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Can you rise to the challenge?

An article posted to FirefighterNation.com today outlines the challenges faced by volunteer fire departments in Pennsylvania in recruiting and retaining their members. Although these types of articles are becoming all too frequent, this one in particular is better than most in that it focuses on the positives of being a volunteer firefighter — not all the negatives. I’ve cited many examples of what not to say if you’re actually looking to solve your R&R challenges in a previous post titled “Is this our best approach?” Too often, we hand a prospective candidate all of the reasons and excuses why they wouldn’t join on a silver platter.

I have to tip my helmet to the volunteer fire service in Pennsylvania who is no stranger to these challenges — or to innovative solutions to those challenges. I’ve previously mentioned them in “PA VFDs Dip Into Fountain of Youth” for potential solutions as well as I’ve applauded their efforts in the successful recruitment campaign: “Roll with It!” — the sexiest thing to come to volunteer recruitment I’ve ever seen. It rivals the GoArmy.com and NationalGuard.com campaigns.

So one could argue, with all these tremendous efforts and stories of success coming out of the Pennsylvania Volunteer Fire Service, why do they continue to struggle?

Reality is that we need to be constantly focused on both recruitment and retention, inasmuch as the two are so tightly integrated, even co-dependent. It is no longer just a cyclical issue that we can address when we get around to it. And, we need to be constantly trying new and innovative ways to create solutions to these challenges, especially in dealing with today’s iGeneration — with ‘i’ meaning “individual.” Each individual that comes to our doors or decides to stay within them, has individual expectations of the fire service, individual needs, and brings their own individual skill set and set of challenges in volunteering.

The challenge of today’s fire service leaders is to address the needs of the individual while meeting the needs of the organization.

My three-prong attack on recruitment and retention challenges calls for creating a clearinghouse at the county, state and national level to promote the broad-based awareness that opportunities exist for citizens to get involved in their local volunteer fire departments; T&E: Tools and Education to change the mindset of the volunteer fire service and arm them with the resources to be successful in their efforts; and lastly, the trench work of getting new volunteers in the door and keeping them there.

Frankly, the marketing campaign is the easy part and there’s virtually no limit to available tools and education opportunities.

It’s in the trenches of every community, every volunteer fire department, where the hand-to-hand combat of recruitment and retention takes place. This is where, armed with the proper ammunition (marketing resources), it’s always up to the local fire service to leverage the awareness created by the more global clearinghouse to maximize the effectiveness of their efforts. This is the tough, grunt work of R&R and it’s work that no one else can do for them. Often, to be successful in the trenches, we have to overcome very real perception, process, personal and leadership issues. These are the difficult challenges of real leadership.

But like many of the challenges we face in the fire service, many of the solutions are:

  1. Within our reach,
  2. Quite often found amongst us;
  3. And most often require more sheer will and determination than they require time, energy, or money to solve. It just takes some imagination and creativity.

As we take another look at our volunteer recruitment and retention challenges and the efforts we have or haven’t made to overcome them, the only remaining question is: As the US Army asks — “Can you rise to the challenge?”

PS – Read between the lines: Be sure to click on the several links in this post to take advantage of the clearinghouse, tools and education and trench work resources contained within. If you don’t — you’re only get half the story.

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Editor’s Note: It’s Veterans Day – 11/11/11 – Wear red to show your support for our troops and thank every Veteran you encounter for dedicating their life to protecting our freedoms around the world. Read about a very special Veteran at RuntotheCurb.com and listen to my Salute to Veterans show on FirefighterStorytellers.com.

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