According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, volunteers make up 72 percent of the firefighters in the United States, and since 1984 there has been a decline of almost 10 percent in the number of volunteers serving our country today. With the diversity in the type of emergencies fire departments are responding to today, and an increase in not only call volumes but public expectations, and a subsequent decrease in available funding, the decline in number of volunteer firefighters is a very serious issue and a challenge we need to face.
Yes it is true, children are no longer following in the family traditions that once was the life blood of the volunteer fire service. Today's youth are more likely to be in front of an Xbox or dreaming of a glorious six figure salary that will fall into their lap, than hanging out at the fire station or planning on a fire service career. And young adults have a great deal on their plate in order to get their life's started and raise a family in today's economy and the "haves-have not" society. There is a whole laundry list of reasons why it is believed that the number of volunteers have declined over the years. But we cannot afford to throw our hands up and point fingers at problems, we need to address them.
Having been a recruiter for the United States Marine Corps, and during the three years of that duty having recruited over 70 men and woman into the ranks of what many would arguably (not me) say is the toughest branch of the military service, I know that there are volunteers out in your community that are being unrealized and opportunities to fill your ranks missed, and numbers of the volunteer force will continue to decline.
There is a lot to be learned by the fire service on how the Marine Corps conducts its recruiting and how they are able to field a professional and elite fighting force that is among the most respected in the United States as well as across the globe. There is a lot for the fire service to learn; there is also a lot that needs to do in order to fill the ranks of our service which is among the most respected and trusted professions in the world. What are they doing that we are not?
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 itself.
So how is it that a Marine recruiter can talk someone into giving up four years of their life to the service of our country, leaving the security of all they know for the unknown and loved ones behind to face some of the toughest, most uncomfortable days they will experience in their life; but you can't seem to get your neighbors to give up a few hours a week to volunteer with your fire department and serve their community?
Out of the more than 70 people I recruited into the ranks of the Marine Corps, less than five walked into my office with a pen in hand, and during my years in the Marine Corps we often joked when the sergeant was not around that many of us had absolutely no intentions whatsoever of joining the Marines. Yet there we were. We joined, we served, and we would not trade one day of our time in the Marine Corps for anything, and for many those days were the proudest and most memorable days of their life. How did we cross over from going about our daily lives that we thought we had all figured out and no life altering plans to speak of to joining the Marines Corps?
It was the recruiter who found us. With great effort and belief that what they had to offer was better than anything in the world and they were able to articulate it with such belief and conviction, that we raised our right hand and gave of ourselves to service. The recruiter was able to take what the Marine Corps had to offer and transform that into what we were looking to get out of life; and if you want to increase your volunteer ranks you also need to be able to do the same.
It is apparent that what we have been doing in the past is not working. Society has changed, and along with that is how people perceive the world around them and what they value. It is not that they don't value public service, they just do not see the connection between what they are looking for in today's world and what serving in the fire service can provide. We cannot sit in our stations and shake our heads at what we perceive as apathy. Just because we can see and we know the value of the fire service doesn't mean it is plainly seen and recognized by our neighbors. There once was a time when it was, but in today's society that is simply not the case. It is not that it doesn't exist; it's just not realized. That is where recruiting comes in, to turn the perceived values of today's society into what your fire department can provide for them.
Some of the bravest firefighters you may ever know are one of those faces passing by your station doors right now; the only problem is that they don't know they want to become a firefighter yet, or see how their needs and values can be satisfied by serving in their neighborhood volunteer fire department. They aren't aware of what opportunities are available to them or that they have what it takes, albeit time or skill, to join your ranks. Don't let those opportunities continue to pass you by! Develop a recruiting plan in your department and get aggressive.
The Marines are looking for a few good men and woman, and so are you. The Marines are finding them right there outside your door -- and you can to! With a solid recruiting plan you can also fill your ranks with men and woman of the character you need to battle the enemy at home, just like our other heroes are doing for us overseas.
In the next article, Daniel Byrne will suggest some ideas for a recruitment program.
DANIEL BYRNE, a Firehouse.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.