Building a community network to support your volunteer fire department.
For the career fire employees out there, it’s likely your fire department provides some level of personnel support with regard to smoking cessation, physical fitness, dietary, psychological support, marriage counseling, stress management, financial planning etc. from an employee assistance program(EAP).
For the volunteer departments reading this, it’s likely you have little or no support at all in the areas serviced by a professional EAP program, nor can you likely afford to pay for the services for one like it. Alas, there is always a solution to the most complex problems but it might take a little idea tweaking, politicking, handshaking, and community organizing to pull it off.
Every community has services that can be drafted or harnessed to provide support for your fire departments’ volunteers. For the 501(c) fire departments, your job may be a little bit easier, as donations to your organization are likely tax-deductible.
When broken down in numbers, volunteer fire departments save their communities millions in labor costs. In fact, a recent study by the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York determined that volunteer firefighter’s save the citizens of New York State $3.1 billion in taxes to support wages and associated employment benefits of a statewide career department. Equating the dollar equivalent of a volunteer firefighter doesn’t exactly fill one with pride, but it’s a valuable number to calculate for your area because it can be used as a selling point to garner support from the community and it’s business power.
Volunteerism is down all over the country, it’s a common headline these days. Every volunteer fire chief struggles to keep active volunteers on their roster, and there is a slew of reasons why. (See The Volunteer Solution) It’s imperative to find creative ways to sweeten the pot for your volunteers. Wouldn’t it be great if you were able to offer a welcome package to a new full member of your department? A welcome package that comes from the community as a ‘thank you’ for serving them? Hint: the answer is yes! If you’re a fire chief reading this, you already know you have more tasks than not, but two very important primary tasks are to find the balances between serving the needs of your membership as well as the needs of your community, each serving each other.
What I’m describing looks a little like the businesses of your community offering small discounts to the volunteers of your organization. For example, volunteer firefighters receive 5% off a particular gas station, 10% off at a local chain restaurant, a rebate at the car dealership, one free oil change per year at the quick lube, a free consultation with a nutritionist, chiropractic services, discounts on gym memberships and so on. The list is endless and it’s all unique to what your community has to offer. Where possible, always make attempts to include services found in a typical EAP. The idea here is to engage the services of your community to support the selfless services provided by your volunteers. Small discounts may not seem like a big deal, but when added up over the course of a year it could mean hundreds or even thousands of dollars saved by the members of your organization and as we learned in the Volunteer Solution, every little bit counts.
Where do we start?
As with any large task, you break the situation down into logical, manageable chunks of work.
The central idea here is that the volunteer problem is not a fire department problem, it’s a community problem. We’re all in this together. The solution is a community one.
Develop your pitch. In the Volunteer Solution Part 3, we discussed communicating your needs as an o
rganization to your community. If you fail to communicate the type of support you need, you will certainly NOT receive it. You’ll want to write all of these things down and package this as a fire department program. Give it a name, for example, “Community volunteer firefighter assistance.” Start with drafting a statement of your intentions, highlight your volunteer numbers, national trends, the number of hours these individuals provide the community and the disruption it causes to their lives. Express your needs openly and honestly. It may even be useful to communicate how volunteer firefighters save their businesses thousands of tax dollars but at a cost to very few among us. Create an understanding with business owners by describing your plan to harness the collective power of the community to support volunteerism and ask them if they’d be willing to help. No threats need to be made, but the bottom line reality for every volunteer department is if people stop showing up, the cost of replacing a volunteer can be astronomical.
Identify the services, businesses, and organizations in your community you’d be interested in forming partnerships with. These services could include, nutritionists, physical fitness (local gym), gas stations, restaurants, box stores, car dealerships, barbershops, chiropractic services, massage therapy, car maintenance businesses, grocery stores, hotels, and any type of entity within your reach. There is literally no limit to the participants of your developing program. It could take a year to build fully, however, meeting with each business owner or proprietor to communicate your needs takes time, thoughtful effort, and a little bit of politicking. Arrange a one-on-one meeting, or host a group meeting with local business leaders, each choice will help to get your message across.
Marketing, marketing, marketing. The services your fire station provides IS your product and
products need to be sold. As a fire department, we don’t produce anything. In fact, our very nature is to consume more than we produce. We’re more of a last resort insurance policy for when people need help, with anything. Market all the good thinks your volunteers are doing, market EVERYTHING, create edited videos with your logo, post images to your website and social media frequently.
During the workshops I provide, I hear department leaders complain about not receiving enough facebook followers or website traffic. Their message is going unheard and nobody seem
s to be paying attention. Here’s a simple trick, provide information people in your community NEED and they will continue to check back. They don’t need to know about your fire prevention program, but they might need to know what traffic conditions are, the weather, tides, storm information, community hazards, road closures, construction and so forth. People will follow you for necessary information and while they’re there, market the things you want them to know and see. My hard point here is that if nobody sees it happen, it didn’t happen. It’s human nature to be absorbed in our own lives, most people do not give much attention to the fire department because it is not relevant to their daily lives. Make yourselves relevant. It takes some thoughtful planning and process building, but once that’s nailed down, it’s a field of dreams.
Volunteer fire departments really need to get back into the business of community organizing. Find ways to make yourselves a more active presence in your community. Consider offering babysitting certification classes, community CPR classes, and child car seat installation. Join nationally funded initiatives like Safe Place. Instead of passively providing a service when those are in need, find creative ways and attempt to be relevant in the daily lives of your community.
Last but not least, when you’ve garnered the support you need from the community, create a membership card whether magnetic swipe or barcode that businesses can swipe or scan for member discounts. Members can carry the cards in their wallet and scan them when used. There are many websites where you can make custom membership card. Such as this one, click (here). Likewise, when/where possible, set your program participants up with your tax exempt number so their contributions to your program can be written off on their taxes, if possible.
Here are some examples of how you can market and recruit for your department.