Attracting the younger firefighter

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A unique survey following firefighting volunteers six months after recruitment has begun to provide the basis of better volunteer recruitment strategies.

As reported in Fire Australia (Spring 2006), a Bushfire CRC survey of new volunteers with the Country Fire Authority of Victoria found varying motivations across different age groups.

The background to the research is based on the fact that Australia’s population is ageing. Consistent with this trend, the volunteer memberships of Australia’s volunteer-based rural fire services are also ageing. In response to this trend, the CFA initiated the New Volunteer Members Tracking Project in collaboration with the Bushfire CRC.

The preliminary survey of new volunteers conducted after six months in the CFA found that self-oriented motives (career advancement, new skills, new friends, new challenges) were more relevant for younger volunteers (less than 35 years) compared with older volunteers.

These findings informed the CFA’s recruitment campaign from October 2006. Those who responded to this campaign were found to be younger overall than those who joined in the period April-September 2005. It was also found that younger people making enquiries on recruitment made much greater use of the CFA’s web site and on-line download facilities, compared with older enquirers.

As part of the planning process for CFA’s October 2006 volunteer recruiting campaign, the web page providing information on becoming a CFA volunteer was upgraded and a downloadable enquiry form made available, which could be emailed or faxed to CFA. In addition, the earlier research finding that younger volunteers were more likely to be motivated by self-oriented issues compared with older volunteers was noted and incorporated in the previously successful “Does the hat fit?” volunteer recruitment strategy.

A key aspect of the marketing component was the preparation of five newspaper advertisements, each to run once over five weeks in local and state-wide newspapers. These advertisements featured a mix of self-oriented, community safety oriented, and community contribution oriented motivational messages.

At the conclusion of the campaign 320 enquiries had been received by CFA. As well as requiring contact details, the enquiry form also asked how the enquirer found out that CFA was seeking volunteers. An advertisement in a local newspaper was the most frequently reported prompt to seek more information.

The median age of the enquirers aged 18-plus was 33 years. The median age of those who volunteered during the period April-September 2005 was 40 years. This suggests that the campaign was effective in engaging the attention of younger potential volunteers. It remains to be seen how many of the enquirers proceed to become volunteer CFA members and what is the age profile of those who do so.

While many factors determine the number of enquiries in response to a state-wide volunteer recruitment campaign, the number of enquires (320) was substantially greater than those received following the October 2004 (69) and October 2005 (137) campaigns.

Downloading the on-line enquiry form and then emailing or faxing this was the most common means of enquiry (54%), followed by using the 1800 telephone number (40%). The enquiry form asked enquirers to report their age. This allowed researchers to compare younger and older enquirers on how they made their initial enquiry contact with CFA.

For younger enquirers the most common method was to visit the CFA web site and download the enquiry form (60%). For older enquirers, the preferred method was to phone the 1800 number.

It appears clear that younger potential volunteers do, indeed, have a strong preference for using the web as a source of information about volunteering.

The CFA will now follow-up the enquiries to see who became a volunteer and what factors differentiated between those who did and those who did not.

This report illustrates how an agency can identify potentially relevant information from a Bushfire CRC research project and immediately implement it within an existing system for subsequent evaluation.

For more information about the "Does the hat fit?" volunteer recruitment strategy, contact Charles King, c.king@cfa.vic.gov.au

For more information about the Bushfire CRC Volunteerism Research Project go to the Bushfire CRC website or contact Jim McLennan,  j.mclennan@latrobe.edu.au

By Adrian Birch and Jim McLennan, of the Bushfire CRC project Enhancing Volunteerism, based at the School of Psychological Science La Trobe University

(This article first appeared in the Autumn 2007 issue of Fire Australia magazine)