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1-800-FIRE-LINE Aids Connecticut's Recruitment Challenges

**The following article appeared in the March, 2000 edition of the NVFC; Dispatch and is reprinted here with permission:

By Jeffrey J. Morrissette, State Fire Administrator

Like most other states, Connecticut's volunteer fire service is experiencing some difficulty in recruiting new volunteers and retaining current members. Many of the reasons for the shortage of volunteer personnel are similar to those faced in every state. Compounding the shortage is Connecticut's highest in the nation per capita income, low unemployment, above average cost of living and a large percentage of citizens commuting out of town and in many cases out of state for work. Thousands of Fairfield county residents leave their quintessential New England towns early each morning hopping a commuter train to New York City not returning until evening. For most, volunteering is not what they want to do when they return home. With nearly 80% of our state's 30,000 firefighters being volunteer, the Connecticut Commission on Fire Prevention and Control is very concerned with this issue.

Shortages in volunteer fire and EMS staffing have been evident within Connecticut over the last decade. In 1988 the Commission conducted a survey on volunteerism. At that time, 73.5% of the volunteer departments responding to the survey indicated they were experiencing a shortage of active members. A survey conducted in January, 2000 showed that 80% of the departments responding reported they are currently experiencing a shortage. Although a vast majority of departments reporting shortages indicated personnel was most limited during weekdays, several others reported shortages at all times while others reported problems during nights and weekends. Recognizing the escalating problem, the Commission was asked in late 1997 by Bill Lewis, President of the Connecticut Fire Chiefs Association to consider adopting the National Volunteer Fire Council's (NVFC) 800-FIRE LINE program. In January, 1998, Ed Cohn and Alan Musicant, both representing the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs Recruitment and Retention Committee, traveled to Connecticut to conduct a presentation to the Commission on the success they had with implementing the toll free fire line in their state. The Commission immediately voted to adopt the FIRE LINE program and serve as the focal point for this effort. The wheels were set in motion to implement the program with a target date of July 1, 1998.

The first order of business was to solicit information from all states that had adopted the program. We were most interested in what worked well and what did not. How was the program administered? What type of advertising was done? Was there a budget established to support the program? Another question asked was whether any of the state programs maintained statistics in respect to calls received, number of referrals made and the actual number of referrals that eventually were accepted into membership with a department. We quickly learned that most states either did not maintain statistics or the statistics were incomplete. Once the program was implemented in our state we felt it would be important to maintain high quality data in order to properly gauge its effectiveness. Our second order of business was to requisition the installation of the toll-free phone line. It was decided the answering point would be the Commission offices located at the Connecticut Fire Academy. We wanted to ensure the line would be monitored and that calls received after business hours would be returned in a timely manner. The Connecticut Fire Chiefs Association Radio Technical Advisory Committee, through former NVFC Chairman Red McKeon, even offered to pick-up our monthly expense for the toll-free telephone line.

The task of implementing the program now began to outgrow my ability to coordinate it while focusing on agency responsibilities. A part-time coordinator, our former State Director of Fire Training, Andy Ouellette, who had recently retired offered his services to the project. This was helpful as Andy had, in his previous position, worked with all the state's fire departments in the past. We agreed he would bring the program through its first six months after which we would evaluate the need for a dedicated coordinator.

Next, we sent a letter to every Connecticut fire chief announcing the program and asking for their support. Articles were written about our efforts and submitted to local fire service publications and to the monthly publication of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. One challenge we knew we would face was determining where calls should be referred. In many communities there exist situations where there is more than one fire department or district. We asked the chiefs in each community to designate a single point of contact who would represent each fire department/district within the community. We did not want to be responsible for possibly referring calls to the wrong fire department/district within a community. In most cases the chiefs cooperated and offered a single point of contact. In some communities, the mayor, first selectman, or town manager's office offered to serve as the point of contact for referrals. With the majority of local contacts in place, we were well on our way.

Although referrals to volunteer fire departments were our first priority, we wanted to offer callers to the toll-free line options. Therefore we also established contacts with local volunteer ambulance groups, the American Red Cross, local search and rescue organizations and the Civil Air Patrol. Approximately three days before our implementation date, a series of embargoed press releases were sent to the print, radio and television media. Almost immediately calls began to be received requesting phone and television interviews. The interviews were scheduled to coincide with our implementation date of July 1. The articles, radio spots and television interviews were directly responsible for more than a dozen calls the first day. The direct correlation between the television spots and calls was very evident because many calls were received about the same time the evening news was being aired. In many cases you could hear a television or radio playing in the background of the call.

At the time the program was implemented, attention to the fire service was high due to severe brush fires taking place in Florida. Unfortunately, one of our television interviews directly followed a news story about the need for more firefighters to help battle the blazes in the southeast. Viewers misunderstood and thought the two stories were connected further thinking we were soliciting volunteers to travel to Florida to fight the fires there. We could have had a bus load full of volunteers headed to Florida. Not quite what we had in mind. We tried to make the best of this situation as it provided us an opportunity to speak to the callers and give them some insight into the volunteer fire and emergency services and our needs here in Connecticut. A few referrals were generated through this mechanism.

To further advertise the program we coordinated with the NVFC and the Prudential Foundation to send their nine minute promotional video "What if no one answered the call?" to every public and private library and high school in the state. This service was at no cost to our agency. Our only responsibility was to send the NVFC a mailing list and they took care of the rest. They even included in this mass mailing a letter from my office explaining the purpose of the tape and asking the schools to consider previewing it for their students. In our letter we also encouraged the schools to contact their local fire department and ask them to provide a speaker for a future assembly. The videos were sent out in a timely manner and many letters of thanks were received from librarians and school superintendents.

Other efforts to promote the FIRE LINE program include the production of small street signs which fire departments may purchase and customize with their own logo as well as maintaining a small inventory of other NVFC FIRE LINE promotional items. We also encouraged departments to integrate the toll free telephone number into their local recruitment efforts. Some local fire service entrepreneurs have worked with local cable television and radio stations to promote volunteerism and advertise the FIRE LINE. Without a doubt the key to success is constant local and statewide promotion.

Many states have produced both video and audio public service announcements (PSA) touting the FIRE LINE. In many cases the governor's of those states serve as the spokesperson. In Connecticut, our Lieutenant Governor M. Jodi Rell, has agreed to serve as our spokesperson for recruitment and plans are underway to produce several PSAs in the near future. Lt. Governor Rell is most interested due to her connection with the fire service. Her husband has served as a volunteer firefighter and she as part of the auxiliary in her hometown. Also, her brother recently retired as a career firefighter in Nebraska. Thus, she can and will speak from the heart.

It is our hope to purchase television airtime as was recently done in South Carolina, in addition to asking stations to air the PSAs as true public service announcements. Were also exploring the use of movie trailer at the cinemas statewide. We feel this broad-based approach will ensure adequate exposure to the proper demographic target audience. We intend to solicit funding from some of our state's insurance companies to help defray the cost of marketing. Production of the PSAs will be accomplished through the Connecticut Department of Public Safety's Division of State Police Video Production Unit.

Coinciding with the introduction of the FIRE LINE program, the Commission hosted several informal open forums throughout the state to permit volunteer chiefs and local recruitment personnel to network and share what recruitment and retention strategies work in their community. Guest speakers representing the NVFC, IAFC Volunteer Section and the State of New Jersey's Recruitment and Retention Committee attended these forums and shared ideas and programs with the attendees. These forums will continue 2-3 times per year until such time participants feel they are no longer of value. Since its inception in July, 1998, Connecticut's FIRE LINE program has received 224 calls with approximately 50% referred directly to local fire, EMS, Red Cross and Civil Air Patrol groups. Our desire to maintain good quality data on referrals has been hampered by departments not following-up and supplying us as requested with feedback on whether our referral was accepted as a member. We intend to conduct a more comprehensive follow-up on the disposition of each referral with each department.

In addition to the implementation of the FIRE LINE program, the Connecticut General Assembly passed enabling legislation during the 1999 Legislative Session permitting the legislative body of any municipality to pass a local ordinance to abate up to one thousand dollars in property taxes. This coupled with local LOSAP programs and other incentives will hopefully slow the hemorrhaging of volunteers in our state.

The program has and will continue to be most helpful in elevating the public's attention to the challenges faced by Connecticut's volunteer fire service. Indirect benefits of the program have been the stimulation and sharing of recruitment and retention strategies statewide. Many local committees and task forces have been formed as a result of the FIRE LINE. We are most indebted to those departments that have been aggressively marketing their recruitment program and the FIRE LINE in their area. Many traditional and non-traditional campaigns have been employed. Although there does not appear to be a total cure for the recruitment and retention problems at hand, we believe our efforts will prolong the life of the volunteer services in our state. The excellent public safety services the citizens of our state receive are a major factor in the excellent quality of life we all enjoy.

The Connecticut Commission is most grateful to the National Volunteer Fire Council and to Ed Cohn and his colleagues from New Jersey for their support and assistance of the FIRE LINE project in our state.