Federal grant for volunteer-recruitment position pays off with huge applicant pool

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Fire Captain Tony Carter helps outfit volunteer firefighter Jennifer Robinson with the necessary fire gear on the first day of Forest Groves training academy for new volunteers.Forest Grove Fire & Rescue quadrupled its applicants for volunteer positions this year, thanks to the efforts of Capt. Tad Buckingham, who became the department’s first Volunteer Recruitment and Retention Coordinator last November.

The four-year position — funded by a federal grant — appears to be paying off.

“Traditionally we have 15 to 20 paper applicants total,” Buckingham said. This year he had more than 70 applications.

One reason is that Buckingham switched the volunteer-application process to a special online system. “We changed the way we were looking for them,” he said.

Buckingham also helped change the training approach so it relies more on distance learning.

Instead of coming in on weekends for powerpoints, the recruits can study those at home on their own, when it’s convenient.They can save their weekends at the fire department for skills training they can’t get elsewhere.

That kind of convenience helped persuade more people to apply, Buckingham said.

Of the 70-plus applicants, 45 took the physical agility test and 26 qualified to attend the training academy—more than twice the 10 to 12 that used to attend.

Those 26 began their orientation Monday, picking up new uniforms and filling out paperwork.

This year many academy sessions will take place at the mobile fire training unit in the fire station’s parking lot.

Previously, Forest Grove and Cornelius (which share a fire chief as well as volunteer firefighters) used to send their new volunteers to Washington County-run training sessions at more distant locations.

Not only is the in-house approach more convenient, but the county program would not have been able to accommodate Forest Grove’s 26 would-be volunteers.

Buckingham said department leaders have long known they needed to improve their recruiting approach, but didn’t have a dedicated staff member to do so.

“Just like all civil service, you do more with less,” he said. “We were having to concentrate on the meat and potatoes of the department.”

Buckingham also helped develop a cooperative program with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, which subsidizes veterans who serve as student volunteers, or “interns.”

Forest Grove now has three veterans out of a total of nine interns.

One of those used to be an intern but dropped out because he couldn’t afford it. His return is proof that the program is doing what it was designed to do, Buckingham said.

Of the other two veterans, one was strictly a volunteer but enrolled as an intern when he learned about the new program. The other is a brand new person from the Coast Guard, Buckingham said.

Buckingham continues to recruit veterans, attending veterans fairs and counting on word of mouth.

The intern and veteran who helped start the program, Emmett Middaugh, has since returned to Arizona, Buckingham said. “He wanted to be closer to family.”

Meanwhile, the program Middaugh helped start is spreading. Washington County Fire District #2 took the template created in Forest Grove and already has one “vet intern” because of it, Buckingham said.

“We’re not the only one doing this now.”

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