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Fire departments, desperate for volunteers, get creative

Forced to acknowledge that the old ways of recruiting volunteers aren't enough, fire departments across the country are trying whatever they can think of to bolster their ranks.

Volunteer firefighters participate in a rowhome fire training exercise at the Chester County Public Safety Training Campus in Coatesville. TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Volunteer firefighters participate in a rowhome fire training exercise at the Chester County Public Safety Training Campus in Coatesville. TIM TAI / Staff PhotographerRead moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

A bright red firetruck, a firefighter in full gear, and a fireman's pole are visible through the picture windows of the brick building, along with lockers full of equipment and a waiting stretcher.

Instead of a fire-company name or logo, however, the lettering on the building in Rockville, Md., announces that this is not a real, live firehouse – but a recruitment center.

It's the type of novel idea fire companies and associations across the country are attempting to reverse decades-old trends of alarming declines in volunteer membership and to bolster recent recruitment successes that have not kept pace. Acknowledging that some of the old ways aren't working, they are getting creative – recruiting in venues such as houses of worship, atheist clubs, schools, book clubs, and chambers of commerce. Some even offer financial incentives.

Chester, Bucks, and Delaware County fire associations; the Paoli Fire Company; and Wildwood Crest's volunteer fire company are among the 20 fire and emergency medical services departments in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia that have hired a Jenkintown-based marketing firm for help.

"Whenever I speak to these fire departments, I say, 'Have any of you worked in sales?'" said Leza Raffel, president of the Communication Solutions Group. "Usually they say no. And I say, 'This is a sales job.'"

Of the nation's more than one million firefighters, 70 percent are volunteers, according to the National Fire Protection Association. With few exceptions, fire companies historically have been unable to support full-time payrolls, relying on the largess of donors; fund-raising events; bingo nights, or modest government subsidies.

Fire officials across the country have been wringing their hands about the same issues that have made recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters more difficult in recent decades: time constraints born of more two-income households and longer commutes; more training requirements; more volunteers retiring; and fewer young people joining.

At the same time, departments' workloads have been increasing with false alarms, faulty fire detectors, and more medical calls.

Pennsylvania, which has more volunteer fire departments than any other state, has a legislative commission investigating ways of bucking up the ranks of emergency responders. It was due to issue a report June 30, but pushed back the deadline to the fall, "because we want a good, quality report turned in," said State Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R., Allegheny), who co-chairs the panel.

It would build on recommendations by an earlier commission that included income-tax credits that took effect last year for voluntary-service hours.

"The whole objective is to come back with new ideas," Vulakovich said.

Meanwhile, fire companies aren't waiting for legislative fixes.

Besides open houses and ride-alongs, departments have been showing advertisements and recruitment videos on local television and in movie theaters, targeting young parents at elementary school back-to-school nights and local sports teams, and enticing those in mid-career and retirees. They recruit while going door-to-door checking and installing fire alarms.

Prom season is prime time for demonstrations at high schools about the dangers of drunken driving, and those sessions are also opportunities to recruit fire volunteers, said Dick Morris, 84, a lifelong volunteer firefighter and a board member at the Concordville Fire Company.

In time for Mother's Day, the Chester County Fire Chiefs Association profiled six mothers who volunteer at their local fire stations to encourage other mothers to join.

The Radnor Fire Company partners with a local magazine for monthly profiles of its firefighters. Following the lead of others in Montgomery, Bucks, and Delaware Counties, the company is considering offering housing to volunteers. Prices in area communities, especially along the Main Line, can be out of reach for potential members.

North Carolina's Cherryville Fire Department offers a place to stay for out-of-town firefighters completing training at a nearby community college in exchange for their help when calls come in.

Conventional recruiting methods haven't been producing results, said Eric Bernard, executive director of the Montgomery County (Md.) Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association. He has served as a volunteer firefighter for 37 years — in 15 of which he's also been a full-time recruiter.

"There were a lot of cookie-cutter answers out there," said Bernard, a Pittsburgh native and Navy veteran who was inspired by military recruitment centers to open the Rockville office in 2009.

As a first step, the Jenkintown public relations firm urges fire departments to bolster their web and social media presence. The firm — as well as recruiters across the country — stress the importance of making personal connections with potential volunteers and focusing on the camaraderie and experiences, not just the cool trucks and equipment.

Bernard calls his federally funded center a "hub" for recruitment efforts, but most of the work he does on behalf of 19 departments in his county happens outside the roughly 900-square-foot space.

"It is a constant effort and presence," he said.

In an analysis funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Volunteer Fire Council found that "the majority of people didn't even know their local departments are volunteers or that they need volunteers," said Sarah Lee, deputy chief executive officer of the council. Even when departments achieve a full roster, a few months later they could be desperate for volunteers again, and the group is applying for a federal grant to study ways to keep people from leaving.

In late 2015, the council began its Make Me a Firefighter recruitment campaign to give local departments materials and support. It has received about 5,800 online applications on behalf of departments across the country, including more than 3,000 in the last year.

Damien Enderle, 51, jokes that a midlife crisis brought him to the Radnor Fire Company. The Radnor native moved back to the township from Washington with his wife and daughters, and joined the company about two years ago as a volunteer. As a member of the recruiting committee, he's using his 25 years of experience in marketing. The fire company has made recruitment an "integral" part of its business model, he said.

The national volunteer council points to the Oregon Fire Recruitment Network, which formed in 2012 and coordinates the sharing of recruiting materials, resources, and ideas among more than 30 departments, as one model for attracting volunteers.

"A lot of 'best practices' we tried not to follow. Part of the reason why is that best practices aren't working," said Matt Aalto, a lieutenant at an Oregon fire department and co-founder of the network. "So we have to find new practices."

Main draws for volunteers continue to be the service to their communities, the camaraderie, and the excitement. Aalto said he is skeptical of the value of tax credits and suggests that lawmakers consult with volunteers about their wants and needs.

The Oregon network has strengthened communication among departments and advises telling potential recruits up front the extent of the time and energy required of a volunteer. That way, they are less likely to be unpleasantly surprised and end up leaving. He also advises fire departments to give their new ideas time to work.

"It's a long, sustained, grueling effort to find success," said Aalto, who noted that it took "30, 40, or 50 years" for the number of volunteers to decline. "It's going to take us 30, 40, 50 years of effort to build that number up."