Volunteers comprise 65% of the United States firefighting force at an estimated 676,900 firefighters. (NVFC 2023) These volunteer firefighters play a crucial role in protecting our communities, providing emergency response services, and showing an unwavering commitment to the public's safety with very little or no compensation. Unfortunately, like many other professions, the fire service has difficulty recruiting individuals to carry out this crucial role. Currently, firefighters over 50 make up about 33% of the small-town firefighters, trending towards an aging firefighting force. The two-parent working household, family commitments, associated risks of firefighting, and the pandemic have all played a part in the downward turn of volunteer recruitment. (USFA 2023)
As communities and generations have changed, recruitment has become more complex. Traditional methods may not have the impact that they once had. It's hard to think of a better way to reach people than going through something they use every day: the internet. Digital marketing can be a powerful tool in reaching the masses by leveraging different online platforms to communicate the mission, benefits, and opportunities of volunteering for the fire service effectively. Using targeted campaigns, engaging content, and strategic use of social media, videos, and podcasts, digital marketing can help facilitate the connection between volunteer firefighting organizations and potential volunteers, all while cultivating a sense of community and inspiring active participation in this essential civic duty.
Building an Online Presence
Building your department's online presence is the first and most crucial part of digital marketing. This is done through a website, social media profiles, YouTube, and podcasts. Once a solid online presence is established, the hard work of creating compelling and targeted content can begin.
A website is a must for any organization today. Not only is a website a great place to disseminate information and engage the community, but it also lends legitimacy to the organization. Having a website is your department's digital business card, it shows that you are professional and helps to instill confidence in the community. Websites are inexpensive, and many website builders can walk someone through all the steps of creating your site. Website builders like Go Daddy are an excellent place to start. If your city or county has a site already, ensure it is up to date with all the current information, press releases, social media links, how to volunteer, and pictures. Nothing is worse than having someone navigate to your site, only to find that the information is old or missing.
The next part of building your online presence is claiming your department's name on all social media platforms, even those you don’t think you will use. This is to prevent someone else from taking the name and protect the department's reputation should someone try to post information while misrepresenting your department. This means Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, X (Twitter), LinkedIn, Pinterest, TikTok, Snapchat, and any others that are out there that people may use. If possible, try to get the same username for each to minimize confusion. Once you have access to all of the different platforms, save all your usernames and passwords somewhere and designate a primary and backup administrator for them. Having a small group of people responsible eliminates confusion when building your marketing campaign later. Ensure you include contact information on all your social media, like phone numbers, websites, and emails. If someone wants to contact you, make it as easy as possible.
Social Media Campaigns
Social media campaigns should be developed and set up ahead of time. Taking advantage of known events throughout the year allows you to map out the quarter or the year’s social media calendar. For instance, if you want to do a recruitment drive two times a year, then you can plan a social media campaign that starts one month out from each deadline and place that on the calendar for the year. Other times of the year can be filled with showcasing volunteers who have made a difference, fire events, upcoming socials, fundraisers, and public service announcements such as smoke detector/battery changes, training, or fire safety week. Many organizations like the NFPA, The U.S. Fire Administration, the Red Cross, and more have pre-made social media posts that are free to use throughout the year. Take advantage of these in your digital marketing campaigns.
It does not take a professional to properly implement a successful social media campaign. There are just a few rules to follow to ensure success. The first rule is to make the content engaging and relevant. You can use various strategies in your social media post, such as short videos or pictures. Using helmet cam footage is a great way to highlight aspects of the job while creating a rush of adrenaline for the potential volunteer. Short videos from the Chief or department representative highlighting information are also great. The videos do not have to be professionally filmed, but they should be scripted and practiced beforehand, not just off the cuff. Choose an appealing background, such as in front of the fire engine or the firehouse. An example of a campaign for recruitment purposes would include a set of posts that announces the recruitment period, information about the duties, details on the training, the benefit of serving your community, current members describing their experience, and posts that provide all the necessary information to fill out and apply for a position. You can mix up each post with a video or picture; just ensure the information is accurate and consistent across all the social media platforms and the website. There are many great examples of volunteer departments throughout the United States doing a great job reaching their audience through their social media platforms. There is no shame in researching those departments and learning what they do. Inspiration can come from anywhere.
YouTube is a great place to store the videos you make for your department. It can also help in the dissemination of information that you want to get out to the public. Any videos you create for social media should also be placed on the YouTube platform. Videos can cover a variety of different topics. Some ideas might include helmet cam footage, Q&A with the Chief, interview with a current member, highlighting training, public service announcements, new equipment placed in service, interesting calls, upcoming events, fire safety week, donation solicitation, where does your money go, a recruitment video, promotions, and award ceremonies, and many more. Just like with social media posts, the videos do not have to be professionally filmed, but they do need to be scripted and practiced beforehand. If you have someone in the department who is good with video editing, that is helpful; if you need help, reach out to your local high school or college film crew to see if they would be willing to help. Many of them might jump at the chance just to do their part.
Podcasts are hugely popular on streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music. This cutting-edge technology offers the volunteer fire service a unique opportunity to share firsthand accounts, insights, and stories of current volunteers, providing a personalized and compelling narrative that resonates with potential recruits. By leveraging this medium, volunteer fire departments can dive deeper into the service in a way that videos may not be able to. It can help the department reach a broader audience while fostering a sense of community and inspiring individuals to consider participating in the volunteer firefighting service. Getting started is relatively easy and inexpensive. With a couple of mics, a computer, and setting up accounts, you are well on your way. The podcast should have one or more regular hosts and guests in each episode. Episodes can run any length and cover any subject related to the volunteer fire service. The key is to make the content engaging and relative to what is happening in the fire service or community today. The podcast can highlight the application process, training, and what to expect for recruitment purposes. Give potential volunteers as much information as possible to ease any fears or hesitations that they may have about volunteering. Most importantly, though, is to preach the department's culture and how those individuals will fit into that culture.
Email is a great way to reach individuals with whom you already have a relationship and want to either reengage or maintain engagement. Email marketing is easy to set up and is free using sites like Mailchimp. Their email builder will walk you through the process and setup. Emails previously collected can be used, and any future email you receive from interested parties can be added to the email distribution list. Once or twice a month is sufficient to disseminate information or solicit donations. You can send videos or pictures you have already posted on social media along with links to your YouTube page or podcasts. You can have short articles on fire safety tips or even a section highlighting a volunteer. The information should be consistent with what you have on social media and be engaging and relevant. When recruiting potential volunteers, get their email addresses to add to the distribution list.
Sometimes, our schedules can prevent us from attending certain events or meetings. The pandemic, for example, brought forth the age of video conferencing through platforms like Zoom and Google Meets to help alleviate the burden of gathering in one place to meet or learn about new things. This is a great tool that volunteer fire departments can use in several ways. The fire chief can do a monthly Q&A with the citizens to discuss the department’s needs, recruitment, and budgeting. It can also be used to disseminate information to individuals interested in joining the volunteer fire department by giving them deadlines, expectations, training information, and advice. Once you have your website, social media platforms, and email marketing set up, you can utilize each medium to advertise your video meeting. A video conference requires minimal commitment from the participants and may give them more incentive to join, knowing they don’t have to leave the house to get the information.
Measuring the success of your digital marketing can be difficult, but it's essential to track the effectiveness of what is being produced. The Volunteer Department should measure several social media metrics to determine whether the content works.
Audience growth by volume is critical to understanding your impact on social media. When people mention or tag your department, it shows volume. (Silva, C. 2023) The more people talk about you and interact with your campaigns, the more volume you receive. As the department gets tagged, mentioned, or shared by people, it expands the reach of your campaigns. Please ensure everyone who works with the department shares and likes any social media posts. It reaches their friend list as they share it, continuing the expansion. Every social media platform will have metrics on how many impressions the post made with the audience and how many interactions it had. (Silva, C. 2023)
Tools like Ahrefs can be used to see where traffic to your department’s website comes from. This will help you determine which areas of your site are gaining traction and which content struck a chord with people.
When conducting a recruitment campaign, success can be gauged by assessing the number of applications received by the department. Did the figures rise compared to the previous year, remain consistent, or show a discernible change after creating new content?
In conclusion, volunteer firefighters constitute a large portion of the U.S. firefighting force, and their role in safeguarding communities is invaluable. However, the challenges in recruiting new volunteers, aggravated by changing societal dynamics and an aging firefighting force, necessitate innovative approaches. Embracing digital marketing, including websites, social media, YouTube, and podcasts, emerges as a powerful strategy to reach and inspire potential recruits. Building a robust online presence lays the foundation, followed by engaging social media campaigns, captivating YouTube videos, and insightful podcasts that delve into the essence of volunteer firefighting. Email marketing serves as a personalized touchpoint, while online events through platforms like Zoom offer convenient opportunities for interaction and information dissemination. Success, in this context, is measured not just by numbers but by the impact on community engagement, recruitment applications, and the overall resonance of the department's message in the digital realm. By embracing these digital tools, volunteer fire departments can adapt to the evolving landscape, ensuring a continuous influx of dedicated individuals into their essential civic duty.
For more information on ways to improve the recruitment and retention in the volunteer fire service check out the U.S. Fire Administration New Manual on, “Retention and Recruitment for the Volunteer Emergency Services”.
“Fact Sheet Volunteer Fire Service - National Volunteer Fire Council.” Volunteer Fire Service Fact Sheet, The National Volunteer Fire Council, www.nvfc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/NVFC-Volunteer-Fire-Service-Fact-Sheet.pdf. Accessed 28 Dec. 2023.
“USFA Releases New Manual on Retention and Recruitment.” U.S. Fire Administration, FEMA, May 2023, www.usfa.fema.gov/blog/retention-and-recruitment-manual/#:~:text=Recruitment%20and%20retention%20are%20significant,1984%20to%20676%2C900%20in%202020.
Nolasco da Silva, C. (2021) 4 metrics that matter for your brand's social media success, Mention. Available at: https://mention.com/en/blog/social-media-success/ (Accessed: March 7, 2023).