Is Volunteerism Dying Or Has Your Marketing Flatlined?

By Kim Hilsenbeck

Community VFD. Photo credit: Lt. Samantha Smith

We hear all the time that Americans are not volunteering as much as they used to in years past. Indeed, many smaller volunteer fire departments seem to be struggling to attract new members.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reported that in 2020, there were 676,900 volunteer firefighters in the U.S. This is compared to 897,750 in 1984, the first year the NFPA began tracking this number. The U.S. Fire Administration’s guide Retention and Recruitment for the Volunteer Emergency Services, released in May 2023, noted “This decline of over 220,850 volunteers took place while the United States population grew from nearly 236 million to over 331 million in the same time frame, indicating that volunteerism in the fire and emergency services has not kept pace with population growth.”

Simply put, the population is growing but volunteerism in the fire service is not.

The age of current volunteer firefighters is also a topic of conversation, and perhaps concern. The NFPA Fire Department Profile for 2020 found that 50% of all firefighters are between the ages of 30 and 49 years old. However, departments that protect fewer than 2,500 people, which are almost all volunteer, have the highest percentage of firefighters over the age of 50 (34%). In many rural areas it is not uncommon to find volunteers in their 60s or 70s.

The State Firefighters’ & Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas (SFFMA), a professional association for the fire service in Texas, conducted a 2023 survey and gathered social media feedback on this topic. Firefighters across the state say volunteerism is down and departments are not seeing younger volunteers step up. Survey respondents and social media commenters cite reasons for the decline: older generations not being welcoming to younger volunteers, a lack of training, outdated gear, and poor leadership, as well as limited time, other competing activities, and unable to take time off work for training or to answer calls for service.

But several volunteer and combination departments in Texas are changing the narrative and proving they can recruit and retain new volunteers – even from the under 30 cohort. What’s in the secret sauce?

Photo credit: Granbury VFD

Fire Chief Matt Hohon with Granbury Volunteer Fire Department (east of Fort Worth) firmly believes volunteerism is not dead.

“Your messaging is off,” he said. “It’s just off.”

He is fond of telling folks, “Being a volunteer firefighter is like smoking cigarettes in the ‘50s. It’s free, it’s cool and it’s addictive.”

In other words, people should be flocking to be volunteer firefighters. But are they? It depends on the department.

Hohon and Captain Jesse Slaughter, the department’s training officer, created a podcast – “It Tastes Like Burning” – to share and discuss information about the volunteer fire service.

In an October episode about recruitment and retention, Hohon said, “If your organization is struggling with finding recruits, what’s dead is your messaging, your community outreach, your marketing, your creativity. That is what’s dead.”

He must be on to something with his messaging.

“When I was elected chief, we had 37 members; today, we have 68 members and 13 probationary members,” he said. “Next month, we will interview another four.”

It’s important to note that Granbury, with about 11,000 residents, has a few financial advantages over other VFDs, including the amount of funding received from local governments. Granbury is not an Emergency Services District, though there is a trend in Texas to move toward that type of fire department. Granbury also has an excellent training facility which other departments often request to use.

What kind of messaging would Hohon suggest for smaller volunteer departments with much less funding?

Photo credit: Granbury VFD

“As a volunteer, you want to make a difference,” he said. “When you are a volunteer firefighter, your impact is immediate. They say we’re an instant gratification society – with volunteer firefighting, your actions are immediately recognized. Use that in your marketing.”

He also suggested getting away from the stigma that a volunteer’s worth is related only to making calls.

“About sixty percent of our work [at Granbury VFD] is training, maintenance, meetings, inspections, testing, public outreach, community education, recruitment,” he said.

Indeed, recent messaging on social media from VFDs across Texas encourages volunteer work other than fighting fires, including mechanics, bookkeepers, fundraisers, maintenance and even just driving the fire trucks.

Another suggestion is for a VFD to become the local source of “news” – post information in a timely manner about accidents, road closures, weather alerts, wildfires, and more. Become the trusted agency to provide your community with accurate and useful info.

Despite his department receiving substantial operational funding, Hohon says he would prefer the department remain fully volunteer.

“I have the numbers to show our local taxpayers that if we moved to a paid department, which would cost $5.1 million a year at minimum, it would increase everyone’s annual tax bill upwards of $600,” he said. “Why would we want to add that burden to our residents?”

Volunteers with Granbury receive no pay for their work as firefighters, but the department created retirement accounts. Volunteers who make 25 percent of calls, receive 24 hours of training, and attend six business meetings a year can receive a nice little sum of money when they retire.

But what about the little guys who don’t have that kind of money? Valid question.

Photo credit: Eula VFD

About 20 miles east of Abilene, Fire Chief Roy Galinak said younger volunteers are starting to show up at Eula VFD. He believes part of the reason is that other younger volunteers, like Daniel Mendez, 22, are using their friendships and community connections to recruit.

“We now have four volunteers under age 30,” he said.

When Galinak came to Eula VFD back in 2009 as a volunteer, he was 32.

“I was one of the youngest firefighters in the department,” he recalled.

Galinak said Callahan County provides $1,000 each year to the department, which has about 20 members on the roster. Eula relies heavily on fundraisers and grant money to operate.

In terms of recruiting volunteers, Galinak said he hopes the younger members continue to spread the word to their peers. Eula doesn’t have much funding for advertising but believes word of mouth has been effective.

Over in Robinson VFD, near Waco, Chief Stephen Sullivan created a mutually beneficial partnership with local colleges to bring on volunteer EMS responders.

“There are pre-med students who are EMTs who want to gain clinical experience and volunteer hours. We need people to respond to calls,” he said. “They sign up to be on call at our station, two to three per shift.”

RVFD is also exploring adding a pension for its volunteers through the Texas Emergency Services Retirement System, which could attract some new members.

What about recruiting younger volunteers who aren’t students? Sullivan said social media is big, but they also find word-of-mouth most effective.

Photo credit: Robinson VFD

“When we’re out on calls, people don’t always know we’re a volunteer department,” he said. “We are a professional crew, but that’s a double-edged sword because people don’t realize we need more volunteers.”

RVFD also puts a link to its web site on its new fire apparatus. They also do some traditional recruiting, such as sending postcards through the mail. In his experience, though, the best volunteers are people you already know – friends, family, and co-workers.

“They are highly likely to succeed,” he said.

Additionally, Sullivan said Robinson VFD holds its volunteers to professional standards.

“We have high expectations,” he said.

Over at Community Volunteer Fire Department, which is now a combination department serving an area near Houston, nearly 130 of the 306 firefighters on the roster are volunteers.

In other areas of the state, historically, when a department becomes part-paid, volunteers often drop off. Yet at Community VFD, they are growing their volunteer base. Notably, at this department, stations are staffed 24/7 – with volunteers pulling evening and weekend shifts.

And according to Lt. Samantha Smith, who is charge of the department’s training program, “They receive a small stipend and are expected to cover six 12-hour shifts per month,” she said.

What keeps them coming back?

“Our volunteers work and train alongside paid staff and are held to the same high standards,” Smith said. “The work culture is strong, positive, inclusive, and builds on a family-friendly structure.”

Community VFD. Photo credit: Lt. Samantha Smith

To illustrate, Smith has a full-time job and is married with three children, but still volunteers.

She said a good portion of new volunteers are young – loosely defined as under 30. Her approach includes a junior firefighter program (for those under age 18) and effective use of social media.

“Many of our new recruits come to us because of what they see on social media,” she said. “They want to be a part of what we’re doing.”

Smith believes the junior program also has a way of attracting more young volunteers because they see other young people in the social media videos she films, edits, and posts.

When examining everything discussed above, this is the bottom line – volunteerism can succeed even in small towns and cities with little to no funding from external sources such as counties, cities, and Emergency Service Districts. Fire departments may need to make some changes and be more forward thinking, but as seen in the stories in this article, it can be done. Below are several ideas for volunteer recruitment and retention with an eye toward attracting younger volunteers.

Recruitment Ideas:

  • Professional standards and high expectations
  • Junior firefighter programs
  • Partnerships with local colleges
  • Effective, consistent social media content – show the training and professionalism of the department
  • Become the local trusted agency providing “news” (e.g., accidents, road closures, weather alerts)
  • Word-of-mouth (to friends but also on scene)
  • Retirement accounts – establish criteria for participation
  • Traditional advertising/marketing (when funding allows); e.g., web site sticker on trucks
  • Be visible in the community – parades, festivals, rodeos, sporting events

Kim Hilsenbeck is the marketing director for the State Firefighters’ & Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas.