5 recruiting lessons fire and EMS can borrow from Rotary International
Create an experience people want to be a part of and share community impact to inspire potential members
Retention of existing members and recruitment of new firefighters and EMTs is a top challenge facing nearly every volunteer fire department and EMS agency in the United States. Fire and EMS are not alone in the need for new members. Community groups, like Rotary clubs, are facing challenges in retaining and recruiting new members.
Tom Gump, a longtime Rotarian and aide to the Rotary International president, presented the approach Rotary International is taking to help its 46,000 clubs around the world retain current members and recruit new members at the 2023 Rotary TriCon conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Rotary’s 1.4 million worldwide members take action on our world’s most persistent issues, including promoting peace, fighting diseases like polio, supporting education and making sure people have access to clean water.
Gump delivered an information-packed session to Rotarians from throughout Wisconsin and Michigan’s upper peninsula. Here are five recommendations from Gump’s presentation that are applicable to recruitment of volunteer firefighters and EMTs.
Focus on impact, not outcome
Putting out a fire is an outcome of an all-volunteer fire department responding to a residential structure fire, but the department’s community impact far exceeds extinguishing the fire. The impact of response, search, rescue and suppression can include saving and prolonging lives; returning valued members of the community to work, school and service; and the intangible and immeasurable timeless value of neighbors helping their neighbors.
As your department creates and delivers recruitment messages, always focus on the department's community impact and make sure it aligns with the top reasons people serve in public safety, which are making the difference in the lives of others and serving their communities. Those are noble impacts, not outcomes.
Tell compelling stories about impact
Are you telling stories about your agency’s impact on your social media page and website? How do you explain the department’s impact during stakeholder meetings and community events?
Look at your recent social posts and assess if they showcase outcome or impact. A post showing EMTs practicing their CPR skills demonstrates an outcome of training, learning and retaining CPR skills. A post about a cardiac arrest survivor and their family reuniting with the 911 dispatcher, EMTs, firefighters and police officers who responded shows impact. Showcase your personnel making an impact in the community to recruit other members of the community who want to make a similar impact.
Create opportunities people want to be a part of
The first step to strengthening and growing your department is to retain current members. Gump encouraged attendees to shift their focus from gaining new members to delivering value and engaging current members. One way to do this is to create position descriptions which increase transparency and give people opportunities to aspire to. A position description should include training or education requirements, as well as the pathway to reach that position.
Of course, your department needs firefighters and EMTs, but your department also needs mechanics, marketers, accountants and fundraisers. Does a mechanic need to be cross trained as a firefighter? Can you create an opportunity for a social media expert to be part of your department without responding to 911 calls?
Successful all-volunteer organizations create opportunities for involvement by matching volunteers’ skills with the department’s needs. An accountant can achieve the outcome of auditing and tracking the department’s finances while also contributing to the department’s impact of community service and lifesaving.
Beyond application of their professional skills, these members can help plan and run fundraisers, serve on committees and deliver public education programs. It is also possible that once these members feel like they belong in the organization and are making an impact, that they will choose to complete Firefighter I or EMT training.
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Culture is critical to volunteer recruitment, retention
Gump explained the findings of a recent Rotary International survey of tens of thousands of Rotarians. According to Gump, the top reason people leave Rotary isn’t the organization’s mission, but because they feel like they don’t fit with the club’s culture and are missing a sense of belonging.
Volunteer or paid, firefighters and EMTs don’t quit organizations; they quit bad leaders and bad culture. Department leadership needs to be mindful of creating a culture that is welcoming, gives members an opportunity to make an impact and celebrates contributions from all members. Department leaders should also encourage new recruits to bring a friend or family member to the department. The more people who can affirmatively answer, “this department has people like me,” the better for the health and success of the department.
Make sure people are having fun
“Offer a good experience that people want to be a part of,” Gump said. “If the experience isn’t enjoyable ... people will leave."
Fire calls and EMS runs are rarely type 1 fun, which is fun in the moment. A child giggling on a swing is having type 1 fun. A department softball team competing against a neighboring department team is likely having type 1 fun as the game is played.
Responding to a fire or EMS call at 2 a.m. is more likely to be type 2 fun, which is when you look back on an experience that was physically or mentally challenging in the moment, but, with distance and reflection, your memories are of having fun. Moving a patient from their bed to the ambulance is rarely fun at the moment, but the teamwork, sense of accomplishment and making a difference for the patient’s health often result in type 2 fun.
Station clean-up, rig checks or drills shouldn’t make people miserable. Instead, when appropriate, add some music, good-natured competition or a change of routine to add type 1 or type 2 fun to the experience. If members of your department, especially new members, aren’t having fun and feeling energized as they volunteer, they are going to be difficult to retain. More importantly, do you want to retain people that find department membership to be miserable, soul-sucking and exhausting?
Look outside fire and EMS
Fire and EMS can learn from other organizations, like Rotary, who are looking for volunteers. Don’t consider other community groups as competitors, but potential collaborators for recruitment drives, fundraisers and public education events. When your mission, in part or in full, overlaps with another organization, they are a potential partner to help your fire department or EMS agency create meaningful opportunities for community members to serve others and give back to the community.