, because if people are well informed about the job requirements, duties, and schedule, those who are best qualified and most committed are likely to pursue the position.
Recruitment is a challenge and is best done as a continuous effort rather than an isolated campaign simply to generate numbers. Taking a collaborative approach within and beyond the department will create opportunities and yield the best results.
Conscious effort, planning, and effective partnerships will not only increase support for your department among the community at large but will motivate the widest diversity of community members to join you in fulfilling your mission.