Recruiting Women as Structural Firefighters, Part III: The Recruitment Drive

Some fire departments do a generalized publicity effort when their test is announced or, in the case of volunteer departments, when more firefighters are needed. The purpose of the publicity is to get job information to as many potential applicants as possible. Many departments, however, have found that large numbers of white men will apply for firefighter positions even if the openings are not publicized. This can be because of a strong family-and-friends tradition within the department, or more generally because white men as a group are well aware the fire service is a career option for them.

A department that wishes to increase the diversity of its workforce may decide instead to focus its limited resources of time and money on a recruitment effort that targets groups under-represented in the workforce or applicant pool. While no one is discouraged from applying for the job and no applications are rejected, the natural tendency for the existing workforce to self-recruit is counterbalanced by publicity aimed at those who might not otherwise apply. Without deliberate intervention in the form of targeted recruitment, the majority of applicants will continue to be from the existing majority group in the fire service, white men.

Setting up a recruitment program involves planning, commitment, creativity, and often the coordinated work of a number of people from different city departments. A recruiting drive can be as basic as one person with a slide show working for three weeks, or as complex as a fully staffed division operating over the course of a year. The exact details of the project will vary considerably depending on several factors, including:

  • The size and resources of the particular fire department;
  • The goals of the recruitment program;
  • The amount of time available for recruiting;
  • The make-up of the community and the labor pool; and
  • The skills and commitment of the people who design and deliver the program.

Whatever its dimensions, a well-designed and carefully organized recruitment program will always achieve greater success than one that is haphazard or based on misconceptions. Certain key elements will be present, in one form or another, in any effective and successful recruitment drive. These elements, discussed in detail below, include:

  • Management support;
  • Careful recruitment team selection;
  • Realistic schedule;
  • Targeted recruitment materials;
  • Publicity within the community;
  • Effective use of the media;
  • Orientation sessions and open houses; and
  • Physical test preparation sessions.

Management support

Fire department leadership must firmly support the recruitment and integration of women into the department. All aspects of the recruiting effort must reflect management's sincere commitment not only to bring women firefighters onto the department but to support a diverse fire service workforce. Management can support recruitment in the following crucial ways:

  • Obtaining the funding necessary to make the program a success -- by making it a priority within the department's budget, by seeking additional city funds (such as from the personnel department or other agencies concerned with equal employment opportunity), or by obtaining donations from sources in the community. Free technical assistance from community organizations funded by state or federal job training programs may also be available.
  • Making other resources available in order to maximize the allocated funds. This might include vehicles, office space and equipment, or the reassignment of fire personnel and support staff. Resources can also be borrowed from other city departments, who may be able to provide prior applicant lists for other non-traditional jobs, photographic and darkroom work, audiovisual equipment and expertise, and so forth.
  • Working with other city departments, if necessary, to get adequate lead time (the time between the day the test is announced and the day it is given, during which most recruitment will be done). Many firefighter recruitment efforts are doomed from the start because the fire department can not get more than four to six weeks' notice before a test will be given. The fire service manager should also help settle any jurisdictional or procedural problems that affect recruitment.
  • Demonstrating leadership by representing the program positively to elected officials in order to obtain their support, and by making public statements, particularly in the media, in support of the recruitment effort and of hiring women and people of color.

Public statements should not emphasize numbers as a measure of the success of a recruitment effort. If potential candidates and incumbent firefighters perceive (correctly or incorrectly) that management just wants to hire women to get numbers to fill a hiring goal, the sincerity and effectiveness of recruitment will be severely undermined. Saying "We want to hire ten women" implies two things, and both of them are negative: first, that you will hire ten women just to hire women, even if not all of them are qualified; and second, that if more than ten qualified women apply, you will not hire the others. It can also make your recruitment drive appear to have been a failure if you only end up hiring nine women.
Instead, make a positive "goals statement" that emphasizes your commitment to diversify your firefighting workforce and to support its diversity in meaningful ways. For example, one fire department said in its job announcement:

We are looking for professionals who want to be part of a progressive, innovative fire department. Our goal is to have a workforce that reflects the diversity of our community. Women and people of color are especially encouraged to apply.

Recruitment team selection

Select members of your recruitment team who have qualities that will make them effective. Don't choose recruiters for reasons that make sense from a limited perspective but are irrelevant or unproductive when it comes to recruitment, such as:

  • They have always been in charge of recruitment;
  • They are injured or pregnant and need a light-duty assignment; or
  • They belong to one of the groups being targeted for recruitment.

All of these practices can create problems. People who have "always" done recruitment will probably continue to produce the kind of candidates they've produced in the past. If these are not the people you're looking for, it could be time to make a staffing change. A firefighter who has been removed from the line for injury or some other reason is usually chosen for the department's convenience, not because of his or her qualifications to be a good recruiter. (If such people should happen to possess the skills you need, however, they certainly should not be overlooked.) And although it is less obvious, the same is true of firefighters or officers who belong to the targeted groups.

Women firefighters who have an interest in recruitment should be used at orientation sessions and other public-contact points where women who are potential candidates will want to hear from, and ask questions of, women on the job. But a good speaker or advocate is not necessarily a good program manager. Women firefighters assigned to coordinate recruiting programs often have few credentials for the job and, in some cases, little interest in it. Use the valuable abilities and enthusiasm of women who want to be involved, if they have the abilities you need, but don't assume someone will be a good recruiter just because she's a woman and a firefighter.

Identify the skills you will need on your recruiting team before you (or the person in charge of recruitment) pick its members. Interest in, and commitment to, the recruiting drive, are prerequisites: no one should be chosen who does not want to be involved. Useful skills and traits include:

  • Education and experience in marketing and public relations;
  • Organizational skills;
  • Graphic arts skills;
  • Writing skills;
  • Public speaking skills on camera or radio, and before groups;
  • Computer literacy;
  • Bilingual ability, if your community is ethnically diverse;
  • Ties with targeted groups; and
  • Reliability and the ability to meet deadlines.

No one will possess all of these traits. Diversity on the team is important for that reason as well as to provide the flexibility and the range of creativity that will permit a variety of approaches. The recruitment coordinator and other top recruiters must also have good organizational skills and be able to work well together in a concerted effort.

The people involved in the recruitment program may come from various areas. They may include firefighters and non-suppression personnel, support staff from the fire department or other city or county departments, community volunteers, and members of other fire departments (if your own department has few or no women, or if you are participating in joint recruitment). Smaller fire departments may also need to borrow the clerical or computer services of other city departments.

Whatever the size of your department, tap all of its resources. A recruitment program is very similar to a public education effort, and your public education division should be a gold mine of assistance. They know how to scale a motivational message to a target audience and present that message in a way the audience will understand and respond to. Similarly, your public information officer has skills and contacts that can be very useful in designing and distributing press releases and in getting media coverage of recruitment events.

Use community volunteers to distribute literature and to make contacts with various community groups. Small departments with limited budgets may also be able to find people who will donate their professional skills to design a brochure. Local businesses might donate all or part of the cost of printing literature and posters for the recruitment drive. Cable-access television channels may provide video production equipment and editing facilities. Fitness centers and gyms may be willing to offer discount memberships to firefighter applicants preparing for the test.

Setting up the schedule

The recruitment coordinator is responsible for the program's overall design. This means determining what types of fire department and community resources are to be used, what kind of media publicity will be required, what the priority markets are, and what is to be done when. The first step is to identify all of the tasks to be completed. At a minimum, the recruitment team will need to:

  • Develop the budget for the recruitment program, based on total allotted funds and any donated resources;
  • Identify useful community resources, make preliminary contact with key people in each group, and get the dates of their regular meetings and any pertinent special events;
  • Identify career fairs and similar events scheduled during the recruitment period;
  • Write brochures, test information, and other literature, and have them printed;
  • Design and print posters and other items requiring graphic art or photography;
  • Write television and radio public service announcements (PSA's), newspaper advertisements and press releases; arrange for newspaper articles and television news coverage;
  • Announce the recruitment drive through any online connections your department has, and on your city's Web page;
  • Produce videotapes for orientation sessions and test familiarization;
  • Schedule orientation sessions;
  • Set up "open house" dates at fire stations;
  • Set up physical performance test practice sessions and written test study sessions;
  • Get the necessary logistical support: vehicles, office space and supplies, phone lines, voice mail, fax machine, chairs, audiovisual equipment, security for office use at night, etc.

Arrange the tasks into a schedule, time line or action plan. This should include when each task must be done, who will do it, how long it will take, and what resources will be needed. Allow time for unforeseen delays: don't schedule a major event for the day after needed materials are due from the printer. If bad weather might cancelan event, schedule an alternate date in advance.

Recruitment efforts must be given adequate time in order to be effective, particularly when the recruitment is aimed at women. Deciding to become a firefighter is not an easy decision for many women. Issues of self-image and self-confidence, a partner or spouse who may not be supportive or understanding, questions about child care and having to be away from one's family for 24 hours at a time, and the risk involved in leaving a job to start something new and uncertain all frequently arise and can not be resolved quickly. Women may also need time in which to prepare for the physical test and the physical demands of the job.

If you are limited by decisions made by others -- for example, Human Resources or Civil Service sets the test date and will only give you a few weeks' notice -- many of the above items can be developed in advance and kept on hold until the date is known. Write the program budget, contact community resource people, select the recruitment team and coordinator, establish a time line, and draft all written materials, leaving the date and other undetermined factors blank. If the physical test will not be changed before it is given, make the videotape that explains and demonstrates it. Contact reporters from the local papers and television stations to let them know of the events they will be able to cover once recruitment is underway. Fire departments that can not obtain adequate lead time for an effective recruitment drive must also rely heavily on the ongoing, year-round types of recruitment discussed in Part II.

Recruitment materials aimed at the target group

In designing and writing your recruitment materials, remember you are trying to appeal to a different group of candidates from those who have traditionally applied for the job. Recruiting women to become firefighters is not just a matter of going to places where there are lots of women and handing out the usual information about application deadlines and test dates. The content and image of your message must be different and must address cultural preconceptions that women have about themselves and the job. A brochure or insert specifically aimed at women candidates can be highly effective.

Your primary piece of recruitment literature should be a brochure that presents information about three things: the job of firefighting, your fire department, and the upcoming testing process. The design should be simple enough that you can afford to have hundreds or thousands of copies printed up for wide distribution.

Some departments have their literature produced professionally and find the results well worth the investment. If no funds are available for this, it is possible to put out a high-quality product in-house. A compromise is to have a single sheet or folded flyer produced professionally that contains information that will not change (about the job and the department), and add to this the material produced by the department. Because the cover sheet or exterior of the flyer can be used for several years, you will not have to reinvest in its production, and you can take advantage of volume discounts in the original printing. Your own added material, which contains information about the next test, current salary and benefits, etc., keeps the literature up to date. Leave room for an address and postage on the outside of the brochure to make it easy to mail.

The brochure should explain all aspects of the firefighter's job, including its rewards and its demands. Women are attracted to firefighting for many of the same reasons men are: the challenge of a physically demanding job, the rewards of performing a service to the community, and good pay and benefits. All of these should be emphasized.

In writing your brochure, keep in mind how little the average non-firefighter knows about firefighting and the other work firefighters do. Women in particular may have inaccurate preconceptions about the job that can either keep them from applying or lead to problems later on, when the job turns out to be different from what they expected. Do not understate the risks involved in the job, but don't overemphasize them, either. Make it clear that all recruits will be fully trained before ever having to deal with an emergency, and that safety is always a priority. Discuss recruit training: how long it lasts, what the schedule is, what is taught. If your station facilities are designed to accommodate a workforce of women and men, be sure to mention that.

Use gender-neutral language in the recruitment brochure. This means not referring to firefighters as "he," substituting terms like "staffing" for "manning," and saying "women" and not "females." Seemingly little things contribute in big ways to the impression you make. The overall message should not be that women can manage to perform the job of firefighter and somehow fit into a "man's" job, but that women are a valuable asset to the fire service, and can enjoy productive careers there. Photos or drawings in the brochure should include people of both sexes and a variety of ages, sizes, and ethnic backgrounds.

Your literature should also include the customary information about pay, hours and benefits, pension plan, number of stations the department has, average call load, and so forth. It should also provide clear explanations of the following items:

  • Details of the application, testing and hiring processes, including age limits for hiring, eyesight requirements, medical examination, and drug screening;
  • How and where to get application forms;
  • Whether applications will be available by mail or can be picked up by one person for another;
  • What to bring if applications must be picked up in person (for example, proof of identity, citizenship, or city residency);
  • Whether picking up or turning in an application early is important, such as in the case of a scoring tie or if the number of applications to be given out is limited; and
  • Whether applications must be filled out on the spot, or may be returned by mail.
  • Information about the testing process should indicate which test will be given first, and when and how applicants will be notified whether they have passed and if they are to go on to the next step in the process. If handbooks or other study materials are to be distributed for the written test, include information on how to obtain them.

Explain in detail what the physical performance test entails and how it will be administered and scored. List the dates and places of test practice sessions, or provide a phone number to call for this information. If child care will be available at practice sessions or at the test itself, mention that. Provide information on other resources available through the fire department or elsewhere, such as through the union, other firefighters' groups, and the community. These might include:

  • A videotape about the physical performance test that explains all of its components and demonstrates techniques that may be used to accomplish them,
  • Weight-training classes or gym memberships,
  • Current firefighters who will serve as mentors to candidates,
  • Open-house dates, or other opportunities for station visits, and
  • Test-taking study sessions, support groups, or assistance in finding a fitness training partner.

All recruitment literature, whether contracted out to a private company or produced by one firefighter with a desktop publishing program on a home computer, must be neat and professional. Literature that looks sloppy, contains misspellings and grammatical or typographical errors, and generally appears to have been hastily done and given low priority, makes a negative statement about your department and your commitment to recruiting women. Attractive, professional materials can be produced at relatively little expense.

Have someone who is not in the fire service proofread the material, not only for errors but to see if it makes sense to someone unfamiliar with the field. If an outside agency produces your literature, check their text for correct use of terminology. Most non-firefighters don't know that a fire engine is not a fire truck, and the fire service itself doesn't agree on what a "rescue unit" is.

Posters. Fire departments that have asked applicants how they learned about job openings have often found posters are a low-percentage effort. (The winners were newspapers, direct mailing of literature to potential candidates, and knowing someone on the department.) Posters are usually produced outside the department, due to the technical demands of the process. If you do go to the expense of producing and distributing them, they should be of high quality. The typical poster consists of a color or black-and-white photo and a caption such as "Can you fill these shoes?"(with a photo of fire boots), "We're looking for a few good women," or "It takes all kinds to make a fire department."

Posters may be effective recruiting tools if they are well designed to appeal to your target group, and if they are placed in the right locations. They may work better in smaller towns than in big cities where there is more competition for people's visual attention. They may possibly be more effective for long-range recruitment, if they are posted where they can remain for some time and more people will see them. As a courtesy to the businesses or other agencies where you place the posters, send someone around to collect them once the information is out of date. Posters placed where they are subject to vandalism or graffiti should be checked periodically for replacement or removal.

Videotapes. Videotape technology has created a revolution in information-sharing that the fire service has only begun to exploit. It is relatively inexpensive to produce videotapes and make them available to support your recruitment drive.

One tape should deal with your entry-level physical test, demonstrating each element of the test both separately and as it falls into the testing process. Use women and smaller men among those demonstrating the test items and evolutions, particularly the events that are most affected by height, leverage and technique. Make sure your test will not change after the videotape is made: the tape must be accurate and give as much helpful information as possible. The tapes should be available on loan. If your department does not wish to handle this, you may be able to negotiate an agreement with local video rental stores.

You may also wish to develop a videotape for use at orientation sessions and other informational events such as booths at Career Fairs. This tape should provide information about the job, and about being a woman firefighter, from the woman's perspective. It might include footage from actual fires, training sessions, "life in the station" scenes, and interviews with women firefighters on the job and at home. Be sure to include more than one woman, to show a diversity of backgrounds, sizes, ages, and personalities.

Publicity within the community

Following are examples of locations or organizations where it may be most effective to publicize job openings, place posters, leave flyers, and speak to interested groups or to individual women.

  • Colleges and universities
  • High schools, if your minimum hiring age is 18
  • Athletic clubs, teams, and events: universities, colleges, and community colleges; women's softball, basketball, and volleyball leagues; runs and triathlons; women's powerlifting and body-building competitions; self-defense training schools
  • Gyms and fitness centers
  • Career fairs
  • Military bases and discharge centers
  • Factories and union offices
  • Women's advocacy groups, women's commissions, YWCA, 4-H, Girl Scouts, American Association of University Women, etc.
  • Minority-employment and tradeswomen's networks
  • Church and other groups in specific ethnic communities
  • Other departments within your city or county government: water, parks and recreation, sanitation, etc.
  • Agencies that offer fire recruit training
  • Volunteer fire departments, and smaller career departments, particularly if your department does not have a residency requirement
  • Wildland firefighting agencies, particularly if you are recruiting towards the end of the fire season (in the fall)

Use your current personnel as recruiters, not only with the public but with people they know personally. Family members and friends of current firefighters and police officers, and non-suppression employees of the fire department, are two key sources of potential recruits. These people are already somewhat familiar with the demands and rewards of the job, and often with how the department functions.

Effective use of the media

The media are the least expensive and most useful resource for your recruitment effort. At very little cost to you, they will deliver your message into the homes of thousands of people. Not only should you use them for classified ads and public service announcements, but they will often be willing to cover your recruitment events as news or feature stories. Small-town newspapers are especially useful, as they are often in need of material, and their subscribers often read the paper in great detail.

Some fire departments have gotten the media to cover their recruitment drives by inviting a woman reporter to go through the physical test, or to spend a day in the station. This can be a gamble: if the reporter can't complete any of the test events, the job will seem off-limits to women. Providing her with some preliminary training on the events, or suggesting that the station or paper send a reporter who is physically fit and active, may help. Even better, have a woman firefighter go through the events (successfully) at the same time the reporter does, especially if cameras are present.

Encourage reporters to promote the idea that being a firefighter is neither easy nor impossible for women; point to the number of skilled and successful women already on the job in your department or in the area. Reporters will usually be grateful for a fact sheet about women firefighters, to use as background for their stories. Providing this information will help prevent the media from portraying women firefighters as though they were unusual, even if the women you're recruiting will be the first ones in your department.

Local cable-access channels will usually show your orientation videotape if you provide them with a copy. They may be willing to show the tape in conjunction with an interview or call-in show where representatives of the fire department discuss firefighting as a career for women and give information about job openings.

The broadcast media are required to dedicate a certain amount of free air time to public service announcements (PSA's). Fire departments can take advantage of this to publicize their recruitment drive. Videotaped television spots should feature visuals of women firefighters on the job. Radio announcements, and television spots that do not have visuals, should use women's voices. The text of your PSA's should be consistent with your written handout materials, and in fact much of it can come directly from your literature.

If your department is large, has an attractive location, offers particularly good pay and benefits, or is able to hire firefighters from elsewhere on a lateral-entry basis, consider advertising nationally in fire service trade journals or women firefighters' publications. Keep in mind, though, that monthly periodicals often require a lengthy lead time; be prepared to submit material to them well in advance. Women firefighters' organizations may also be able to provide you with recruitment brochures, videotapes, and other helpful materials.

Orientation sessions and open houses

Speaking to groups of potential job candidates is a key element of recruitment. Hold orientation sessions for potential candidates at times and locations convenient to them. Providing child care during the sessions will not only make it possible for more women to attend but will demonstrate your department's commitment to hiring women and its awareness of women's needs.

Speakers at the sessions should include firefighters and officers, both women and men, of varying ethnic and personal backgrounds. Their material should include a basic description of what firefighters do, in down-to-earth, non-technical and unglamorized terms. It should also describe the testing and training processes. Women firefighters should talk about their experience on the job: what it's been like for them and why they enjoy the work. A high-ranking officer should be present to reaffirm the fire department's commitment to cultural diversity and equal employment opportunity. All speakers should be positive about the job, honest about its demands and accessible to candidates' questions. Showing your recruitment videotape at the beginning should reduce the amount of time needed for questions. You may also wish to have firefighters' protective equipment or fire apparatus on hand.

Distribute applications to all who are interested, if your personnel system allows you to do so. If not, it may allow you to distribute interest cards by which individuals can request that an application be mailed to them. If even this is not possible, have each attendee fill out a card with his or her name, address and phone number. The cards should be coded so you can track how productive each event was.

Open-house sessions provide a chance for candidates to come into selected fire stations, view the apparatus and facilities, and talk with firefighters and officers. When scheduling these events, consider the suitability of the particular crew, the convenience of the time and location for the target audience, the type of apparatus and station responsibilities (SCUBA team, Hazmat unit), etc. Recruitment personnel should be present as well, particularly if you don't plan to take the station out of service. Some fire departments offer open houses on a regular basis as part of their year-round recruitment effort, as well as for community and neighborhood relations.

All of your fire stations should function as recruitment outposts throughout the recruitment drive. Copies of recruitment literature and, if possible, applications, should be available at all stations. All department personnel should be able to answer basic questions about the testing and hiring processes.

Test preparation sessions

Physical test preparation sessions, task-specific physical training programs, study-skills sessions, test-taking workshops, and mentoring programs can all play an important role in the success of a recruitment effort. See Part IV of this article for more information.

Program evaluation

When the recruitment effort is over, evaluate the program's effectiveness. The applicants themselves can provide direct and constructive feedback. A space on the application form asking how the person heard about the job, and an evaluation form to be filled out by attendees at orientation sessions or viewers of videotapes, can help you determine where your efforts can be improved.

Save the data base you have developed on potential candidates and use it as part of your mailing list for the next recruiting drive. If your eligibility list is likely to last for some time, implement a way to maintain contact with women who are on the list but haven't yet been hired. This will let them know they haven't been forgotten, and will increase the chances they'll stay interested in the job.

Each member of the recruitment team, and other people who had a significant part in the effort, should write a report. This should be followed by a meeting of everyone involved. A final report with recommendations for change and an action plan for implementation of the changes should be forwarded to the fire chief or appropriate member of top management. Follow-up letters of thanks from the recruitment coordinator or fire chief to all community members who donated services or money are not only polite but make future donations more likely.

This article is adapted from material developed by WFS under contract to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's U.S. Fire Administration, and published by FEMA/USFA as Many Faces, One Purpose: A Manager's Handbook on Women in Firefighting. It may be accessed free of charge from our site: Info Packets.




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