Spring is in the air and so is the opportunity to get out of our COVID-confined cocoons and go recruiting. A recent email to my volunteer fire department’s recruitment team “accidentally” caused me to write this piece about recruiting in a high school career/college fair environment, an opportunity we welcomed with open arms.
Due to the pandemic and graduating all of our previous Fire Explorers to full firefighter status, we find ourselves in an unenviable position where we have to restart our junior firefighter program from scratch. That’s not easy to do when you currently have no high-schoolers in your department, so we compensated by sending two of our youngest members to do the recruiting for us, neither of which were too far removed from their days of school dances and diplomas.
The career and college prep event only lasted for 2-½ hours, with freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors coming through in waves that totaled almost 1,000 students. We came away with eight solid leads for students interested in learning more about what we do. We’ve invited them and their parents to a no-obligation orientation and information session next month.
That’s significant for us as we have documented history that shows for the past 32 straight years, at least one, and sometimes all three of our chiefs first started as a Junior Firefighter or Fire Explorer. That includes me, and our current fire chief and assistant fire chief, all of whom are high school graduates of our local school district. We currently have 14 active members who grew up in and graduated from our youth programs. That’s a huge testament to the value of investing in our youth to invest in our future, so naturally, we have a vested interest in continuing this proud tradition.
Recruiting is all about starting the conversation and that’s never been more true than in an in-person setting like a high school career fair. Here we’ve outlined four essential “parts” of a successful high school recruiting effort:
LOOK THE PART:
Whichever generation you identify with, be sure to send recruiters who represent the demographic you’re trying to attract in that setting. Feel free to go along as “adult supervision” to coach and mentor your recruitment team but do your best to match the recruiters with the available audience. Recruiters should look the part by wearing their Class B uniform or similar FD apparel (logo polo and BDU/khaki pants) that looks casual yet professional, and most importantly, makes them look approachable. First impressions are important, over and over again.
One thing we know for sure about this generation is that nobody is better at recruiting their peers than they are, nobody! Leverage the power of referral to build your fire department’s farm team for the future.
BRING THE RIGHT PARTS:
Depending on how much space you’re afforded, start by packing your roll-up banner(s) or scrim backdrop, and table drape to look sharp and inviting.
Volunteering-tailored business cards are a must-have for any recruitment setting. An effective business card typically includes your fire department name and logo, top three benefits or reasons to join, recruitment call-to-action, and points-of-contact including website, email, social media handles, and yes, even a phone number. Include a QR code that takes them directly to your website or just the join section.
PRO-TIP: We place laminated 8-1/2×11 double-side sheets on the table as storylines and conversation starters for the recruiters. One side features one of our volunteers who represent the demographic we’re looking to attract, how they got started and how they got to where they are today. On the other side is a QR code that redirects to our website or one that links directly to the online inquiry page on our website. Have them scan the appropriate QR code according to their level of interest.
Arm your recruiters with equipment and gear that will serve as attention-getters and/or conversation starters such as a fire helmet, hand tools, and a Halligan bar or officer’s tool. Use these as props to engage action-oriented team players (who like cutting, prying, and breaking stuff!)
Utilize your fire technology to attract the geek squad by showing off a thermal imager (TIC), mobile data terminal, UAS (drone), or one of today’s high-tech walkie-talkie radios. “Pointing” a TIC at someone as they approach can certainly get their attention and open the door for questions like Is that a radar gun or a ray gun? What does that thing do? Is that an x-ray machine? Or perhaps even, “Why are you pointing that at me?” All are great questions to start a conversation. I like to use a TIC to show how, at ~98.6 degrees body temperature, they are likely the brightest thing on the screen. Then I talk about how in a fire situation where the room temperature may be 400+ degrees, we have to flip our brains to look for the outline of a person that is now a darker shade in comparison to the other objects in the space.
Most importantly, use your imagination and tools that encourage interaction and challenge.
A large 8’x10’ scrim banner can get a lot of attention for your recruitment booth.
DO YOUR PART:
Collect their data. Close the sale or part ways and move on.
If you have a phone or tablet with you, you can enter the prospect’s contact information right into your recruitment-centric website’s online inquiry form if they’re interested, or even better, let them scan the aforementioned QR code and enter their info directly. That (hopefully) reduces the margin for error in entering personal information. If they don’t have time to fill it out right then, give them your recruiter business card and encourage them to go to your website later. In fact, give everyone a business card!
If nothing else works, take a sign-up sheet or just a notepad to collect their name, phone, and email – and a parent’s name, phone, and email address if possible. Even if they’re not from your area but are interested in volunteering, collect their info and refer them to the most appropriate agency.
PLAY THE PART:
The order in which we provide volunteering information can make or break whether or not you walk away with a great candidate for your volunteer fire/EMS department youth program, or the prospect simply walks away.
Here’s how to start the volunteering conversation:
- Lead with the great opportunities you offer: Fire, EMS, Support, Junior Firefighters, etc.
- Follow up with the great benefits and incentives you offer:
- Have FUN!
- We get to do “stuff” no other volunteering opportunity offers
- Build confidence and self-esteem
- Meet new people and make new friends – gain a second family
- Learn new skills
- Free training and professional development
- Possible career path
- Looks great on a resume
- Satisfy high school community service requirements
- Duty crews, team lunches and social events
- Tuition assistance
- Tell them why you joined:
- Share what you love about volunteering and why it’s cool to do
- Share the stories on the laminated sheets of how your volunteers got started and where they are today. Show them a path to success in life, and in the fire service.
- Tell them how to get started:
- Collect their info on paper or have them scan the QR code to complete the online inquiry form
- Tell them how and when someone will follow up with them for next steps
- Ex. Next step will be for us to reach out to them and their parents and invite them to the firehouse for a tour
- Discuss requirements/expectations only if asked and necessary or as time permits
- Emphasize the flexibility and support for success you offer, and how it’s all achievable even with a busy lifestyle
The reason for sharing information in this order is: if we do our job at leading with all the great opportunities we offer to volunteer, followed by the awesome benefits and incentives we offer, and end with how to get started – the time commitment, expectations and requirements sound a lot more palatable and achievable.
While we need to clear about and reinforce our expectations early and often, too many make the mistake of leading with all the requirements and stop a prospect in their tracks. Nobody gets excited about joining when you kick off with the seemingly overwhelming requirements!
Interjecting your personal story of how you got started and how the fire service helped you get to where you are today will help seal the deal.
And when you’re all done with that – always ask for the referral:
- Ask the prospect if they have any friends, siblings, or parents or know anyone else who might be a good candidate or interested in joining. Collect info or hand out extra business cards as appropriate.
- Be sure to engage the guidance counselors, teachers and administrators and enlist them in helping you recruit for your youth programs and adult responders. PRO-TIP: Kids=Parents=Prospects!
It’s important to be friendly, interactive, and engaging. Don’t hide behind the table, remain seated or wait for them to come to you.
You’ll need to use good time management as you won’t have a lot of time to talk to each class and need to speak to as many students as possible. A good tactic is to have one person engage the student, and if they show any sign of interest, hand them off to the other person for data collection. Then move on to the next candidate. (Think of a car salesman handing you off to their sales manager to close the deal!)
And lastly, be someone (and look for someone) you would want to serve with or be saved by.
NOTE: Images courtesy of the Evans Center Volunteer Fire Company-Angola NY (http://evanscentervfc.org)