OSWEGO — As president of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, 1966 SUNY Oswego graduate John Sroka 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, also a 1966 Oswego graduate and 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 junior business administration major Garrett Coon. “Being a millennial myself, I figured I would act as a decent instrument to utilize in the research process.”
So far, the students have conducted a focus group with 15 members of what observers call 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, a junior psychology major with a minor in business.
The students created an online survey of current volunteer firefighters to understand their perception of young adults and learn about their current recruitment and retention strategies.
“We are still in the process of collecting data for our survey, but we hope to utilize our findings in both studies and implement ways to create greater awareness of volunteer firefighting to millennials as well as strengthen the communication between millennials and current volunteer firefighters,” Shi said.
Next semester, 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 about and recruit them into the volunteer fire service.
“Being involved in independent studies/projects like this have many perks that one wouldn’t get in a class setting,” Shi said. “I was able to gain hands-on experience in working with a team to find a solution to a problem/challenge for a well-established organization, conducting focus groups, designing surveys, presenting our findings to Mr. John Sroka and much more. These are all valuable experiences that I can put on my resume and talk about to potential employers.”
Jiraporn said the students have learned some marketing techniques and new software programs that they can add to their resumes to distinguish themselves from peers. But the project also provides an equally important skill.
“Beyond the technical aspect, students get an opportunity to see what it’s like to work with a real client and try to help the client solve a marketing challenge,” Jiraporn said. “It also reminds them of the importance of non-profit organizations and volunteerism. These are all highly relevant to their future careers.”
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 a scholarship — 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.”
For more information of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, visit www.nysfirechiefs.com or email [email protected]