Seventy percent of firefighters in the United States are volunteers, and national volunteer numbers have been going down steadily for years. With fewer people staffing departments and fewer people committing to the hours of training required for volunteer duty, communities and citizens are more vulnerable.
No state illustrates this decline more than Pennsylvania. In the 1970s, Pennsylvania had around 300,000 volunteer firefighters. Those numbers plummeted to just 38,000 over the past 40 years. Ninety percent of departments in Pennsylvania are volunteer, and it has the highest number of volunteer firefighters in the country. As one state representative said, "We're in a crisis right now."
Volunteer departments across the country are in a crisis. We have an aging volunteer workforce, higher costs to communities as they hire full- and part-time staff, longer response times and more mutual aid calls, and an ongoing struggle to find funding for equipment that keeps increasing in price. Departments face an uphill struggle and some states, like Pennsylvania, are investigating ways to bolster the volunteer force and reduce costs to departments, such as:
At the local level, departments need to re-think their recruitment methods and their target audience, and they need to get creative. Gone are the days when you could rely on people coming in the doors looking for excitement. Many departments do have successful recruiting campaigns; some are successful only because they are not following the old "best practices" for volunteer recruitment. Some departments have gone so far as to hire marketing specialists because, as one specialist stated, "This is a sales job."
Your department will have to use psychology to sell recruitment efforts. For example, our society now has a distinct lack of personal connection, something people of all ages are realizing they miss. Fire departments offer fellowship and service to the community. This can fill that void, but you have to get people in the door and show them.
The National Volunteer Fire Council created the program Make Me a Firefighter to help departments meet these challenges. 10 Tips to Drive Volunteer Firefighter & EMS Recruitment in 2018 suggests modern marketing strategies and social media tips. The internet is full of modern volunteer firefighter recruitment ideas. Just know the problem will not be fixed overnight. Consistency is key to long-term growth.