Between Alarms: Create a comprehensive onboarding program

Get on board
March 23, 2017
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Recruiting firefighters is becoming more challenging. Incorporating a comprehensive onboarding program may help departments attract and retain solid members.


Onboarding is more of a retention- and good-management practice than a recruitment tool; it is a formal strategy through which new firefighters are encouraged and helped by others in the department to develop positive attitudes.

True onboarding should take months to complete. Recruit orientation is part of greater onboarding process and occurs once; onboarding is a multi-step process.

Onboarding can start during the recruitment campaign and continue until the end of the recruits’ first year. When departments recruit, it’s critical to provide as much honest information as possible to attract the right people. Departments should be up front with recruits about demands, time commitments, danger and compensation so potential recruits are not surprised part-way through the process. Recruits should be handing in their applications with a clear understanding of the job, the expectations, and the sacrifices they may have to make. If all this is done properly, departments should end up recruiting only those who are fully prepared; this, in turn, improves retention.  

A try-before-you-buy test can be part of the onboarding process; the department invites candidates to a drill night during which they can meet firefighters, see them in action, and ask questions. This type of event ensures that those who want to take the next step in the process have the information they need to make a good decision.

Once you have welcomed new members, orientation begins: paperwork is completed and handbooks, manuals, videos and presentations reinforce the department’s values.  Packages are important and a crucial part of the process, but try not to overload the recruits on Day 1 with paperwork, rather roll it out gradually.

At this point, training begins and many departments end the onboarding process, but new members require support and assistance to feel comfortable and encouraged.

Any pre-information that can be provided will make recruits more comfortable in their new surroundings. Provide photos and names of all firefighters, photos or videos of the apparatuses and fire halls, contact information, and an overview of the culture.

Onboarding is not only for new employees, but also for those who take on new roles through promotions. Everyone wants to succeed in their new roles, and that is possible only if they are given the tools and support. Onboarding is critical for new company officers.

Adding a personal touch to an onboarding program helps new members feel welcome;  senior firefighters and officers should meet face to face with new hires.

Checklists work well to ensure the department includes all crucial components of an  onboarding program. Often, simple steps such as uniforms, email accounts, computer logins or desk preparation are overlooked. These simple steps show recruits and newly promoted firefighters that they are valued and supported.

A mentorship program subsequent to the onboarding process can continue to foster a positive environment in the department. A big brother/sister program can provide the new employee with continual guidance; it is difficult to pre-assign mentors, but looking at special interests and commonalities might help to set up good mentoring teams.

Defining the fire service culture and your department’s specific culture for new members will help mould recruits in a positive way. Projecting your why can help new members embrace the department’s culture. At Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue, we assign homework to recruits before Day 1. Recruits are required to do an essay or video sharing their knowledge of SSIFR’s history. This encourages recruits to visit the stations, talk to members, research online, and put some thought into the department’s past and its evolution. This exercise has proven to be a great icebreaker.

We have also found great success at SSIFR with recruit-class social-media groups, and in-person study groups. With the accessibility of online connectivity, recruits can form a bond and regularly communicate using a buddy system.

Communicating – or failing to communicate – the small things frustrates new members and may affect their longevity with the department; the little things that regular members know but forget to pass along, such as special events and social gatherings.

Onboarding should be reviewed annually to see if the steps are current and ensure that the program is effective.

Onboarding builds success; the more time and energy a department commits to its recruits, the stronger the membership will become.

Effective onboarding equals positive outcomes, better firefighters, and better officers, which leads to better retention.  

(See Culture shock, Using private-sector techniques to change the way firefighters think and value their jobs by Waterloo, Ont., firefighter Lydia Wilcox, in the December issue of Fire Fighting in Canada at www.firefightingincanada.com)

Top 10 onboarding nuggets
  1. Start early (recruitment phase).
  2. Provide as much information as possible at the appropriate times.
  3. Include culture and your department’s why training, early.
  4. Provide expectations of the recruits and of the department.
  5. Include a human side to the process, not just employee handbooks.
  6. Provide support via mentorship programs.
  7. Ogoing process, not a one-day event.
  8. Do frequent check ins.
  9. Be creative and find unique ways to inform and support your new members.
  10. Sweat the small stuff; those small details can determine whether a recruit stays or goes.

Arjuna George is chief of Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue in British Columbia; he has served on the department since 1997. This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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