Recruiting a More Diverse Fire Service

Candice McDonald, MA

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

My grandmother was born in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until the year 2014, at the age of 73, that she was recruited into the fire service as a member of Fire Corps. She will tell you that during her youth, having women in the fire service was something that was not culturally promoted or accepted. Fortunately, we have come a long way since my grandma’s youth. Women are not only serving on the frontlines, but they have also successfully climbed the ranks to leadership positions.

However, we still have a lot of missed opportunity. Women make up just over half of the U.S. population but comprise only a small percentage of the fire service. The International Association of Women in the Fire and Emergency Services reports that there are approximately 6,200 female career firefighters and an estimated 35-40,000 female volunteer firefighters. This is out of a total of 1.1 million firefighters in the U.S. Yet new research by the National Volunteer Fire Council shows that women have just as much interest in becoming a volunteer emergency responder as men. What we find then is what has been a largely untapped market of potential volunteers for departments to reach.

Adding women to the roster comes with benefits. Membership diversity not only creates a team that mirrors the demographics of the organization’s community, but for the volunteer fire service, which often struggles to keep its rosters full, it offers a new group of potential recruits. It is up to each department to be proactive in marketing to unreached groups. Recruitment strategies can include community-based efforts, campus efforts, specialized programs, and social media.

Community-Based Recruitment

Taking a grassroots approach to recruitment has been found to be an effective strategy for recruiting underrepresented groups. Designate and train department members to be recruitment ambassadors. This is the same philosophy that colleges use across the country to boost enrollment. Send recruitment ambassadors into the community to speak/display in natural settings where potential recruits gather. Visit community organizations where they are already volunteering. Set up a table display in shopping areas, fitness centers, and in other high traffic areas.

Before venturing out, be sure recruitment publications reflect the idea of diversity. Avoid using the word “fireman” and stick to the term “firefighter” instead. Ensure photos on print materials show both men and women in action. Steer clear of photos that show women in traditionally accepted roles, such as rehab/canteen service and EMS. While these roles are important, only displaying these types of photos can set limitations in the minds of the potential recruits.

High School and Campus Efforts

Fire service recruitment has traditionally been through word-of-mouth efforts. This is why we see multi-generations of families serving as firefighters. We need to expand our efforts and be visible in places where diverse groups of youth are present. Establish relationships with local high schools and colleges. Many students are looking for ways to volunteer in the community, and the fire service may not have been one that crossed their minds. Sending a current female firefighter with a passion for recruitment onto the campuses is also a best practice.

It is your job to get future recruits excited about the fire service. Host fun recruitment events at the school that involve student participation. Offer students the opportunity to crawl through a maze trailer or get some time on the nozzle. One method for ensuring gender inclusion during such events is to require teams of two consisting of one male and one female member.

Apprenticeship and Specialized Programs

Mentoring and apprenticeship programs are important for both the recruitment and retention of members. These types of programs are effective methods for increasing on-the-job confidence and performance.

My first introduction to a mentoring system as a new recruit came from a weekend at the Ohio State Fire Academy. Each year the academy offered a course, Can You Take the Heat?, which was instructed solely by women fire instructors from across the state. This course offered women the opportunity to spend a weekend finding out what it was like to be a firefighter. Participants received both classroom and hands-on experience. Those that participated walked away with the confidence that they could do the job and a support system to turn to when they felt challenged. Offering a similar introduction course at your department is a great way for those on the fence about volunteering to give it a try without worrying about commitment.

Social Media

Engagement through social media done well can become the best method for reaching new recruits. Technology is how we communicate, socialize, gather information, and interact with one another. Social media can bridge the gap between someone who may be interested, to someone who actually gets involved. Leveraging social media as a recruitment tool has a greater reach than flyers and newspaper ads. Create compelling content that encourages audience interaction. Post photos and videos that show department diversity. Share links to volunteer opportunities and create an online event extending an invite to attend an informational meeting about the fire department.

For those departments that are new to the recruitment of underrepresented populations, the International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services can provide additional guidance on best practices. Visit

Candice McDonald is a firefighter/EMS Officer with the Winona Fire Department and works for NASA in the Office of Protective Services. She is the co-chair of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association Reputation Management Committee and an active member of the outreach team, is a trustee for the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services, and has served as the appointed Fire Corps State Advocate for Ohio and in other capacities for the National Volunteer Fire Council since 2009. McDonald is currently pursuing a doctor of business administration with a specialty in homeland security. She holds a master’s degree in organizational leadership, a bachelor’s in business administration, and associate’s in health and human services. She is an instructor at Stark State College, contributing author to numerous publications, and has traveled the country for the past 15 years empowering individuals and organizations.  

This article reprinted with permission from the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), a leading nonprofit membership association representing the interests of the volunteer fire, EMS, and rescue services.