Keep Your Volunteer Efforts Afloat With a Positive Recruitment Message


This meme has been re-circulating heavily around the “interweb” lately and I feel a burn every time I see it! I don’t like to be critical of others’ work, but I’ve long thought that this particular message, while good intentioned, is misguided.

I think “What if no one answered the call?” is a question we the fire service should be asking ourselves, not the people we serve.

It’s one of the longest-serving marketing messages the volunteer fire service has ever clinged to. Unfortunately, I’m struggling to find anything positive about it.

Let’s break it down: Is it just a question or a veiled threat? There’s an incomplete risk/benefit component to the message, although the implied visual warning that your house will burn down is pretty clear. Are we admitting defeat already?

Next up, “Did you know that nearly 80% of America’s fire service is volunteer?” is a question that, when combined with the opening line, doesn’t do much to help our case either. While volunteering is something we can certainly be proud of, I fear that this statistic is positioned here almost as a cop-out, an excuse that we’re just volunteers but we’re doing the best we can. At the very least, it’s disconnected from the other elements of the recruitment pitch.

“What if..” their response to your pointed question was: “I thought I was already paying for reliable and responsive professional services but now you’re telling me that’s not what I’m getting?” Are you prepared to respond to that reaction in such a way that helps your cause – not hurts it?

Your community pays for consistent, competent fire protection. (If they don’t pay, well, that’s a discussion for another article.) Therefore, we’re contractually obligated to meet that service expectation. We are also the ones who decide that using volunteers is an adequate and affordable staffing model for our community. And thankfully, in so many communities it still is.

But even the corresponding call to action: “Give what you can.” is pretty thin. Now more than ever, we need to be clear in our expectations and we need to make those expectations achievable by as many people as possible.

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In too many areas of the country the volunteer fire department, which already provides its labor for free (where there is no direct compensation), also requires its volunteers to invest their own time and energy to raise the funds necessary to underwrite the cost of delivering those free services. Name one other vital municipal service that works on the same premise. That has not been a sustainable financial or operational model for decades.

Much of this issue comes down to what the market will bear. While the public needs to understand the challenges we face, and the real-world impacts of the alternatives, how we paint that picture can directly help or hurt our recruitment efforts.

Because what we’re essentially saying here is: “We’re going down. Jump on board!” That’s the fire service equivalent of the band playing on as the RMS Titanic split in half and teetered into the ocean. You’ve seen the movie. You know how it ends.

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In my clipart-concocted cartoon introducing the “Titanic *Desperate for Volunteers* Fire Department” here, we see that there are at least as many challenges below the surface as there are above the water line.

What’s been capsizing our efforts is our propensity to focus on all of the external reasons people aren’t joining our ranks, instead of looking below the surface at the crux of the crisis that truly hamper our efforts to recruit and retain: the persistence of the “Good Ole Boys Club;” our failure to adapt to changing socio-economic and service delivery conditions, an unsustainable financial model; leadership absenteeism, ignoring negative attrition and failing to plan for normal positive attrition; and a general lack of awareness that volunteering opportunities exist.

What’s really drowning us is our failure to be welcoming and inclusive; diversifying our workforce to reflect the demographic makeup of your community; and/or to create opportunities for more people to volunteer less time performing non-traditional tasks that spread the workload and make volunteering more achievable by today’s citizens who only have a certain amount of “disposable time” to contribute.

One recent news article even suggests that a certain state’s volunteer state-of-emergency could be pandemic, spreading like a virus to other states and regions. Seriously? The real epidemic these types of headlines and taglines threaten to cause is a wide-spread loss of confidence and public trust in all volunteer fire departments, regardless of whether they’re flush with volunteers, or they’ve managed to flush their volunteers.

Last I checked, many of us are facing similar challenges in recruiting and retaining volunteers, but often for quite different reasons. Using creative license from my incident command system instruction, I routinely share that “Recruitment and retention challenges are just like any other emergency, they all start and end locally.”

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Stop offering the answers to the exam as to why people don’t join the volunteer fire service and focus on all the great reasons why they should be. Perpetuating this negative, fear-mongering press about the perceived or real volunteer shortage is doing nothing to help ensure our survival or grow our ranks, especially for those who are already struggling to keep their head above water.

Face it, nobody wants to join the Titanic Hose Co. of the DFVFD: Desperate for Volunteers Fire Department!

Words like dire, desperate, dying and endangered are detrimental to instilling confidence in anyone considering joining or supporting your organization. That’s not the recruitment message we want to be sending.

We need to change the conversation and that starts with changing our language. If you’re going to use the word need, then use: “You need us. We want you.” Think about it, it’s good to feel needed, but it’s great to feel wanted. There’s a big difference between “desperate for volunteers” and, “we have plenty of opportunities for you to get involved in a variety of rewarding ways.”

I’m all for truth in advertising but: “Help wanted: immediate openings” is much better than telling your community “If you don’t volunteer…someone is going to die.”

Flood your community with positive messages about the awesome people who already serve and brag about all the great work they’re doing and the tangible and inherent benefits of volunteering. It paints an entirely different picture. What if that went viral?

Maybe recruitment marketing isn’t your gig. That’s ok. Do what you do best. Outsource the rest.

And as for that burning question: What if no one answered the call? Honestly ask yourself if your community is getting more or less than what they’re paying for?

While almost every fire department is over-delivering on value, beware of the adage: “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” That was penned by a guy named Ben Franklin. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

I’ve been on the front lines of fighting for the survival and success of the volunteer fire and emergency services for decades, but please, I’m begging you, stem the tide of frequently framing this conversation in such a negative light. Stay the course and ride a wave of positive recruitment messaging while working with your stakeholders to sail a service delivery model that rights your ship, without sinking your volunteer organization.

Click here to learn how First Arriving can help your department with recruitment, retention, membership management, community engagement and more.

Tiger SchmittendorfTiger Schmittendorf is vice president of strategic services for First Arriving, a full-service marketing team supporting the public safety community. He served the Erie County Department of Homeland Security & Emergency Services (Buffalo, NY) for more than 20 years before retiring as deputy fire coordinator in January 2018. There he was responsible for the recruitment, training, and mutual aid operations of the county’s 97 fire departments and 6,000+ firefighters. He created a recruitment effort that doubled his own fire department’s membership and helped net thousands of new volunteers countywide. A frequent presenter on leadership, incident management, connecting generations, and recruitment and retention, he is a nationally-certified fire instructor and has been a firefighter since 1980. Connect with him at [email protected]