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The Marines Are Looking, So Is The Fire Service - Part 2

As stated in Part 1 of this article, there is a significant parallel between the Marine Corps and the fire service. The character makeup that compels a person to join one is the very same character that brings them to join the other. Both agencies have dangerous missions, involve selfless service, and require a great deal of sacrifice for the greater good. They are both elite organizations, a band of brothers and sisters, comprised of people who no longer want to be just another face in the crowd, but want to belong to an organization whose mission is bigger than them.

My question was, and remains, how can a Marine recruiter compel men and woman from your very communities into giving up four to six years of their life to the unknown, and you can’t seem to get anyone to give up a couple hours a week to serve their neighbors? As a former Marine recruiter, and having been responsible for the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters here at my department, I can attest that there is a lot the fire service could learn from the Marine Corps recruiting program and a lot we need to do differently.

Why People Join the Marines

First, let me dispel the very argument you are thinking right now – people join the Marines for tangible things such as a job or college money. While in a few cases this may be true, I can assure you that, by and large, it is false. Of the more than 70 people I recruited for the Marines in three years, less than five walked into my office, and less than 50% had any intention of joining the military. Yet, here they were joining the toughest branch – the Marines.

Even those who came in with military intentions, what made them choose the Marines over the other services? A private in the Marines is paid the same as a private in the Army, an airman in the Air Force and a seaman in the Navy. All branches have the same benefits and 20-year retirement; and while the G.I Bill offers the same amount of college money to all branches, other services can at times offer more money for college than the Marines, or more specialized training, or more comfort during their enlistment. So, again, out of all the choices, why the Marines, where they will undergo a longer, tougher boot camp, spend time in foxholes, deploy numerous times and probably serve in combat?

There must be something else these candidates are looking for and the Marine recruiter knows how to find it. Right now there are neighbors in your community who are looking for more out of life. They are looking for a change, a challenge, to give back, for fulfillment, you name it. They can find what they are looking for in your department – they just don’t know it yet. You have to find it and show it to them. These are called intangibles, things people want or need that you cannot touch – such as pride, teamwork – what you feel like every time you respond or come back from a call. It’s that inner feeling that is so large it sends you into burning buildings.

Developing A Plan To Recruit

But there is a raging river between your neighbor’s intangible needs and the fire service. Where we go wrong is we have pride in that raging river and expect anyone that joins our side to swim across. Your neighbor, however, doesn’t see how swimming across the raging river is worth it or will fulfill that nagging intangible need inside. So, they move on. What we need to start doing is change the way we project ourself, and approach recruiting by building a bridge for them to cross – to show them how they can fulfill their needs by crossing the river.

First – Do you really want volunteers? While this may seem an obvious answer, you need to give it some thought. Many departments talk about needing volunteers, but make no effort to recruit, or even worse, retain them. If you want to fill your volunteer ranks, it will take a concentrated effort. And for that effort, you have to commit yourself. You have to want more than numbers. You have to want the people who make those numbers.

What do you want? Do you want just suppression volunteers or do you have roles for people in your community who want to serve but don’t want, or are unable, to go into burning buildings? A good volunteer program should have a seat at the table for everyone in their community who wants to help. To give the impression that to be a member of your department you have to fight fire glorifies that raging river and separates your department from quality people who may have a lot to offer. We all know there is a great deal of support needed to put that hose line into action.

Second – What is your plan? This has to be a well thought-out plan, starting from the point of making contact with an individual, through to their inception into your department. The first few weeks someone starts or joins something new are very fragile. While the person may verbally commit, that doesn’t mean they are fully committed. There should be a plan to make solid and constant contact from that initial meeting until they are fully inaugurated into your department.

This plan should involve an immediate follow-up after an inquiry. How many times have you left a message and expected a return call, only to wait days or weeks for that call? Remember, you are also painting an image of your department while recruiting. Make sure you are prompt and professional. That individual has shown an interest in joining your organization, so live up to that expectation.

If you ask most Marines if they had any intention of joining the Marine Corps prior to their enlistment, you should now not be surprised at the replies you will get. There are people walking by your station right now who would make an outstanding member of your department, with needs, talents and skills to offer, but they only see that raging river that you are expecting people to cross.

It is time to start building a bridge to bring people across and show them what you have to offer and how they can find what they are looking for in your department. The beginning of the bridge is your plan. In my next article, I will discuss how to further this plan, along with ways to find and attract neighbors from your community and show them how your department can make a difference in their lives. Recruitment programs should go beyond the engine displays and tables at the fair. They need to reach out and let people know what your department is about and how they can fit in.

DANIEL BYRNE, a Contributing Editor, is a firefighter/paramedic, with the Burton Fire District in Burton, SC. A 20-year veteran of the emergency services, he holds both an associate and bachelors degree in fire science, is a National Fire Academy Alumni, and a veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm war with the U.S. Marine Corps. Daniel is the recipient of local and state awards for public educations and relations. You can reach Daniel by e-mail at