The East Brunswick Independent Fire Company was first organized in the 1930’s by a group of concerned citizens. That concern continued to grow throughout the decades, and it is now a three-station department staffed completely by volunteers from the community, responding to over 800 emergency calls a year and supporting its neighbors through many community events and services.
Like many volunteer fire departments across the country East Brunswick faced the struggle of declining membership. The department was working with two groups of members, those 50 years old and older who were life members and not held to a response percentage, and everyone else. “We had no healthy middle ground,” said Recruitment Coordinator and Lieutenant Jackie Guas. “Our cadet program fell to the wayside, recruitment slowed down, many of our members were married with families and busy lifestyles; and with 100 members on the roll, we had only around 20 active members.”
“We saw a lot of value in what First Arriving does and wanted to see our department thrive,” said Lieutenant Guas. She added that they needed to figure out a way to get people in and stay, for at least a year. They also questioned what else they could offer besides the extra work of fire and EMS?
“We asked beyond t-shirts what extra value could we give to the lives of new members?” said Guas. The department looked to host more events where members could come together for something other than calls and training. Despite the pandemic, they considered meals and other gatherings where members could bond with one another.
Prior to reaching out to First Arriving, East Brunswick relied on word of mouth, lawn signs, and personal connections to recruit new members. Guas mentioned how their membership roster became a visual for the need to do something better with recruitment and retention,
“We looked at the roll call sheet and were realistic about the number of actual interior firefighters we had and that was very jarring for us.” Guas said it was determined that the department needed to build out the answer to “what are you getting from us?” and bring awareness to look at retention too.
East Brunswick brought in First Arriving to start working on a better recruitment and retention program. Tiger Schmittendorf, Vice President of First Arriving’s Recruitment and Retention Services met with the department, rode calls and spent time with them to review their recruiting and retention efforts as well as the membership process and the department’s image.
Building a new website and looking at social media were part of the initial work but it’s so much more than marketing. Guas said with Tiger’s help they looked at their messages and asked, “What’s the point?” “What do we want?” and worked collectively to answer those questions first and things then began to click.
“They had examined all of their efforts on their own and were looking to get unstuck,” said Schmittendorf. “We were able to quickly open their eyes to dozens of things they hadn’t thought of.
The key was they were focused on recruitment and retention and if you are not focused on that what are you focused on? Nothing else matters, not your station, apparatus or equipment – only your people.” Schmittendorf next helped them map out their volunteer life cycle from the moment of inquiry through acceptance, onboarding and throughout the retention phase, which helped identify where pinch points and lost opportunities were.
The work then shifted to making the application process smoother. They took an honest look at where in the process they were losing people and increased touch points – opportunities to stay in contact with the applicant and to be encouraging – throughout the application process.
From there it developed into bringing the candidate to the firehouse and getting them involved in events like dinners, barbecues, and apparatus checks while they were still in the application process.
That affords the candidate the opportunity to interact with their future fire service sisters and brothers in a variety of ways, and vice versa. We went from getting just a handful of applications to a point where we had to buy gear,” said Guas. The East Brunswick Independent Fire Company now had a new problem – not having enough gear to outfit the increase of new members.
The department’s duty crew program is starting up again, and improved morale was also another noticeable improvement. Guas said that as a three-station department pride in the individual firehouses transformed into pride of the whole department. “It made a significant difference that attracts more people, especially at community events,” said Guas.
“Actively engaging, giving out swag, you want the community to see we are there because we want to be there.”
Guas said Tiger had them ask themselves ““Who are you and what do you look like on the outside?” “It made us really look at who we are and that we’re more than just firefighters, and that we want to be more welcoming. We realized that we were those people, with or without the t-shirts, and that we’re like a family, and that is exactly how we want to operate.”