NEW RECRUITS: Buyer Beware!

In my recruitment and retention related conversations and classes, I ask the pointed question: “What takes longer, getting good people into your fire department — or getting the bad ones the heck out?”

Almost everyone acknowledges the latter response with a head nod, nervous chuckle or emphatic GETTING THE BAD ONES THE HECK OUT!

Whether your onboarding process (I typically define that as the time from the moment of inquiry to the point at which they raise their right hand committing themselves to volunteer service) takes 30-days, 60-days or longer; how much time are we spending with the potential member during what could be described as the courting phase of the relationship?

We refer to each other as brothers and sisters, and collectively we refer to the group of people in our firehouse as our second family. One could argue that you can teach a monkey to pull the bale back on a nozzle and get water out of it, but is every prospective member the right fit for our fire service family?

Does every prospective and existing member have and demonstrate the capacity to be a respected, respectful, trusting, trustworthy, contributing member of our fire service family? Can we teach that? If so, it’s certainly more complicated than teaching them how to operate a nozzle.

This may sound shallow but I tend to categorize people in one of two ways: some are consumers while others are contributors. Do we have both in our volunteer organizations? Are some of our members sucking the life and energy out of those who give the most? Do we have members who loiter and linger at length without ever really making significant contributions to the betterment of our organizations? What impact does that have on the morale of your contributing members, and what burden does it put on your leadership? Do they spend 80% of their time and energy dealing with the bottom 20% of your membership?

If you subscribe to any of the ideas I’ve just shared then I propose that we increase both the quantity and the quality of the interactions we have with a prospective candidate prior to us adopting them into our fire service family. After all, isn’t that what we’re really doing? When we accept a new member we’re saying that we welcome them (and their family) into our fire service family and are trusting them with being fellow stewards of our physical, emotional, mental and organizational health and well being. Therefore, doesn’t it makes sense that we invest more time and energy in making sure they’re the right fit?

For example, if your typical on-boarding process takes 60 days from the moment of inquiry and you offer the candidate 6-8 opportunities to interact with your fellow members in a ride-along, training, meeting, social or other setting — and they only attend two of those events, what should make us think that they’re going to meet our expectations for participation once we’ve sworn them in as a member?

I’m by no means suggesting that we be exclusionary, just the opposite. I’m simply encouraging you to take a deeper look at what you’re buying when you sign on a new member. It’s the start of hopefully a long and prosperous relationship built on a tank full of trust, starting with the public’s trust. What value do you put on that?

Increasing the opportunities for interaction prior to signing on the dotted line accomplishes two things: it allows you to determine whether or not they are committed to being contributing members; and just as importantly, it gives the candidate the opportunity to test drive your organization and its people to ensure the fit feels right for them too.

Once we identify that the prospect embodies the characteristics, traits and attributes consistent with our organizational values, teaching them to pull that bale back to get water out of the nozzle gets a whole lot easier, doesn’t it?

Here are two links to articles that suggest great ways to evaluate a candidate’s fitness for your volunteer fire-rescue organization:

I’d like to hear your thoughts. Let me know how I can you today.

Tiger Schmittendorf is vice president of strategic recruitment and retention services for First Arriving, a full-service marketing and technology team supporting the public safety community. He served the Erie County Department of Homeland Security & Emergency Services (Buffalo, NY) for more than 20 years before retiring as deputy fire coordinator in 2018. There he was responsible for the recruitment, training, and mutual aid operations of the county’s 97 fire departments and 6,000+ firefighters. He created a recruitment effort that doubled his own fire department’s membership and helped net thousands of new volunteers countywide. A frequent presenter on leadership, incident management, connecting generations, and recruitment and retention, he is a nationally certified fire instructor and has been a firefighter since 1980. Connect with him at or visit his websites:,, and