Serving the Whole Community: Recruiting and Retaining Minority Firefighters

Practical tips for diversity, equity, and inclusion in your community

By Larry Conley

The American firefighter has many faces and backgrounds. Though the paid firefighter receives the most attention through media, movies, etc., most firefighters in America are volunteers. I have always felt that volunteer firefighters are extra special because they put themselves in harm’s way without monetary compensation. They do not have the incentive of pay or other benefits; these brave heroes operate from a different motivation. To be clear, paid firefighters are brave and selfless without question. Still, there is something additionally impressive about facing those same dangers for free. Volunteer firefighters usually have a loyalty to their community and a commitment to fire protection that supersedes the desire for money.

Unfortunately, for decades, African Americans were discouraged from joining the ranks of the fire service. Despite this history, many brave men and women have broken barriers to not only join the ranks of the fire service, but to serve with honor and distinction. In the career ranks, recruiting and hiring people of color has been a priority largely due to the push to comply with changing laws. The volunteer ranks have not always been subject to the same push. Recruitment in the volunteer ranks relies more heavily on the commitment of the department.

Therefore, the question is how can we address the need to recruit more people of color in our volunteer ranks? How do we make our volunteer service an appealing option to young African American candidates? In this article, we will discuss some of the historical barriers and some possible solutions in an effort to increase the number of people of color in the volunteer fire service.

The Need to Recruit and Retain

In 2020, volunteer fire departments faced an all-time recruitment low nationwide. Some of the contributing factors to this decline are increased time demands, more rigorous training, and the proliferation of two-income households, leaving less time to volunteer. Fire departments are also required to provide a wide range of services and multi-hazard response, creating further challenges for resource-constrained departments.

Even career departments – with pay and other incentives – find it difficult to recruit and retain firefighters. They wrestle with a change in how workers approach careers in today’s job market. When I came on the job 30 years ago, the average person joined a department with the intention to retire from that department. These days a person may switch careers 10 times before retirement. Volunteer departments face a steeper uphill battle because they lack some of the obvious incentives that attract firefighters to career departments.

A Look at the Data

Though history tells us African American firefighters have had an impact on the fire service going back to the 1800s, the percentage of participation has been relatively and remarkably low. This was in large part due to discrimination and prejudice. As times changed and tolerance increased, African Americans and other minorities increased their presence in the fire service. Today, we are still experiencing “firsts” in the fire service, where African Americans are realizing positions on the command level with higher levels of pay and prestige. The commitment to join and retain a position in a volunteer unit has to be based on other things, such as community, camaraderie, and pride.

Ninety-one percent of American firefighters are men, and eighty-two percent are white. Black firefighters make up about eight percent of firefighters. The numbers are less in the volunteer rural communities. Blacks are the minority in the United States, so there will never be equal numbers in the fire service. However, when the demographics of a community dictate it, there should be an effort to get the fire department to match the demographic.

Throughout history, minority groups, like African Americans, were given subtle (and not so subtle) messages that said the honor of serving as a firefighter was not for them. While that has changed in the service, it remains in the minds of African Americans. The sense of belonging, of being a part of the community at large, was curtailed. Though things are much better across the country, some old thought patterns remain. If we want to reach these groups, we have to stop seeing them as marginalized. It is time for the fire service to make a concerted effort to encourage various communities to join volunteer departments across the country and there are a few ways this can happen.

Personal Connections

Whether the community is served by a career or volunteer fire service, reaching the African American/Black community requires recruitment to be more intentional. White firefighters, in many cases, have more of a legacy that benefits them. For instance, white firefighters may have uncles, fathers, friends, or cousins who served before them. This gives a potential firefighter information and orientation of what the job is about, which may help motivate them to join and also gives the interested candidate an edge so they can be more competitive in the testing process.

Conversely, the Black community may not receive information in the same way, which leads to a slower recruitment process. Black fire organizations and other community stakeholders become surrogate relatives and friends to spread the word regarding fire service opportunities. These initiatives help even the playing field for the job.

One example is the Firefighters Institute for Racial Equality (F.I.R.E), a St. Louis, MO, based organization whose focus is to concentrate on recruiting, retention, and upward mobility for African American firefighters. F.I.R.E. consider themselves the surrogate family member who informs, prepares, and coaches the careers of minorities on the job.

Unfortunately, not all areas in the United States have an organization focused on recruiting and retaining minority firefighters. Those communities need to be intentional about diversity to recruit based on the demographics they serve. This starts with having a plan, which should include finding other ways to make those critical personal connections.

The importance of finding opportunities for personal connections cannot be understated when it comes to recruiting volunteers. My brother, David, and I travel the country teaching personal leadership to first responders. In our travels, we have encountered many brave volunteer firefighters. In conversations with them, we discovered that what attracted them to volunteer firefighting was the influence of a group or individual in their family or community. A lot of the people we talked to said they found the fire service through Explorer and other junior firefighter programs or a family member who was already a member of the volunteer service. These people and organizations instilled a sense of service and dedication to protecting and preserving the community where these firefighters lived. That community seemed to support the efforts of the volunteer service in the area, because they realized the importance of having passionate heroes ready to defend their life and property.

Invest in Youth Programs

College isn’t for everyone, and you don’t need a college degree to be an entry level firefighter. Starting with a volunteer department can lead to a rewarding career. This can be a powerful option for minority candidates looking to learn marketable skills. Firefighting can be learned for a fraction of the cost of college tuition, if there is cost at all.

We can also reach out to candidates before they are college age through junior firefighter programs. Young people in middle and high schools can find inspirational activities to engage in that will inspire them to pursue a position in a volunteer department when they come of age. If there is no existing junior firefighter program in your area, organize one. Junior firefighter programs encourage the chain of command in the fire service. When juniors experience moving up the ranks, they learn leadership skills at an early age. For the minority firefighter, this can provide the tools and confidence needed to impact the volunteer organization and improve that individual’s life.

Junior firefighter programs are great foundational teams because – depending on the community’s demographics – juniors learn about working in a diverse setting. Volunteer or career firefighters all benefit knowing how to work with one another.

Engage with the Community

Most people want to be part of a winning team. Make sure your volunteer organization is a winning team to increase the attraction. This means making sure your department is well trained, but also highly visible in the communities you want to recruit from.

Volunteer fire departments can engage with African American/Black community leaders to reach their stakeholders with volunteer opportunities for firefighters by:

  • Holding informational sessions: Volunteer fire departments can hold informational sessions in African American/Black community centers, churches, or other locations where Black leaders and their stakeholders will likely be present. These sessions allow firefighters to explain the benefits of volunteering, the available training and support, and how volunteering can help build a more robust and safer community.
  • Creating partnerships: Volunteer fire departments can partner with Black community organizations, such as churches, civic groups, or social clubs. These partnerships can help build trust and credibility with black leaders and their stakeholders and provide a platform for promoting volunteer opportunities.
  • Using social media: Volunteer fire departments can use social media platforms, such as Facebook, X, or Instagram, to reach Black leaders and their stakeholders. Social media is an avenue to share information about volunteer opportunities, highlight current volunteers’ experiences, and build community among potential volunteers.

By engaging with Black community leaders, volunteer fire departments can reach their stakeholders with volunteer opportunities and build a more robust and safer community.

We have to be careful in understanding that we don’t want to just check a race box when looking for firefighters, but we should make sure that people who want to be firefighters are fully aware of the opportunity and potential the position has to offer. Oftentimes, the calling and motivation are the same regardless of race, creed, or color: to grow as an individual, serve a greater good, and protect your community.

Note: The International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, Inc. is an international organization with a ‘boots-on-the-ground’ approach to foster specialized community resources based on the needs in that particular area. Learn more about regional and local chapters at

Larry C. Conley is the founder and president of Leadership Development Concepts. He has been empowering firefighters in his 20-plus years as a fire instructor and is a 30-year veteran of the fire service. He is a retired captain/EMT with the St. Louis (MO) Fire Department and past chief instructor in the firefighter 1 and 2 programs at the Highlander Fire Academy, St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. Conley is a Fire Instructor II, a Missouri State Lead Evaluator, and a past director at large with the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fire administration and is currently the deputy chief of training/safety for the Collinsville (IL) Fire Department. Along with his brother, he served as the keynote speaker for FDIC 2021 with their critically acclaimed message POWERless. Conley, his brother, and their mother host The Larry Conley Radio Show on Fire Engineering blogtalk radio. He is the camp director at the Midwest Children’s Burn Camp, where he has volunteered for over 20 years.