By Kellie Dietrich, Public Relations Specialist
Due to stay-at-home mandates across Pennsylvania and New Jersey, volunteer fire companies are facing the challenge of recruiting the next wave of firefighters without the ability to bring them in to meet face-to-face or to show them around the fire company, a tour that often hooks a new recruit if done right. Communication Solutions Group, a full-service Jenkintown, Pennsylvania-based marketing firm that runs recruitment campaigns for fire departments was in the midst of launching four recruitment campaigns using brand new recruitment websites when the stay-at-home order hit Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Here were the pointers they shared with those chiefs and applied to the campaigns they were running.
Don’t ignore volunteer inquiries; just handle them differently
These days, firefighters and healthcare providers are viewed as more valiant than usual. That could mean more volunteer inquiries from people eager to make a difference. The fact that your station is in lockdown should not mean that you should not respond. In fact, reaching out via phone or email (when most people are pretty easy to reach these days) is a great way to tell them about your station. Try to do so within 48 hours after the inquiry comes in. Let them know that you will reconnect with them when regular operations resume. If there is preliminary paperwork that can be completed with them remotely, certainly move ahead with that process. In the meantime, suggest that they stay connected with your station via your website and social media.
Keep your social media presence current and engaging
Now more than ever, people are scrolling through their social media feeds looking for ways to help, fill their boredom and stay up to date on news. Be sure to keep posting regularly and not go silent. Community members are looking for ways to cheer on and support essential organizations during the COVID-19 outbreak like fire companies.
Exposure on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram is also a great way for the community to interact with the fire company. It will help them learn more about your organization and may peak their interest in becoming a volunteer.
For Abington Township Fire Department, Communication Solutions created a video for social media letting people know that after the shutdown, volunteers will be in high demand.
“The key is to discover innovative ways to utilize your recruitment effort and connect with the community. Don’t let COVID-19 slow down your efforts,” stressed Leza Raffel, President of the Communication Solutions Group.
Use Zoom, Skype or other platforms to connect potential volunteers with actual volunteers
Volunteers should be prepared to talk about and answer questions about the fire company, training and benefits. With more people staying at home, it is great time to utilize Zoom, Skype or other virtual platforms to talk to volunteers.
Interested individuals will feel more comfortable talking to volunteers they can relate to. A firefighter in his 20s will be more relatable when recruiting a younger audience. Similarly, if someone is interested in becoming an administrative volunteer, have an administrative volunteer call rather than a firefighter. If there are a lot of volunteers to connect with consider hosting a virtual “Get to Know Us Night” featuring multiple volunteers of different demographics and all interested community members.
When talking to them on the phone or video, match the tone of whom you’re talking to. If they’re really excited about volunteering, show excitement when responding to them. Use the emotional appeal to hook them in as well. Many people volunteer because if feels good to serve the community and save lives. Let potential volunteers know how helping the fire department will bring meaning and benefit them. Tell them personal stories they can relate to about the thrill and trepidation of your first 9-1-1 call or how rewarding it was to give a family peace of mind when the fire trucks arrived.
Remember, though, that volunteering isn’t all about work. Mention the relationships you made with other volunteers and how you became a family. Recruits want to hear about the social events too, like fundraisers and barbecues.
Keep recruitment and retention planning active through virtual “meetings”
Virtual meeting platforms have other advantages Communication Solutions Group discovered. Not only was the PR firm able to continue its scheduled recruitment and retention meetings with fire chiefs, it could also hold branding brainstorming sessions with the volunteer base of new client fire companies, sessions that otherwise would have been cancelled.
“We typically kick off new client relationships with an all-company visioning session,” said Raffel. “It’s a critical meeting that engages volunteers in developing a theme and slogan for the recruitment campaign. Those meeting are still in progress, thanks to Zoom.”
Provide the media with timely, feel-good stories to promote your volunteers
Even if we are still all in quarantine, Mother’s Day is still on the calendar and so is Father’s Day. Chances are good that your fire company has moms who volunteer and dads, sons and grandpops who all volunteer together. “These volunteer success stories are just the good news that people want to hear right now. So share these stories with your local press,” said Raffel.
All media interviews can occur over the phone and your volunteers can garner front-page news coverage without having to leave home. This is true of radio and TV interviews as well; most are being done now via phone and laptop to ensure everyone’s safety. After lockdown, links from these great stories can be woven into your proactive recruitment events.
Tap into the community for photos of your volunteers to “recruit without a shoot”
Never underestimate the value and benefits of photos on someone’s cell phone or social media pages. Communication Solutions found this out in the most unusual way. Slated to hold two photoshoots for Jenkintown Fire Department in order to launch a recruitment campaign, the company had to get creative when Pennsylvania’s governor ordered a shutdown.
Rather than put its work on hold, the PR company reached out to local residents via a Facebook page called “Photograph Jenkintown.” The request: Send us photos of Jenkintown firefighters you have at home or on your phone.
“The response was amazing,” said Raffel. “Beautifully composed photos that truly showcased the firefighter experience.” According to Raffel, since the community-supplied photos were so helpful in moving the recruitment campaign forward, she plans to donate the money she would have spent on a hired photography to the local school district. “This was great example of the community coming together.” This community effort can now be viewed at, http://fightjenkintownfires.org/
Plan for the volunteer interest that is on the horizon
“Most of the fire chiefs I work with are predicting an uptick in volunteer inquiries after the shutdown mandate is lifted,” said Raffel. “The steps a fire company takes now will ensure they are ready to put their recruitment efforts in high gear once people are out and about again.”
During lockdown, Raffel is offering free Zoom workshops on how to recruit volunteers on a shoestring budget. For information, visit www.comsolutions.com
Kellie Dietrich is a Public Relations Specialist at Communication Solutions Group and works on recruitment and retention campaigns for fire company clients. She was previously published in EMS World for her article “For Successful Recruiting Events, Run Your Booth Right.” Communication Solutions specializes in community engagement campaigns for municipalities, first responders, school districts and nonprofit organizations.