Striking the Balance Between Retention & Recruitment in Volunteer Fire/EMS Organizations

While volunteer recruitment marketing efforts tend to get all the hype as that’s typically the most visible part the public sees, the fact is that the relationship between retention and recruitment is so interdependent that it is difficult, if not impossible, to discuss one without the other.


Recruitment marketing campaigns can drive potential candidates (leads) to your firehouse door, but if you can’t retain the qualified candidates you’re looking for, those efforts can be wasted. And never more true than it is today, it takes quantity to get quality. Typical candidate-to-recruit conversion rates range anywhere from 1 in 5 to 1 in 10, or more.

Conversely, while various retention efforts such as paid-per-call, paid-on-call or standby duty incentives; training achievement rewards, general benefits and recognition programs can be integral to successful member retention, they can be ineffective without a solid recruitment effort to generate new recruits to offer the incentive programs to.

There’s a fine balance between recruitment and retention and one effort cannot survive without the other for very long. While it sounds like a chicken and egg conundrum, the right approach is to address both efforts simultaneously as a united front, never taking your eye off one or the other.

Including your outbound marketing and other recruitment efforts, I define the recruitment phase as starting at the moment of inquiry, the instance of initial contact, the second a potential candidate (or influencer) shows a hint of interest in learning more about the volunteering opportunities you offer. Every step, every touchpoint, every process and document from inquiry to the candidate applying and raising their right hand to commit to serving is part of the recruitment process, or what I affectionately refer to as the courting phase of attracting new members. This phase steps them from candidate to applicant, and applicant to recruit.


The retention phase starts at the moment the now candidate-turned-recruit signs their commitment to serve on the dotted line, and ends at their departure from volunteer service, in whatever form that comes. Just as important, every step, process, document and especially experience that a contributing member has along that path will determine the length and value of their own volunteer life cycle. This includes the steps from recruit to trainee to contributing member, to senior member and hopefully on to retiree after fulfilling their service commitment.

I see many projects, especially grant-funded ones, make the mistake of putting the large majority of their eggs in the retention basket, only to lack people to take advantage of the incentive and benefit programs because they haven’t invested in recruitment. The good news is that a well-formulated grant amendment typically helps achieve a better balance between the two prongs of their overall program. Strip away those benefits, incentives and related programs, and retention success largely comes down to how the member is treated and if they feel valued and a strong sense of belonging as a member of the team. Intangible rewards outweigh the tangibles when it comes to staying on as a valued volunteer.

Bringing in new members makes the division of work more achievable and offers everyone the opportunity to gain more friends and create long-lasting relationships, all of which is proven to improve retention. The best recruitment tool we have is happy and satisfied volunteers. The better we get at retaining our valued members makes recruitment easier and can slow the revolving door that ineffective “catch-and-release” efforts create.


A cohesive recruitment program motivates your existing members to become better recruiters, knowing that their efforts will benefit them directly and the organization overall, inspiring them to maintain and increase their commitment to the department. New members give them fresh eyes, ears and attitudes to mold, coach and mentor, honing their own skills and attitude in the process. My experience has been that I never learn as much as when I’m teaching, as it compels me to be on top of my game.

Having a well-planned comprehensive recruitment effort that makes your fire department and its members look and sound like the friendly, welcoming and qualified volunteer professionals they are, boosts morale and gives all of your existing members a sense of fulfillment and hope that they will be an even stronger organization as a result of these efforts.

Acknowledging the power of referral and that there is power in numbers, recruitment campaigns should focus on featuring the dedicated volunteers you already benefit from, showcasing their caring community service. This can increase individual, family, co-worker and organizational pride.

SAFER and other grant programs allow you to address retention through benefits, incentives and other related programs, separate from but in close coordination with the elements of a well-planned and executed recruitment marketing campaign. The challenge is to seek incentive and retention programs that, like many of the elements of a solid laid recruitment plan, are sustainable beyond the performance period of the grant.


I sympathize with the chief or other officer who says: “If I had more people, I could free someone up to focus on recruitment and retention.” Unfortunately, this is a short-sighted attitude in that, if you focused on recruitment and retention all the time, the possibility exists that you could end up with all the people you need to get all the jobs done.

Like every other challenge we face in volunteer fire and emergency services, we need to adapt and overcome with an #allrecruitmentallthetime attitude, treating every imaginable human interaction as a public service, public education, public relations AND a recruitment opportunity. And that means we need to keep recruiting our existing volunteers every day, motivating them to at least hang on, or hopefully turn on their afterburners of energy and contribution. Only then will we gain an edge on sustainability and success in the volunteer fire service in our community and across our country.

BY TIGER SCHMITTENDORF, VP of Recruitment & Retention Services

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