By Calvin Dark and Rasheedah Thomas, FireRescue1 Contributors
As fire departments struggle to recruit and retain firefighters, some agencies are hiring recruitment consultants to help. For agencies considering outside assistance with recruitment campaigns, we’d like to share some valuable tips on how to find the right consultant.
Before hiring a recruitment consultant, a fire chief should consider the following questions:
1. What type of recruitment consultant should a fire department look for?
“Marketing,” “communications” or “public relations” are labels fire departments use in solicitations for recruitment consultants – but they have different meanings for fire departments and the consultants who want to work with them.
The best way to bridge this divide is to be specific about your needs. Detailed descriptions and scopes of work help potential consultants decide if the services they provide are the right fit for your department.
Finding a firm with experience working with the fire service is a big plus. A company that does not have that experience will have a steep learning curve at the beginning of your work together – a learning curve you may have to pay for.
2. What can a recruitment consultant do to help fire departments?
Hire a consultant who will work with you to create a strategic plan with detailed deliverables. Beware of firms who promise a lot of flash with little substance! A thorough audit of everything you are currently doing to recruit, along with robust messaging development, must be the foundation of your outreach.
3. How much will a recruitment consultant cost?
Keep in mind that whatever your budget, a recruitment campaign is a long-term investment in the effectiveness of your department and you get what you pay for. If you can be transparent with candidates, a consultant will work with you to tailor a set of deliverables to your budget.
Unlike other categories of consultants your department or municipality may hire – such as outside legal counsel, construction or facilities repair – setting up an hourly arrangement with a recruitment consultant adds an unnecessary layer of work for the consultant to track progress (time better spent on the campaign itself) and bureaucratic burdens for your staff to review and approve timesheets.
The best method is to work with your consultant from the beginning to agree on a clear set of deliverables along a specific timeline. This allows for mutual clarity on what’s expected, when it should be completed and, ultimately, what you’re getting for your money.
4. How long should a contract with a recruitment consultant last?
While each successful recruitment campaign is specific to your department and its challenges, there are generally four phases to campaigns:
- Phase 1 – Review and audit of your existing outreach, what you're doing that’s working and what’s not, as well as identifying the target audiences you want to reach.
- Phase 2 – Messaging development, production of outreach materials and creating a calendar of activities.
- Phase 3 – Implementation of the recruitment campaign and carrying out the activities.
- Phase 4 – Evaluation of results and planning for long-term engagement and activities.
Whatever your budget or timeline, make sure it includes all four phases. For long-term success, give consultants the opportunity to fully complete the phases, especially three and four.
A common mistake departments make is spending the time and money for an outside consultant to create a great set of tools, but not allowing the consultants to help the agency use them effectively. This doesn’t mean you have to use consultants indefinitely, but you should allow them to help you use those tools while simultaneously developing a training program for your internal staff so that they can take over in the long-term.
5. Where should a recruitment consultant be located?
There are advantages to hiring a local firm. Local consultants know the area, can meet regularly in person, and usually have ties to the community so they have a stake in helping make the fire departments that serve them more effective.
However, if your department's goal is to increase the pool of qualified applicants and reach out to minorities and women, outside firms often have contacts and networks that can be beneficial to your campaign that you or a local firm may not have considered.
Outside consultants can also provide a fresh perspective on what your current outreach looks like and how it can be improved. They won’t be deterred from proposing out-of-the-box solutions that would make a local firm say, “It’s never been done like that before” (the seven last words of a failed recruitment campaign). If your firm isn’t helping you think differently, you have wasted your money.
Technology allows us to communicate and work with each other whether you’re down the street or across the country, and there’s no obstacle that a short and well-planned site visit can’t help overcome.
Whatever you decide is best for your department, make that clear in your RFP so you don’t get responses you have to spend time unnecessarily reviewing.
6. Does everyone in the department need to know we are doing this?
Involve members of your department as you plan your recruitment campaign. Current fire officers can provide interesting and helpful perspectives on what skillsets and backgrounds can enhance their team.
Your current officers should be able to effectively communicate the messaging, philosophy and objectives of your recruitment campaign. Whether speaking with high school students or representing your department at career fairs, they are the most effective ambassadors for your department.
This is especially important if the goal of your recruitment campaign is to bring more diversity to your department. There are common misperceptions about promoting diversity – notably that this promotion is in exchange for quality of applicants. Being able to effectively communicate the importance of diversity will help your existing workforce better understand and partner with the communities they serve.
7. How do we measure the success of our recruitment campaign?
Measuring success is more than counting the number of qualified applicants you receive after the campaign, although that is an important measure!
Work with department leadership, municipal stakeholders and your consultant to define what success means for you, including broadening your definition of what success looks like. Maybe it’s not more applicants, but more qualified women applicants, or that your entire force understands the importance of diversity and can articulate it to improve the way your communities view your department and its goals.
It is extremely important to have this discussion with stakeholders whose buy-in you need to support (and often fund) your outreach.
Prepare for the inevitable question from stakeholders: “Was the money we spent worth it?” Essentially the answer to this question is an evaluation of the specific goals and deliverables you established from the beginning.
We also encourage our public safety clients to ask themselves once the recruitment campaign begins, “Are we doing things the same way we did before?” (The answer should be no.) If you’re talking to the same people, using the same words and going to the same places, you’ll just get the same applicants and responses.
Take full advantage of the expertise consultants can provide such as crisis management and general public relations services.
Once you develop a relationship during the creation and implementation of your recruitment campaign, a good consultant will feel vested in the success of your department.
If your budget doesn’t allow for having a consultant on a long-term retainer, include as part of your deliverables that they create a crisis communications plan you can implement in the event of high-profile incidents, lawsuits and other controversies. Why is that relevant? Because those events will definitely hinder your recruitment campaigns if not properly dealt with.
About the author
Calvin Dark and Rasheedah Thomas are the principals of CD Global Strategies Group, a Washington, DC-based strategic communications firm. Learn more at www.cdglobalstrategies.com and follow the company on Twitter @CDGlobalStrat.