Recruitment & Retention Toolkit: The Annual Report

Once reserved for big business and often filled with corporate fluff and financial data, the annual report can be much more than just a coffee-table paperweight.

With a little effort, the annual report can actually be an effective recruitment, retention and marketing tool for the fire department. And in this day and age, we can use all of the marketing tools we can get our hands on.

Although the idea of a fire department annual report is not a new or original one, the time is right for you to give some thought to taking on a project like this. That's exactly what I did around this time last year.

The year 2004 was an important one for my fire department, The Evans Center Volunteer Fire Company. It signaled the introduction of a new fire chief who replaced the previous chief of seven years. It marked significant accomplishments in some key areas of our operation. It was time for us to publish an annual report.

The first thing that the annual report does to you (or for you) is force you to be introspective - to take a good hard look at the previous year's trials and tribulations. This can strike a moment of self-reflection as well as self-realization for your fire company.

Until we started to compile it, we hadn't realized how much had happened in 2004. Not only were there several "incidents of interest," but also there were many other significant activities that had nothing to do with emergency operations. The annual report gave us the opportunity to catalog and present them in a professional manner.

The annual report can be a great promotional tool for you, sending the right messages to all of the stakeholders in and around your organization. It can subliminally garner support for your volunteer agency, even if your struggles and failures are highlighted properly alongside your success stories.

First we gave a copy of the report to every member as a keepsake and thanks for their contributions. Then we distributed our annual report to our town councilmen, supervisor and elected officials along with their counterparts at the county and state levels of government. The response was extremely positive.

So where do you start? How do you go about creating this almanac of fire company activities?

A successful annual report takes equal parts organization and creativity. You need to be able to organize your messages effectively and you need to create a document with appeal - a document worth picking up off the coffee table and reading cover-to-cover.

I think the best way to start is to do what I did. Steal ideas from other fire department and corporate annual reports.

I simply did a Google search for "fire department annual report" and came up with dozens examples. I pored through the reports and borrowed the best ideas from each, just short of plagiarism.

In fact, the content, look and feel of our annual report was inspired by the 2003 report of the Lewisville, TX, Fire Department - the first report I looked at. Thanks to Chief Richard Lasky and his crew for putting together a comprehensive and well presented report.

What are the main elements of a good annual report? There are some basics that should absolutely be covered while other items should be considered as options, time and paper permitting.

Let's look at a few key ingredients and steps to take.

Get Organized

I looked at a lot of other fire department annual reports and pretty much copied their format. Our annual report included the following components: a letter from the fire chief, mission and vision statements, service pledge, organization chart, a roster, operational reports, statistics and a list and photos of "incidents of interest."

Some of these components may or may not apply to your organization, or you may not have the means to collect the required data or info. If this is your first crack at such a project, start small, cover the basics and get the job done. That's more important than waiting until you can fit in the kitchen sink - only to never have your finished product - finished.

Figures Don't Lie

Any commercially available fire department records management software should be able to produce reports that quickly tell you the total number of incidents for the year and average number of calls per day, etc.

Other reports that make good visual graphs are a bar chart of calls-per-month, a pie chart or pictograph of your call volume broken down by incident type. You can even create trend charts that break down your alarm analysis by day of week or even time of day.

Our graphs showed us that our busiest day was Monday and the most incidents occurred between the hours of 10 AM and 11 AM. Our slowest day of the week was Sunday and our quietest time of the day was between 1 AM and 2 AM.

The computer generated reports showed us our top responders and even told us who our most "frequent flyers" were - the occupancies where the most incidents occurred. For example, out of 490 total calls in 2004, 40 of our responses were on the New York State Thruway.

While corporate annals tend to focus on the financial bottom line, your annual report should center on your bottom line - the human resources that make your volunteer organization work.

It's funny. I just received a copy of a promotional piece from Kaleida Health called "The Kaleida Factor." One of the opening lines of the annual report style booklet stated that "Our economic, fiscal and social impact on the Western New York community is far reaching."

While last year's annual report focused solely on operations, I think we might give some consideration to including examples of our "economic and fiscal impact" in this year's report. Especially in light of the fact that volunteer firefighters save our county's taxpayers more than $203 million dollars each year and the estimated volunteer value was recently calculated at $17.23 per hour. (Sources: Firemen's Association of the State of New York and the National Volunteer Fire Council respectively.)

Our records management solution, Firehouse Software, calculates the total man-hours we invest on training, emergency incident responses and other non-emergency activities such as work details, fund raising, public education and miscellaneous events.

Last year, our dedicated volunteers donated more than 5,200 hours to serving the fire company and our community, and those are just the documented hours. That means the value of our volunteering is worth almost $100,000 per year. That's a figure worth talking about.

Creativity & Content

First off, if you're not the one with writing, spelling and grammar skills in your fire company - find someone who is. I'm sure there's someone in or outside of your department that can help.

To ensure you make the best impression, have your document checked and triple-checked for proper spelling and grammar. Your message will get lost if it's not spelled correctly or the sentences don't demonstrate a basic command of the English language.

Like many of the fire department annual reports I reviewed, we started our annual report with a letter from our fire chief, Bruce Green Jr.

More than just a boilerplate, this letter has the power and position to set the tone for the rest of the report and the image it presents. As I said earlier, 2004 was a year of transition for us. The chief's letter needed to acknowledge not only the contributions of the past chief, but also the fact that the new officers do not face the same challenges caused by the constant flux of previous officers. The chief's letter indicated that our operations are "work in progress, tempering our success stories with the challenges we continue to face."

As it has been said, "a picture paints a thousand words," our annual report included some 30 photos scattered across its 20 pages. But, every picture doesn't need to be an action photo or have a caption or story associated with it.

While some of the photos we used were relevant to the particular section of the report, many others were used as filler and to break up all the text. Take a look at my report and you'll get a feel for simple around-the-station type photos that integrate well into the presentation.

Have a web site? A web site is a great way to chronologically document fire department happenings throughout the year. Then, at the end of the year, much of the photos and content can simply be cut and pasted from your web site to your annual report. Keeping our web site up-to-date probably cut my annual report production time in half.

The annual report then becomes a written compilation of all the news and events presented on your web site over the course of the year.

Technical Tips: Publishing

Believe it or not, our 20-page annual report is simply a Microsoft Word document. I do 95% of my desktop publishing just using Word. It's more robust and has more features than most people know. It does photo, graphic and text integration pretty well. In fact, ask me nicely and I might send you the original document in Word format.

Use whatever program you're most comfortable with to create your report. Once I compiled the document in Microsoft Word, we produced it in two formats: Adobe Acrobat, which you can download here; and in printed form bound on the edge with an inexpensive comb-style binder.

Some folks say that "presentation is everything," and for the most part, I agree with them. Investing in some basic office tools that will sharpen your image will pay off in the long run. You can pick up a comb-style binding machine at your local office supply store for a reasonable price.

The Adobe Acrobat Portable Document Format (.PDF) makes the file transportable and truly WSYWIG (What You See Is What You Get) - independent of whatever program or operating system you have on your PC. All you need to view the document is Adobe Acrobat Reader - a free download from Adobe.

To publish from Microsoft Word to Adobe Acrobat requires the publisher or professional version of Acrobat. It costs a few bucks but it's worth every cent.

It's my opinion that there is no better program available for publishing documents in a truly universal format. It's as simple as hitting the print button and I can mix and match document types between Microsoft Word, an Excel spreadsheet, a CorelDraw graphic or virtually any other program into a single, unified document.

The Acrobat file can then be uploaded to and downloaded from a web site - as shown here. In the fire coordinator's office I work in, we mail virtually nothing. We simply publish a ton of documents as .PDF files, upload them to our web site: www.erie.gov/fire and give the customer the flexibility to download them at their convenience or read them online. For us, distribution costs are non-existent. The software has more than paid for itself.

We Have The Technology.,,We Can Re-build It

It may sound like a lot of work but there's plenty of time left to have your 2005 annual report ready for your 2006 installation banquet or other main event. I assure you that the rewards will far exceed the investment of time and effort.

Click or call if you're looking for ideas or need assistance.

Copy-Cat

Has your fire department produced an annual report? If so, please send me a copy via US Mail, e-mail or send me a link to your web site where I can download it at my leisure.

Google "fire department annual report" and see what you come up with. Remember to share your finished product with others.

Stay safe. Train often.

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