This article is one in a series of toolkits focusing on recruitment, retention, fire service marketing and leadership.
Earlier in our discussion of the clearinghouse approach to recruitment and retention, I outlined my theory that there are three levels of recruitment activities I’ve identified as “The Clearinghouse”; “T&E: Training and Education”; and lastly the “Trench Work.”
In discussing the clearinghouse concept, I stated my feelings that the role and responsibility of building awareness as to the need for volunteers falls on regional, state and federal fire service organizations or government itself.
So far we’ve discussed Pennsylvania’s revolutionary tactic to recruit new volunteers with www.rollwithit.com – their in-your-face movie trailer/music video targeting the next generation of first responders; and Erie County’s innovative efforts to ensure the survival and success of their 94 volunteer fire companies.
We’ve discussed some very creative approaches to addressing the recruitment and retention challenges of the volunteer fire service and what better way to continue this talk than to introduce you to Rockland County’s “Creative Approach to the Volunteer Fire Service” Committee.
Part 3 – Samples of Success: ROCKLAND COUNTY NY
Rockland has demonstrated the value of attacking the R&R challenge at the highest level – the clearinghouse.
Started in 1996, this committee is a true collaboration of the county’s 26 volunteer fire departments, 14 volunteer ambulance squads, county government and their local business community.
The effort was spurred by a situation that arose in the Village of Ryebrook in neighboring Westchester County, just over the Hudson River from Rockland. The Village elected to convert from an all-volunteer fire department to a career department, and contracted with Rural Metro Corporation. Career manpower was reportedly limited and supplemented by paid-on-call firefighters. Subsequently, that highly contested system was disbanded and the village reverted back to a volunteer fire department a year or so later.
Rockland’s fire service recognized the need to address sustaining manpower several years ago and is committed to that same effort today, and every day. Their consortium is comprised of every fire service association and fire department in their county – note the emphasis on the word: every.
What a model for success? Every fire department and association coming together towards a common goal with a common vision and speaking in a single voice! Imagine the possibilities if we all worked together. [Crazy talk, I know.]
The committee created the county’s first PIO-Public Information Officer course and worked on a project to reduce the ISO ratings of every fire district in the county, and they succeeded.
They went to their County Executive Scott Vanderhoef and asked him for seed money to get their committee going. Instead of just handing out a financial grant to support the efforts, he instead suggested they partner with the business community. His influence proved to be the tipping point in the organization’s long and prosperous history.
They targeted the county’s largest businesses with 250 or more employees and invited them to a breakfast meeting. With the county executive’s insight, they demonstrated the value of volunteers in Rockland County and the related costs of what would be unaffordable alternative delivery models.
The meeting resulted in a combined contribution of $25,000 from the business partners present and a marketing campaign sponsored by Orange and Rockland Utilities that highlighted the teamwork between public utility workers and first responders. The campaign had an estimated street value of $75,000. The business coalition made a wise and important investment in their future.
Their committee has since evolved into a 501c3 non-profit corporation appropriately named: The Committee to Promote Volunteerism in Rockland County Emergency Services, Inc. [Just rolls right off your tongue, doesn’t it? Note to Self: Don’t let lawyer-types do the marketing part.]
Setting up the not-for-profit corporation sets the stage for corporate sponsors to get involved and for the sponsors to reap the benefits of tax deductible donations to the cause. As a result, several sponsors have jumped on board, from mom-and-pop type establishments to major corporations headquartered in Rockland County. Their committee wisely got buy-in from the business community early and often by involving the Rockland Business Association in the planning process right from the get-go.
They stay connected to the business community by participating in the association’s monthly membership meetings, career fairs and business expos throughout the county. Their business community has responded with a VIP-Volunteer Incentive Program where volunteers are offered discounts on banking, mortgages, auto repair and a comprehensive list of other products and services.
One RBA member, Liberty Mutual, offers deep discounts on home, life and auto insurance to Rockland’s volunteers. Liberty Mutual’s regional manager and his son have since fallen in love with the fire service. The son is an active firefighter, a college bunk-in and a frequent top responder.
The Creative Approach Committee is now a member of the Rockland Business Association with Chairman Frank Hutton as their representative.
Although generously supported by the county, their strong ties to the business association make the committee highly sustainable through government changes and they credit their county executive’s foresight with their success.
That’s Really Smart Business!
Frank Hutton shared that they’re working to educate four distinct but tightly integrated groups: the fire service, public, media and government.
They started by bringing together their entire fire service to make sure they’re all on the same page and understand why the R&R challenge exists and what to do about. That’s what I call the T&E: Training and Education phase of my three-tier model towards success.
They work smartly and continuously to educate politicians and government officials so they’re always thinking about how to help volunteer emergency services. This effort has paid big dividends. The Volunteerism Committee initiated non-profit town coalitions of firefighters, EMS providers and even auxiliary police to represent their volunteer first responders at town and village meetings. This effort resulted in several towns offering free recreation passes to each volunteer family, a $500 value.
Next, they partner with their media contacts to ensure they get positive press every week. All of this helps them remind the public that these value-added services are provided by volunteers and the opportunities that exist for them to participate. They host or participate in a ton of public events and even have recruitment kiosks set up in several malls. Outdoor advertising with dynamic messaging helps give their promotions top-of-mind status with the citizens in their community.
Several years ago, the publisher of a local newspaper participated in what is now the Firefighter 1 program and related first hand accounts of his experiences, complete with photos, every week in the newspaper as he progressed through the 13-week program. We’re talking several full pages of newspaper print area every week. That’s media attention you couldn’t otherwise afford if it weren’t free.
Rockland County’s Fire Coordinator Gordon Wren says they get so much media exposure it’s almost to the point of being “over-exposed,” but they’re not complaining. They even have a local weekly radio show titled “Who Wants to be a Volunteer?” that offers them the chance to highlight the positive virtues of the fire service while promoting available volunteering opportunities.
They enjoy great relationships with the local media outlets and in return reap the rewards of their efforts. The media frequently looks to the fire service as a resource for information and the fire coordinator or PIO often call the media right from the scene, offering up-to-the-minute status reports. Thus, people read, hear and see positive things about the fire service and are motivated to join. It’s no wonder they’re so successful.
These Folks are Serious!
Bordering New York City, you can imagine the cost of housing in Rockland County. Realizing that property tax breaks weren’t enough, the local coalitions have actually gone so far as to create public housing programs that offer discounted rent in return for volunteering.
They’ve bought up condos, townhouses and apartment buildings that allow young families and individuals the opportunity to move into or stay in the area following graduation. This helps prevent the brain-drain that so many other communities are experiencing because their younger members can’t afford to live where they grew up once they go to, or return from college.
Their town offered its coalition 12 houses for a $1-a year lease. No, that’s not a typo, there aren’t any zeros missing – that’s one dollar a year total for 12 homes. The coalition rents five (5) single family homes and seven (7) multi-family dwellings where several volunteers share a house in an almost boarding house style arrangement. [Imagine what that reality TV show would look like.]
Here’s the real beauty of the program: the renters only pay operating costs – no mortgage and no taxes. The rent for a multi-family house is then divided among the occupants and might be around $250 a month, compared to the average $900-$1,100 for a typical single bedroom apartment in Rockland County.
These types of programs have been extremely successful in Rockland since they started about six years ago. One volunteer resident started out in a coalition subsidized group setting, got married and moved into a sponsored single family unit with his new wife. There they had a child and saved enough money to buy their own home outside the housing program. He’s now a chief in a local volunteer fire department and she is a captain in the volunteer ambulance corps. How’s that for a success story?
Other town coalitions sell condos and townhouses to volunteer firefighters for a significant discount off current market value. Some people save as much as $50,000 on the cost of their first home.
Here’s another bonus. They get to sell the units at a profit based on the monetary equity they’ve earned and the sweat-equity they’ve invested in improving the home. The kicker is that they’re contractually bound to sell the home only to the next volunteer firefighter on the waiting list, and never above the price they paid plus their equity – still well below current market prices. It’s a self-perpetuating win-win for everyone.
That brain-drain I mentioned earlier creates a downward spiral and can crush a community as the economy weakens. I think we’re seeing a lot of that in New York State, which makes affordable living a great solution to the graduation-degradation dilemma. Rockland County has certainly mastered the formula for success.
Speaking of graduation, their current efforts are focusing on the ultimate recruitment and retention tool: building today’s and tomorrow’s leaders through education and experience. Some departments have experienced great success with recruitment and retention while others flounder. Why? Almost without exception, leadership is the reason or contributing factor.
Their committee has sponsored training by some of the fire service’s most well known and respected leaders including FDNY Battalion Chief (and Volunteer Battalion Chief) John Salka, but they didn’t stop there. They worked directly with the publisher and bought Salka’s book “First In. Last Out.” at a discounted rate. Their county fire chiefs sponsored the presentation and hosted a book-signing event following his talk.
Presenters have included former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and well known author and presenter Kim Alyn of FirePresentations.com, amongst others. A corporate sponsor made a bulk purchase of Mayor Giuliani’s book titled: Leadership for every attendee of the seminar. [I have the book and CD – it’s a must read and listen.]
Coordinator Wren points out that, “Good leaders make for strong organizations.” Rockland County is clearly on the right track to create better leaders and stronger fire departments, and they’re doing it together. [Light goes on inside head, brain suddenly realizes: Hey… we could learn a lot from them.]
The proof is in the pudding!
Frank Hutton’s statistics show they’re training from 150 to 225 new recruits a year in Firefighter 1 classes and Gordon Wren reports that some fire departments have taken in as many as 30 new members in the last two years. On an estimated population of 3,000 volunteer firefighters – those numbers equate to significant success.
To say they’re on top of their game is an understatement. These are just a few of the initiatives they have in place or in the works to ensure the survival and success of their volunteer fire service.
Effective leadership is critical but Gordon cautions us that, “The fun factor should not be underestimated – it is a big one!! We have been doing quite well countywide for the last several years but we must be relentless in working at the effort.”
Personally, I’m just glad to see someone is finally paying attention to my crazy banter. Gordon even admits: “PS – We continue to steal ideas from you guys [Erie County.]” For the record, I see that their web site ‘borrowed’ our recruitment theme, “If You’re Tough Enough, If You’re Smart Enough, If You Care Enough to Volunteer…”
To find out more about how they do it on the Big Apple’s border, check out Rockland’s web site at: http://www.co.rockland.ny.us/Fire/default.html.
They’ve also got a great recruitment video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsW786u2mFU.
Now there’s a novel idea. Where does our target 18-25 demographic hang out? Oh yeah, on YouTube. [Strike forehead with palm of hand… now.]
This isn’t rocket science folks. If it were, I’d never get any thing off the ground.
Effective recruitment and retention just takes some imagination, a lot of hard work, a commitment to succeed and… a creative approach.
I promised you last month that we’d discuss SAFER-Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants from the Department of Homeland Security and how you can get the federal funding to be a major player in the recruitment and retention arena.
Well, it appears that opportunity is about to knock as the application period for SAFER grants typically opens in July. If this year’s info isn’t out yet, you can review last year’s guidance documentation and start to formulate your narrative at www.firegrantsupport.com. This is definitely a grant program that you should be going for.
I’m pleased to announce that a local fire company I assisted received a $275,000 SAFER award to enhance their recruitment and retention efforts. That’s a bell ringer if I’ve ever heard one.
In addition to some fired-up marketing ideas, they’re offering a comprehensive list of incentives to reward new and existing firefighters for their training achievements and state and national certifications. Those incentives will go a long way towards recruitment and retention.
Congrats to Doyle 1 Hose Company in Cheektowaga NY. With their permission, I’ll fill you in on the details of their plan in a future article.
For a comprehensive offering of R&R resources, visit my blog at www.firefighternation.com/profile/tiger5.
Click or call if you’re looking for ideas or want to volunteer your own. I’d love to hear your experiences.
Let me know how I can help.
Until next time… “Stay safe. Train often.”
Editor’s Note: Recruitment slogans, programs or themes described herein may be the copyrighted intellectual property of the author or other parties. Please contact the author before reprinting or using such content.
Tiger Schmittendorf is a proud FASNY member and serves the County of Erie Department of Emergency Services (Buffalo NY) as Deputy Fire Coordinator. He created a recruitment effort that doubled his own fire department’s membership and helped net 525+ new volunteers countywide. He is a Nationally Certified Fire Instructor and has been a firefighter since 1980.