Volunteer Firefighter / EMS Recruitment During Times of Adversity Part 1 – Keep Recruiting and Keep the Message Positive

Vice President of Strategic Services

Several related conversations and a message from a friend indicating that he’d been instructed to suspend all online and offline recruitment efforts have compelled me to finally articulate in writing how I feel about recruiting volunteers during times of uncertainty. Just like the pandemic situation is very fluid, my position may change from day to day, but this is what I ponder and know at the moment.

Arguably there are more immediate issues to address, but in both the short and long term, I believe that volunteer recruitment and retention could be either our next national bubble, or bust, depending on how we address it now.

While there is still plenty of fear and uncertainty to be had on our television sets, mobile devices and in our heads and hearts; I’ve already seen an increasing trend in local and national optimism and good will.


Just the other day I drove into a nearby village just as they were launching a pop-up fire apparatus parade with dozens of emergency vehicles proudly showing off their lights, sirens, airhorns and banners with positive messaging such as: “We miss you”; “Thank you for your support”; “Stay safe-stay home”; “We’re praying for you”; and “We’ll be there when you need us, you can count on us” as they drove through local neighborhoods spreading positivity and cheer when we need it most.

I’ve seen online posts about public safety teams conducting similar drive-by events for kids’ birthdays, and visits for sick kids and adults. I’ve watched videos of firefighters and other responders lined up outside hospitals in a show of solidarity for their fellow health care workers on the forefront and last resort of this outbreak. I see scores of people launching their own efforts to flatten the curve of despair with positive posts, hoping they go “viral” and overtake the flood of incessant virus-related news and the pre-existing symptom of societal negativity.


While it may be challenging to cut through the sheer amount of chatter and noise in the online conversation right now, I don’t necessarily agree with the decree to shutter recruitment efforts that my friend has been handed.

If we’re friends online you know I frequently share my call to action to volunteer emergency services that we need to: “Treat EVERY public interaction as a public service, public education, public relations AND a recruitment opportunity!”

My #allrecruitmentallthetime attitude hasn’t changed one bit and that’s why I encourage continuing with soft-sell style organic postings as I think it’s important to keep both our recruitment and community equity messages top-of-mind regardless of the situation.


Way back in February, before this pandemic hit our homefront (now affectionately referred to as the good-ole days!), I launched a two-month organic (non-boosted) online campaign for my own volunteer fire department that included “Motivation Mondays” showcasing a whole new set of motivational posters I created using our own department’s people and images instead of stock imagery. The theme of the posters focused on pride, courage, determination, teamwork, and service.

We also scheduled a series of posts individually recognizing our new and returning elected administrative and operational officers who took office January 1. Spreading them out over several weeks bought us a lot of posts, time and resulting community engagement. Our reach was in the tens of thousands. We didn’t know at the time just what an inexpensive but important investment that would be.

Then in mid-March, the world ended, or at least it seemed for the moment, but we didn’t postpone or cancel our scheduled posts. Instead we “let it ride” with content and images that always concluded with the recurring recruitment message: “Evans Center Volunteers are READY! Are you READY to serve? If you or someone you know is interested in joining our team, please visit www.evanscentervfc.org, email [email protected], or call 549-1221.”


There’s another good reason to continue feel-good campaigns like this, to reinforce another one of my theories that we in public safety have two core missions:

  1. To give the people we serve the peace-of-mind that we’ve made good investments in our people, training, resources and capabilities
  2. That if we do nothing else, we WILL bring calm to chaos.

If we can accomplish both, things tend to get better faster for everyone. If we can’t accomplish either, we have no business being there.

Giving people peace-of-mind is one of the most important investments we can make in building community equity. If their first introduction to your organization and its mission is either on their worst day, or on yours, that’s a difficult position to start from. There’s probably never been a greater need or opportunity for us to bring calm than to this chaos known as COVID-19.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how this disaster compares to post-9/11 as it relates to volunteerism across our nation. In 2001, many people stepped up to volunteer out of a newfound or even overbearing sense of patriotism. Many volunteer organizations saw an uptick in inquiries and applications in the days that followed, regardless of whether they had ramped up their recruitment efforts to match changing market conditions. Refresh your memory of what worked then and ask yourself, will it work now? There’s a good chance it might.

Harsh reality is that there’s nothing fun, exciting, short term or glamorous about this disaster. Despite all of that, there are still volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel showing up every day to do what needs to be done, based on their omnipresent sense of duty and community; proving that the most important thing that this tragedy does have in common with 9/11 and every other disaster is this: HEROISM.

And we’re discovering new heroes every day, from the truck drivers who keep our critical supply chain moving, to grocery store and other workers who don’t have the option of avoiding human contact.


As recruiters looking for answers as to where to find potential pockets of candidates during these uncertain times, maybe we just need to be reminded of Mr. Rogers’ famous quote: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

I published a forecast in 2001 that went like this: “The survival and success of the volunteer fire service relies on OUR ability to create MORE opportunities for MORE people to volunteer LESS time.” I still believe that diversifying our workforce in both form and function is the key to sustaining our success.

Nineteen years later, it’s my forecast and sincere hope that this growing sense of community (although ironically isolated!) and the premise of neighbor helping neighbor will prevail at least until we can meet again and hopefully continue to build towards its apex long after this is over. That’s why we must keep our recruitment and value-add message “pinned to the top of our page” so that when the timing is right, we can offer them an outlet for their pent-up desire to give back, make a difference, or just get out and do something.

Each of the service-themed posters I created for my volunteer fire company include a relevant quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” How so appropriate during these trying times.

During this time of crisis, look for the helpers, take the time to give them the thanks and recognition they deserve – and when it’s over, invite them to join us in helping in a way that no other volunteering opportunity offers. Nobody else gets to do what we do. Nobody!

That message will still resonate with the people who are right for our fire and emergency services family.
Let us know how we can help.

While Part 1 outlined my perspective on the current recruitment situation, we’ll discuss key strategies and tactics in Parts 2 & 3, aptly titled: “5 Ways to Remain Relevant in Recruiting During Disasters” and “5 MORE Ways to Remain Relevant in Recruiting During Disasters” coming soon.

Need Help With Your Recruitment Efforts?

Learn more about First Arriving’s Recruitment & Retention services here.