Volunteer Fire Departments: Filling The Rolls

Gerard J. Naylis describes how one state has developed a program to attract volunteers to the fire and emergency services.


A critical factor facing volunteer fire departments and emergency services provider organizations is recruiting people to fill their rolls. Attracting and retaining competent and qualified people is becoming increasingly difficult at a time when service demands are increasing. Volunteer...


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A critical factor facing volunteer fire departments and emergency services provider organizations is recruiting people to fill their rolls. Attracting and retaining competent and qualified people is becoming increasingly difficult at a time when service demands are increasing.

Volunteer recruitment and retention was one of several items discussed during a conference hosted by the New Jersey Fire Safety Commission’s Master Planning Advisory Council at Rutgers University. Participants expressed frustration that while the problem seemed almost universal, there were no universal solutions to satisfactorily resolve the problem. After the conference, a small number of attendees agreed to meet again to discuss how they could address this issue. Their original intention of a recruiting plan aimed at the towns within their mutual aid organization (13 towns in northwest Bergen County, NJ) has evolved into a statewide campaign that is being duplicated in at least one other state and could be implemented nationwide.

This small group recognized four critical points:

1.

2. Where residents knew that these services were performed by volunteers, these residents were not aware that their help was needed in staffing the fire department, ambulance corps or rescue squad.

3. Volunteer departments can be difficult to contact in non-emergency situations. Except during emergencies and training sessions, volunteer fire stations typically are unattended and many don’t even publish a non-emergency telephone number.

4. The youth of the community represent the future, including future volunteers. It is imperative to attract them and provide them with a way to give something back to their towns.

The original concept of the recruitment program focused on bringing new people into volunteer fire companies and departments. This program was expanded to include ambulance corps, first-aid squads, rescue squads, auxiliary police, emergency management and disaster relief workers. After the program got underway, it was expanded and now channels potential members to the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the state’s Forest Fire Service, the Civil Air Patrol and canine rescue teams.

The program centers on a common theme — that volunteer emergency services people are needed — and a common contact point, a toll-free telephone number, 1-800-FIRE LINE. (Just coming up with a telephone number that conveyed a message and was simple to remember proved to be a daunting task. The number 1-800-FIRE-LINE was chosen after over six months of research and effort.)

As the focus and makeup of the small group of volunteers working on this project grew from a mutual aid organization to a countywide group, then to a regional organization and eventually to the state level, the group realized the need for some structure and the development of working partnerships. Following a presentation to the state’s Fire Safety Commission, this project was assigned as a committee to the commission’s Public Education Advisory Council.

This official standing proved to be invaluable when contacting private-sector interests for their support. However, one drawback that this affiliation presented was the inability to accept monetary contributions to further the recruitment campaign. This was overcome by channeling funding received from private interests through the New Jersey Fire Services Institute, which has federal tax-exempt status as a charitable organization.

Calls made to 1-800-FIRE-LINE go to the State Division of Fire Safety offices. If the call comes in after hours, it is picked up on voicemail. Otherwise, an operator takes the caller’s name and contact information, including area of interest, telephone number, address and where they would like to volunteer. This information is then forwarded to the appropriate volunteer recruitment contact person for the jurisdiction in which the caller would like to volunteer. The caller is then contacted directly to complete the recruitment process.

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