Chasing the Unicorn: Recruiting Today’s Fire and Emergency Services Volunteers

Fire & EMS is a volunteering opportunity like virtually, perhaps absolutely, none other. We in volunteer Fire & EMS get to do *stuff* that no other volunteering opportunity offers.

Think about it, in what other volunteering opportunity:

  • Do you break down someone’s door and they thank you afterward? If you cut a hole in their roof, they’ll bake you cookies! There’s no match for the respect and admiration that first responders enjoy.
  • Are you asked to risk your life to help and save complete strangers you’ve never met, and may never meet again?
  • Is holding someone’s hand and offering them your compassion the highest level of care you can provide regardless of the level of care you’re trained to?
  • Do we ask for a minimum of a long term, but preferably a life-long commitment – right up front? It’s like getting married on the first date.

What Volunteer Fire & EMS can be like:

  • Rewarding
  • Dangerous
  • Frustrating
  • Satisfying
  • Challenging
  • Overwhelming
  • Nerve wracking
  • FUN!
  • Fulfilling
  • Heart-wrenching
  • Consuming
  • Complicated
  • Messy
  • Life-changing
  • Tiring
  • Exhausting
  • Difficult, if not impossible, to describe

What Volunteer Fire & EMS is not like:

  • Just-in-time volunteering where you fill sandbags down by the river to prevent a flood
  • Volunteering at an annual fundraiser or feeding the homeless at a shelter once a month, or even once a week
  • Volunteering to rally for social causes
  • Joining the National Guard where you volunteer at first, but after that, you’re generally compensated

In the recently released 2022 Instagram Trend Report, their research showed that “90% of Gen-Z audiences believe the best education comes from real world experiences…” (

Not many volunteering opportunities put the ‘real’ into real world experiences and education like fire and emergency services. So, what kind of people should we be looking for?

It takes courage, caring, compassion, commitment, selfless service, an inquisitive and adventurous mind, honesty, integrity, self-motivation, intelligence, a willingness to work with and for others, physical fitness, strength and endurance; strong work ethic; community, team and mission-mindedness; coachability, critical thinking, kindness, reliability, and time and availability to be a volunteer firefighter or first responder.

How many other volunteer positions offer that laundry list of characteristics, traits and attributes as their baseline criteria of who they’re looking for?

Do people like this still exist or did we just describe the unicorn of community service? I know they exist because I see them in volunteer fire departments and rescue squads every day across this great country. I also acknowledge that it has become more challenging to find and motivate them to join our ranks.

In what other volunteering opportunity can you have such an impact on the lives of others, yourself, and your entire community? None.

It begs the question I ask in every related conversation, “If you’re not focused on volunteer recruitment and retention, what are you focused on?” Plain and simple, nothing else matters without the appropriate quantity and quality of people to make it all work.

Our task is to challenge our target audience to step up and serve in ways that match the needs of our community and our organization while offering volunteering opportunities that fit and bring fulfillment to their lives. Play to the strengths of what makes our volunteering in Fire & EMS different and more rewarding than any other chance to serve their community.

We know what the problems are. The time has long passed where we need to move from the problem phase and start focusing on the solutions that are within our reach. If we’re not up to the task, we need to be up for figuring out the alternatives, now.

BY TIGER SCHMITTENDORF, VP of Recruitment & Retention Services

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