Even though the competition is fierce and the process tough, every year thousands of people apply to become a firefighter. Ellen Culhane tells FIRE about the recent joint recruitment by Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service and Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service as they try out new approaches to increase the diversity of their latest intake in the middle of a pandemic.
Whether it is keeping calm under pressure, taking pride in giving something back to our communities, or getting a buzz out of being part of a dedicated team, everyone at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service and Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service has their own reason for coming to work. It is our ambition to create a truly inclusive workplace where everyone feels valued and respected. By respecting and valuing each other’s ideas and contributions, we can create an organisation that performs even better.
This is our starting point for recruitment. We want to find people who can be their best. We discover what makes people tick and help them to match that with what we need.hether it is keeping calm under pressure, taking pride in giving something back to our communities, or getting a buzz out of being part of a dedicated team, everyone at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service and Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service has their own reason for coming to work. It is our ambition to create a truly inclusive workplace where everyone feels valued and respected. By respecting and valuing each other’s ideas and contributions, we can create an organisation that performs even better.
Just like every other fire and rescue service, we do not struggle to get people to apply to be firefighters. What we do find challenging is attracting people to apply from all sectors of the community.
We used the opening text above to set the tone for our latest recruitment campaign and encouraged people to apply to join us. We used a powerful short video of a young woman in boxing gear asking the question: “Feeling the burn? We can help you take it up to the next level” and encouraged the viewer to follow the link to our recruitment campaign website.
We felt the impact of Covid-19 on recruitment: we could not see people face-to-face for taster sessions; and we could not do outreach to target particular groups in our community. We relied heavily on the virtual world. Our young woman boxer featured across our social media channels and we were pleased to see how much engagement we had as a result.
For example, we hosted two Facebook Live Q&A sessions that were viewed nearly 18,000 times when we include those who watched the recording as well. We were delighted to see over 8,000 engagements – so that is people liking the Q&A during the live session and sending various emojis along the way. Viewers also chose to comment, with 250 of them containing questions for our firefighters covering the recruitment process and what it is like to work for both services. It is such a good way of engaging with people for recruitment purposes and we would strongly recommend it to any service which has not tried it already.
Clearly getting the recruitment campaign right is an important starting point for us and we wanted to do more with all of the stages of recruitment. We have always done our recruitment in the same way, but this year we have a new team in place, so it is a great opportunity to try new approaches and shake things up a bit, with Covid-19 challenging us along the way.
We opened our recruitment in September 2020, with a 48-hour window to receive applications. We have always taken this approach as it allows us to get enough applications in without being completely overwhelmed. Even then, over 1,300 people applied.
Table 1 shows the breakdown by gender and ethnicity for the 2020 recruitment round compared with the previous year (it excludes those already working as on-call firefighters). We were pleased to see more women applying this time and with an unprecedented number of applicants from BAME communities meaning that applications reflected the ethnic make-up of our county.
“We want to find people who can be their best. We discover what makes people tick and help them to match that with what we need”
It is a real challenge to go through 1,300 applications in normal times, but with Covid-19 restrictions in place, we had to make some changes. One hundred and seventy of the applications were from people already working as on-call firefighters; we fast tracked 130 of these straight to interview.
We called on a pool of volunteers from across the service, from operational and non-operational roles. We are so used to working remotely and using platforms like Microsoft Teams, but that does not work so well for shortlisting applications. Instead, we met up in a large room in our headquarters in Eastleigh, setting out the room so that we could be socially distanced and make sure we were all Covid-secure. This year, for the first time, we double marked each candidate and quality assured all markers which made the process really robust.
The practical tests for fitness took place during November, with 160 external candidates taking part. There were seven tests in one day and this year we made some changes. We allowed candidates to wear their own trainers for the tests rather than fire boots. We discovered from previous fitness tests that ill-fitting fire boots gave people a disadvantage. We made some Covid-related changes, we reduced the number of people on site so that we could enforce social distancing; we took extra care about the wearing of masks to prevent cross contamination and made sure that fire kit was only ever worn by one person each day.
Reflecting on the practical tests now, we found that women tended to do less well in the ladder lift. This is something we are looking at for the next recruitment round to ensure everyone has a fair shot at it. We know this is not unique to Hampshire and the Isle and Wight and we would love to talk to other services about any thoughts they have on this one.
By the end of November, we were in a position to start interviewing candidates. We interviewed about 300, including the fast tracked on-call staff. Doing this in the three weeks before Christmas was a huge challenge for us, but we got there. We carried out a Covid-19 risk assessment and made adjustments to social distance the two interviewers from the candidate and where we couldn’t meet them face-to-face, we did virtual interviews instead.
Having reviewed all of the recruitment stages, we were delighted to have a talent pool of 99 candidates from which we were able to select 32 successful recruits. We decided early on to create a pool of candidates that we can draw on to meet our future needs, as like many fire and rescue services we will also see a lot of firefighters retire in the next year and we need to plan ahead.
There are six women joining our training courses now and with the talent pool containing another 19 women, we will continue to increase the percentage of women firefighters in our service. We recently announced that our Assistant Chief Fire Officer Shantha Dickinson will take over as Deputy Chief Fire Officer on the retirement of Steve Apter; she is a great role model for any woman considering a career in the fire and rescue service.
This is the first time that we recruited for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, as the two fire and rescue services will be officially combined in April 2021. We will of course try to post people near to where they live, but we could end up with people who live in Hampshire working on the Isle of Wight and vice versa.
“We are looking in more detail about how we can engage potential on-call firefighters as working from home becomes the norm”
By the time this article is published, the first of our two training courses will have started; we expect to see those who successfully complete the courses start work on fire stations from September.
It will be a familiar story to any fire and rescue service with on-call staff that once they become wholetime employees, this leaves a gap in the on-call cadre. In Hampshire we were very involved in the development of the on-call recruitment advertising campaign, which is available from oncallfire.uk. We have seen the benefits of using it as a recruitment tool and will continue to do so in the future.
It is interesting to see the impact of Covid-19 on our on-call staff as availability increased massively during periods of lockdown and did not reduce much as the restrictions eased throughout 2020. We are looking in more detail about how we can engage potential on-call firefighters as working from home becomes the norm.
The challenge of recruiting during a pandemic is not to be underestimated; we worked hard to make sure we not only made the process as fair as possible but kept safety at the heart of what we did every step of the way. We look forward to greeting our new firefighters as they start their careers with us as wholetime firefighters because it really is the best job in the world.
About the Author:
Ellen Culhane MCIPR, BA (Hons) is the Resource Management Adviser for Hampshire FRS and Isle of Wight FRS, leading on wholetime and on-call recruitment, and promotion processes at supervisory management level. Ellen is the lead for the NFCC on-call recruitment campaign and oncallfire.uk and has a ten-year career in public relations, internal communications, marketing and recruitment.