Top Gun Recruitment & Retention Tips for the Volunteer Fire/EMS Service

The movie is great, but the advice given in this blog post is better. Find out how you can incorporate ‘Top Gun’ quotes into your recruiting and retention strategies today!

The original “Top Gun” movie was released in May of 1986 and aided in increasing recruitment for the Navy by 500% the year after it was released and provided a significant recruitment increase for the other military branches. 

The big guns of movie advertising launched a massive marketing offensive over Memorial Day weekend-2022 and there wasn’t an hour of my day over that 60-hour period when I didn’t see or hear about the sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick.”

Nearly 36 years later, my 16-year-old daughter came home and yelled, “I finally know who Goose is!” I started to laugh. For 16 years, she would hear me say, “Talk to me, Goose,” at various points of her life. Usually it’s when I’m mentally searching for an idea while working or trying to figure out my next move during a traffic jam or, more recently, trying to remember where I put the Old Bay© seasoning I had just pulled out of the pantry. 

It got me thinking – I can’t be the only one who remembers these classic lines? At that moment, without prompting, I heard Goose say to me, “You can use them for everything, including volunteer recruitment and retention.” So let’s take a look at some of the quotes and soundbites from the original Top Gun movie and how we can apply them in the volunteer firefighter, EMS, and first responder recruitment and retention sky.

“You’ve lost that loving feeling.” Maverick & Goose (Retention)
It happens to the best of us. The excitement of jumping out of bed in the early morning and responding to a call only to be canceled a few minutes later loses its luster. If a volunteer brings up leaving, you should redirect their focus and ask them what they would like to do instead. You can work together to find an alternative role for them within the fire department or a place where they can find fulfillment. Instead of throwing up your hands and saying goodbye forever (or even just for a few months), offer something else that might be even better. Many people will stay with a department if they feel appreciated enough.

“It’s classified. I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” Maverick (Engagement/Team Building)
Nothing kills morale and team cohesion faster than not feeling like part of the team. Generally speaking, a new volunteer coming into a fire department is like an alien. You’re not sure where they come from, what they eat and how they do things. Regardless, station information, from what refrigerator to store dinner in to what is the training path necessary to become an engine driver, must be openly shared consistently and frequently. The only way to get through this situation is by taking some time to build trust with them and understand each other as much as possible.

“Talk to me, Goose.” Maverick (Communication)
Department leaders should know their people, and their people should know their leaders. Leaders should get into the habit of getting to know their personnel when they join your fire or EMS department. For most new members, department leaders and officers can be intimidating. When it comes to having a good relationship with your volunteers, you have to know them. Asking questions and listening to the answers is key. There’s no better way for leaders to do this than in person. Communicate early, often and effectively.

“Damn, this kid is good!” Viper (Retention & Recognition)
You can’t put a dollar amount on volunteer engagement in the fire and EMS service. Feeling relevant, needed, and understanding that the time given has meaning is the jet fuel of a volunteer’s service. Thanking your members for a job well-done too often gets placed on the back burner. “It’s their job. That’s what they’re supposed to do,” is the first reaction in many fire stations and leaders. It also enhances positive relationships between combination departments and volunteers, encourages open communication, and makes work more enjoyable—helping your company thrive.

“He can’t get back in the saddle, won’t engage.” Jester (Retention)
When volunteers return from a vacation or hiatus, it’s important to re-establish relationships. Members may be hesitant to ask for help because they don’t want leadership or new volunteer members thinking that they’re not capable of doing their job without supervision. You can help them by asking how things were going while they were gone and what’s been happening since then. For example: “Have you seen any changes at the station? How do you think those changes will affect our department?” The conversation doesn’t have to stop there; keep talking until they feel comfortable again.

“Mayday! Mayday! Mav’s in trouble. He’s in a flat spin; he’s heading out to sea.”  Iceman (Retention)
As first responders, there are times when we see and deal with situations that impact us personally, and we can’t address them while on the fire ground or at the incident scene. It’s essential to check in with your members early and often after the call. It’s not just about their service but also their mental health, personal life, and even leadership. Here are some things you can do to ensure your members are doing well:

  • Check in on their mental health
  • Ask if their work/life balance is in balance
  • Monitor their level of engagement with the department as a whole and not just when you need more hours or shifts from them

“You can be my wingman anytime.” Iceman (Retention)
Let members know you are there for them both professionally and personally. Make sure they know there are resources to assist in their professional aspirations. We think of the wingman concept when dealing with mental health issues. You can be a wingman by mentoring and passing on knowledge about training progression. One of the essential tools in the fire department is a mentor. They can help with all sorts of things, like planning your training progression, advancement opportunities, networking, and even changing careers. A good mentor will listen closely to what members want out of life, offer advice specifically for your member, and guide them toward opportunities that will make it happen.

“This is what I call a target-rich environment.”  Maverick (Recruitment)
Recruiting on the fire ground after the call while you still have a captive audience can be a great resource for volunteers. The bystanders at the scene watching you work are prime candidates for recruitment as they have a keen interest in what you are doing. It’s up to you to start the conversation. To help begin the dialogue, ask, “Have you ever thought about being a volunteer firefighter?” Having or knowing your department’s contact information is beneficial to pass along. Some departments utilized business cards with a QR code that directs people to the department website or recruitment page to pass out before leaving the incident scene.

Here are a few other places you may not have thought of as target-rich recruiting opportunities:

  • Local stores that volunteer members frequent near the department, many times right across the street from the station.
  • Community Emergency Response Team (CERT): Community volunteers trained in basic disaster response skills such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization, and disaster medical operations; and who may be looking to take their volunteering to the next level.
  • Military communities
  • High Schools & Colleges
  • Movie Theaters (right after seeing “Top Gun: Maverick”)
  • Everywhere

Use these tips to put on the “afterburners” of your R&R process this summer. We hope you take a few minutes of your day to see how your department can implement them. In the meantime, if you are looking for a volunteer Fire/EMS recruitment and retention wingman, check out all of the great solutions First Arriving has designed to help you grow your department, agency, organization, or business with “Top Gun” brand and campaign strategy, website development, recruitment & retention programs, video & photography, social media, SEO & more HERE.

Turn-and-Burn! The sky’s the limit.


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