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Setting the classroom on fire

Posted April 30, 2012, at 3:49 p.m.

Often students feel a disconnect between ideas in the classroom (be it college or otherwise) and practical, real-world applications. Husson University encourages instructors to incorporate practical experience and application into the classroom experience. In fulfilling this part of the University mission, we frequently use current events to introduce, reinforce or solidify classroom material. BDN articles typically provide our students food for intellectual thought. During the last week of April, the topic of the week focused on applying social psychology principles to address real-world, current issues. We focused on an article published in the BDN concerning the struggle of attracting volunteer firefighters. We offer here a synopsis of three student-generated ideas addressing the recruitment of volunteer firefighters in the state.

The foot in the door

Robert Cialdini, a prominent social psychologist, suggested that when individuals commit to a small, initial request, they are more likely to commit to larger, subsequent requests. Cialdini labels this the “foot-in-the-door” technique. As Searsport Fire Department Capt. A.J. Koch suggested in his comments to the BDN, one possible strategy would be to incorporate various levels of volunteer firefighters. This approach may have a two-fold benefit. First, Koch concluded that individuals could serve at their own level. With a tiered approach to volunteer firefighters, individuals who are older or physically incapable of some responsibilities could be retained for more suitable firefighter tasks. Second, allowing individuals to serve in an important, yet smaller capacity — e.g., directing traffic, preparation, clean up — may increase the number of individuals who are willing to complete the gauntlet of firefighter training. Once they have committed, or have their foot in the door, they will likely make larger commitments in the future.

The similarity principle

Another potentially successful strategy for increasing the number of recruits is creating a recruiting campaign or drive centered on principles of similarity. Students in the social psychology class suggested local fire departments and volunteer groups use younger volunteer firefighters for recruitment. These younger volunteer recruiters may appeal to potential volunteers because of increased similarity in age, life experience and perhaps overall views on life. Social events, including social media campaigns, may provide potential volunteers with both professional and personal support opportunities as well as to allow them to see themselves as potential volunteers.

Incentive-based programs

On a somewhat larger scale, students suggested incentives other than financial compensation that could potentially motivate recruits. All three incentive ideas would require considerable effort at either the local or state level but could potentially reduce the likelihood of recruiting problems in the future.

First, several students suggested either the creation or expansion of high school-based firefighter training — through the conversation, it seemed as though some of these opportunities are already in place. High school students who are interested in a volunteer firefighting experience could be offered an educational incentive for completing the training or could volunteer for course credit.

Second, students suggested that communities could implement judicial incentives. Individuals could volunteer for local fire departments in lieu of or in partial fulfillment of community service requirements.

Finally, students suggested that government-backed incentives may provide some recruiting leverage. For example, the state of Maine could offer a tax credit for individuals who volunteer throughout the year. A tax credit could provide direct benefits to the volunteers — a tax break — and the state — more firefighters statewide.

The lack of volunteer firefighters in parts of the state is a subject worthy of considerable attention at the state and local levels. Firefighters provide an invaluable service to our community and we as a community are indebted to them for their service. The social psychology class at Husson University may not have the expertise, experience or resources to implement changes, but then again, a simple spark can start a fire.

Christopher Howard and Rachelle Smith are assistant professors of psychology at Husson University.

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