Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Sep-Oct 2019 issue

Message Matters: How Minnetonka Recruited More Firefighter Candidates Than Ever

By Justin Quinn Pelegano

Minnetonka is a suburban community of 50,000 located eight miles west of Minneapolis. While our city has many special qualities, one area where we’re not unique is in our challenge to recruit firefighters.

It’s a statewide concern. And for Minnetonka, it’s been a tough road made only tougher by a record number of firefighter retirements in 2018.

The challenge

The paid on-call model is a hard draw and can feel like a mere step removed from asking residents to risk their lives walking into flames on a completely volunteer basis. Couple that with an aging-in-place population and the requirement that all our firefighters live no more than 15 minutes from one of Minnetonka’s four fire stations, and it’s no wonder our recruitment barriers sometimes seem insurmountable.

In 2018, the Minnetonka Fire Department received only 18 applications for new recruits. The majority of those washed out during the physical testing phase. It was crucial for the 2019 recruitment class to be bigger and better.

In mid-2018, Minnetonka Fire Chief John Vance approached our three-person communications team with the idea to hire an outside marketing consultant specializing in firefighter recruitment.

The consulting firm in question wasn’t local; neither was it cheap ($20,000 for a campaign). But the real reason our communications team convinced Chief Vance to take an alternate and internal route toward beefing up his ranks was this: we were confident we could help and genuinely excited to collaborate with and serve our Fire Department. We had five months to get it done.

Developing our strategy

Right from the start, we knew the heart of our recruitment strategy was our team of current firefighters. Over the course of several group meetings, we discussed the barriers to bringing on new fire staff. But those obstacles were not what we wanted to communicate to our residents in an earnest bid for them to apply to the department.

What we were most interested in discovering, and what we really dug for in those meetings, were the reasons our firefighters had chosen to pursue this work and the reasons they had stayed.

Service to our community. Deep and enduring camaraderie. The special motivation to remain physically fit. An antidote to sitting in front of a computer all day. An incomparable feeling of usefulness and gratitude.

Basing our recruitment strategy on those exact sentiments, we called our campaign: “Give More. Be More. Become a Minnetonka Firefighter.”

Reaching the audience

Our marketing plan engaged target audiences across several key platforms, including mass emails, social media, and dynamic billboards. Messaging also reached potential applicants through direct mail and printed handouts.

To put a face to Minnetonka Fire, we posted firefighter Q&As on the city’s website. We also hired a professional photographer and encouraged her to capture moments of connection and camaraderie during a fire training session. Perhaps most importantly, we empowered current Minnetonka firefighters as effective recruiters and provided them with tools and talking points to connect with potential applicants. They personally delivered marketing collateral to the community, both on the job and at Fire Department open house events. These materials directed interested residents to Minnetonka’s website, where we had streamlined and reinvented the fire recruitment pages with bold visuals, an interest form, and a user-friendly application process.

Thrilling results

By Jan. 1, 2019—the application deadline for new recruits—Chief Vance informed us the city had received an unprecedented 53 firefighter applications, which marked a 194% increase from the previous year.

We were naturally beaming with pride at that news, because—except for a freelance photographer and graphic designer—the entire project had been accomplished in-house. The total cost was $1,500.

Chief Vance and his command staff were thrilled. We’re told the resulting 2019 class of Minnetonka firefighters is unusually strong.

And that makes us thrilled, too—for our Fire Department and our city—and grateful for the tremendous trust Chief Vance placed in our three-person communications team.

Justin Quinn Pelegano is senior communications coordinator with the City of Minnetonka. Contact: jpelegano@eminnetonka.com or (952) 939-8384.

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