It’s 0905hrs on a Sunday morning.
The career firefighter is sleeping soundly in his favorite recliner, enjoying the freedom to nap indiscriminately on a weekend, but also ready to get to work when the tones drop. He is “living the dream.” You know, that dream, the one you always hear about: Insurance, benefits and steady pay to do something you would probably do for free.
The volunteer firefighter is sleeping equally soundly, enjoying the freedom to stay in bed on a weekend, children permitting. Just like our career firefighter, he is ready to go to work when the tones drop. He is exhausted after working overtime Monday through Friday, but he knows when he wakes up he will get to spend irreplaceable time with his family in the comfort of his own home.
What’s the difference?
There are differences, I can assure you of that. These differences, however, are not as glaring as the Facebook Fire Department would have you believe, and the positives and negatives on both sides mostly cancel each other out. In all of the infighting, backbiting and criticisms that often arise between career personnel and volunteers, we constantly forget about another class of firefighter. These men and women make up the oft-ignored third party of the fire service.
Our red-headed stepchildren; The part-time firefighter.
I have been a volunteer, a part-timer and a career firefighter, I am familiar with the struggles of all sides. I can tell you, without hesitation, that the hardest role to fill is that of the part-time firefighter. You can mistakenly be viewed as not as invested as the career guys, not as dedicated as the volunteers. Scab or hired gun are equally unsavory perceptions of your role.
Would you like to know what the part-time firefighter is doing while both the career and volunteer firefighters sleep? Probably commuting to any one of his or her three-plus jobs. Most of them work varying combinations of full-time and part-time positions, both Fire/EMS and otherwise, to make ends meet. How long has it been since their last day off? Who knows. Somewhere between a dog’s age and a really-freaking-long-time. Home? Nah. The part-time firefighter might as well just live in his car, for all the time he gets to spend at his mailing address.
But why be a part-time firefighter at all if it sucks so bad?
- Some don’t have a choice. Maybe they don’t have any seriously marketable skills outside of public service. I certainly fit that bill, myself.
- It can be hard getting a career position on a fire department, any number of life choices or events can extinguish your dream.
- Maybe life just got in the way. Sometimes the reality of your situation doesn’t necessarily mesh with your career aspirations. Timing is everything.
- Many are younger individuals, just getting their start. Not everybody walks onto a full-time job after class ends. The experience they are gaining makes them much more desirable volunteer and career employees.
- Lastly, some simply have no interest in pursuing a Fire/EMS career. They probably already have gainful employment in another field and just want to enjoy a living out a childhood dream (while being paid for their time, of course).
Arguments are frequently made that nobody forced them to be part-time firefighters, and that they can give up whenever they want and get a better job. Whatever their reasons, the public service community as a whole needs them more than they need us. Most of these guys and gals can certainly make more money elsewhere, but they chose a life of service instead. For now, at least.
Dragging themselves from department to department, sleep deprived and half-dead, but still ready to go; where I’m from, these are the people that keep both career and volunteer departments afloat.
Volunteer engine response constantly coming up light? It’s understandable. With increasingly demanding schedules, not many people have time to volunteer. Part-timers are here to save the day.
Department making the transition from all-volunteer to combination? Those part-timers are super handy when you need to fill out a schedule.
Need shift coverage for that big fishing trip? PT’s got your back.
If they seem grouchy, it’s probably because they haven’t seen their families for days on end. If they seem unhealthy, it’s likely because they don’t have the luxury of good insurance, or can’t afford to take sick days. Their schedules lead many of them to down energy drinks by the case. If they seem disinterested, I would venture to say that it’s because they work at three or four departments, each with their own sets of training, rules, tempo and drama. Burnout is real.
And finally, if they seem tired, it’s because THEY ARE.
Be thankful that they are here, and be nice to your part-timers.
Up front, here’s the bottom line; volunteer fire departments across America have incredible marketing problems. In today’s world, we’re constantly flooded with information. We get it from our phones, our computers, TV’s, tablets, poster’s, flyers and more. At present time and continuing into the future, the volunteer fire service will need to lean heavily into marketing plans. Marketing your department provides incredible benefits for improving the department’s image, generating positive morale, and enabling a greater ability to recruit new volunteers. Creating a marketing plan for your department takes forethought, creativity, motivation, scheduling, budgeting, and overall planning.
Today’s volunteer Fire Chief needs to be many things, an incident commander, a fire prevention inspector, an instructor and mentor, an administrator, a politician, a strategic planner, a communicator, a counselor, a customer service rep, and most importantly a marketing manager; add that to the long list of emergency service disciplines and it seems nearly impossible that these people can actually exist at all. The position of Fire Chief is likely one of the more dynamic careers in the modern world.
Why does my department need a marketing plan?
It’s rather important to take a holistic view of fire department management. When I say holistic, I mean to describe how all the little parts of the organization are intimately interconnected with other parts. These intimately interconnected parts help to form the overall health of the department as a whole. For example, a department with strong community risk reduction programs(CCRP) can be linked to having a greater ability to recruit new members because CCRP’s increase the amount of exposure department’s have within the community. Community risk reduction programs help to improve community relations forming a positive public perception. Possessing a positive public image also has a direct effect on morale within the department. If the public has a high degree of confidence in their fire department, the members will feel that… thus improving morale. Higher morale leads to greater member retention. So on and so forth. When I say holistic I mean that in a very real sense.
Marketing has the ability to increase/improve a laundry list of things including but not limited to: recruitment, retention, morale, building partnerships, budgets, public confidence, education, and create a more informed general public. From creating professional recruitment videos and holiday safety public service announcements to advertising a babysitter certification class, each little piece of marketing content helps to form a much larger picture of the organization in the public’s eye. BUT FIRST YOU MUST HAVE A PLAN!
Answer this one question: Does your department have a marketing plan?
A marketing plan is a comprehensive written document which outlines all of your advertising efforts and challenges throughout the year. Every community program your fire department operates should have an associated marketing effort or campaign. If your department provides community risk reduction programs such as fire extinguisher training, CPR, and/or babysitter certification classes, each of these programs should have a detailed plan illustrating:
- Who you are marketing to
- When you need to start and a schedule of recurring blitzes
- How you’re going to provide the marketing material (ie. Targeted Facebook Ads, Instagram, Youtube, mailers, local businesses, Explorers or Juniors disseminating pamphlets. etc)
- What the marketing material will be(ie. a video, flyers, posters, shareable image ads, newspaper ad and so forth.) and who will create it as well as an estimated cost
Each of these four should be broken down as specifically as possible.
Aside from community risk reduction programs, your department should be planning and be executing a deliberate, consistent, routine marketing strategy that improves the image of your department, showcases the responders who give everything of themselves to serve, and bolsters recruitment efforts. A few lines I often use to support these ideas are:
- If the community doesn’t see it happen, then it didn’t happen. You have to show them.(That means cameras)
- If the community doesn’t understand their role in supporting the fire department, then you will not be supported.
- If your needs are not communicated pragmatically and effectively then nobody will hear it.
- The public’s perception of their fire department is only as good as the information they are consistently provided; So flood the market.
Creating a marketing plan provides you with a road map and a schedule throughout the year and keeps your department running in a timely and deliberate manner. Planning will always provide you with the best possible chance of being successful with your marketing efforts. A greater emphasis should be given to electronic forms of marketing like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and so on. It’s very likely that most everyone in your response area has a Facebook page and scrolls their newsfeeds.
Quick Reality Check
It’s important to recognize that marketing is not a short sprint, it’s a very long, never ending hike. If you’re holding an expectation that posting a few videos and hanging a stack of posters in various locations is all that is required, then you’ve already submitted to failure. Marketing is a continuous effort to consistently provide the information and the image you want to project to the community. If the residents of your community are constantly coming across positive images, videos, and news stories showing happy firefighters serving the community, you will slowly begin to win the hearts and minds. Again, if the public doesn’t see it happen, then it never happened. Realistically, it could take up to a year before you start seeing the benefits of your marketing efforts. If you start seeing no return at all, it might be prudent to take a finer look at your marketing content and methods, perhaps doubling down with a more focused effort will yield the results you’re looking for.
Ensure that you establish some quality control standards when it comes to posting videos, images, and the like. You want to ensure the content being released reflects the values your department holds and represents your members in a positive light. Videos, with poor quality, loud or humming background noises, lack of proper editing and so forth can really detract from the overall message you’re trying to provide. You’ll want to use graphics, background music, and provide an animated logo at the beginning of your video. Likewise, posters and flyers should be designed and printed with proper quality utilizing clear images. Here is a great example of where the video marketing bar has been set.
Volunteer fire departments are no different than any other non-profit out there. This means that a professional marketing strategy and approach is paramount to running a very successful organization. Utilizing a business marketing template will definitely help you get started. Here is a resource that can be repurposed for your fire department. http://www.sbdc.umb.edu/pdfs/marketing_plan.pdf
When it comes to the marketing of a non-profit, I always like to throw some credit to Team Rubicon. While not a fire department, Team Rubicon’s marketing plan has been unmatched in recent years and it has yielded them incredible success both financially and in volunteer workforce recruitment numbers.
With regard to marketing for the purpose of recruitment, one barrier that exists resides in peoples minds. At times, people have a hard time seeing themselves as a volunteer firefighter, or they just assume they’re not capable. Breaking that barrier requires communications. Handing out flyers and hanging posters is a very passive form of recruitment, it relies solely on the courage of the prospective member to step forward on his/her own. It’s important for current members to recognize that each of them is an ambassador of the fire department and each of them has a role to play in recruitment. Members should recognize that their behaviors both on and off duty create a positive or negative image of the department. As a group, we either display the values of an organization anyone can be a part of, or we display the opposite. Some posters that help soften the image include the following. All of these recruitment posters have the ability to be targeted Facebook and Instagram ads.
Producing ad images and videos highlighting all of the good things your organization does is a surefire way to gain the support you seek in many different areas. When the public sees marketed content from your department advertising community risk reduction programs, informing them of emergency responses, highlighting firefighter training, recruitment efforts, showcasing fire department meetings, spotlighting community partnerships, and showing happy firefighters serving their community, a much larger sense of the overall state of the fire department begins to emerge.
I want to be careful not to suggest that this is easy. It’s not. It takes planning, creativity, ambition, vision, some hard work, and execution. As fire service leaders we’re not professionally trained marketing managers. HOWEVER, It’s likely that there is someone in your community that you could reach out to for some support. If you’re a 501c3 non-profit fire department, any marketing assistance provided by a licensed agency would be tax deductible. Any support given to your fire department should be answered in the form of a certificate or plaque which that business could hang on their office wall. My point here is if you are unable to create your own marketing content or struggle to build a plan, FIND the resources within your community to make it happen. It’s likely there is someone in your response area that could volunteer as a marketing manager.
Disclaimer: This articles intent was to highlight the importance of having a marketing strategy and to start the discussion of building a marketing plan for your fire department. Any resources highlighted in this article were intended to provide you with a vision and an example of a path forward and in no way are affiliated with the author or Station Pride.