As president of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, John Sroka ’66 understands firsthand how important volunteer firefighters are to the safety of New York state. Of the state’s 1,665 registered fire departments, more than 90 percent rely solely on volunteers, so he turned to his alma mater to address falling numbers of recruits.
Sroka has been particularly concerned to see that the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped 14 percent in New York state in the past two decades, and those who remain are growing older—some too old to fight fires. Half of the fire service nationally is 40 or more years old, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Sroka and his wife, Sally Sodemann Sroka ’66, a longtime volunteer with the auxiliary fire services, reached out to SUNY Oswego to see if current students—part of the target demographic needed to fill the volunteer firefighter void—could come up with some ways to raise awareness about the need.
“When the problem arose during our meeting, I realized we don’t do enough marketing to get new members—especially young people,” John Sroka said. “We didn’t really know how to recruit Gen X and millennials. How could we reach them and entice them to join the volunteer fire service?”
“Then I thought of Oswego and crafting a project that would give students a real-life problem to work on and gain some experience while also providing valuable assistance to our nonprofit organization,” Sroka said. “It seemed like a win-win.”
SUNY Oswego marketing professors Dr. Yilong Zheng and Dr. Napatsorn (Pom) Jiraporn agreed.
“I believe that learning has to go beyond textbooks, and this project allows students to engage in problem-based learning,” Jiraporn said. “It’s also a great way to promote volunteerism.”
The faculty members recruited three students who are members of the American Marketing Association student group to work on the project and crafted a three-credit independent study to provide some structure.
“I figured it would be an interesting topic to cover, as every community has some form of volunteer fighters, and the lack of them could prove to be catastrophic,” said business administration major Garrett Coon ’19.
The students conducted a focus group with 15 members of the millennial generation—defined by the Pew Research Center as those born between 1981 and 1996—to assess their awareness and knowledge of volunteer fire service and to learn what incentives might be effective in recruiting them into service.
“Our findings suggest that millennials are aware of volunteer firefighting but haven’t had a lot of exposure to it,” said Jia Xing “Sherry” Shi ’19, a psychology major with a minor in business.
Coon, Shi and marketing major John Little ’18 created an online survey of current volunteer firefighters to understand their perception of young adults and learn about their current recruitment and retention strategies. The project team hopes to complete a larger-scale survey and possibly partner with some Oswego alumni with experience in digital marketing. The goal: to help implement a digital campaign to educate their target market and recruit them into the volunteer fire service.
“I was able to gain hands-on experience in working with a team to solve a problem, conducting focus groups, designing surveys, presenting our findings to Mr. John Sroka and much more,” Shi said. “These are all valuable experiences that I can put on my resume and talk about to potential employers.”
And for the Srokas, the project has deepened a growing relationship with their alma mater. The couple recently revived their relationship with campus through a connection forged with Director of Major Gifts Jerry Jaworski.
Before returning for their 50th Reunion in 2016, the couple established the John ’66 and Sally Sodemann Sroka ’66 Scholarship for students with financial need who wish to pursue a career in teaching. They recently announced their intentions to include SUNY Oswego in their estate plans as well, and are now members of the Sheldon Legacy Society.
“We reconnected with Oswego, because we were grateful for the public education and opportunities we received,” Sroka said. “The college is a great resource for our community, as is the volunteer fire service. We hope this project creates opportunities for students to get hands-on experience while also benefiting a critical community service. They are doing work that stands to save the volunteer fire service in New York state.”