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Philly's Phinest: Jim Combs

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Jim Combs of Philliy's Phinest

HE’LL PUT A FIRE IN YOUR BELLY TOO…

The nation watched in gut-wrenching horror with a sense of helplessness as a Tennessee mother’s four-year-old son, strapped and crying inside an engulfed SUV, sat burning alive just moments before his rescue. Save for the quick thinking of ordinary citizens in this small Milwaukee town and aided by the skill, bravery and selfless act of two off-duty fireman, brothers John and Joel Rechlitz, and another precious young life would have been tragically and unnecessarily lost. Sometimes, there indeed appears to be order in the universe and things turn out better then expected; the good news is, while the young boy was admitted to critical care with severe burns, ultimately, his life was saved.

There’s another thing being saved by volunteer fireman across this great land… $37.2 billion in taxpayer’s money according to a 2004 U.S. House Committee report. Again, that’s part of the good news; the bad news is, that same report found two-thirds of the country’s fire companies were severely undermanned with recruits across the country steadily declining every year. And with volunteers comprising more then 70 percent of the million-plus U.S. firefighting force, the need for more recruits has reached a critical stage—placing hundreds of towns across America in a dangerously precarious position should a fire break out or worst off, another terrorist attack occurs on our home front!

But not if Jim Combs from Mullica Hill, NJ can help it! Jim is the Executive Director of  Firefighters Needed Recruitment Initiative Inc. www.firefightersneeded.com, a newly created non-profit organization launched to provide the nation’s 22,000 volunteer fire departments with a simple, effective and inexpensive advertising/marketing communications toolkit designed to recruit, train (and retain) America’s desperately needed volunteer fireman.  You see, Jim was one of the lucky ones. It was September 11th, 2001 and Jim’s job as a Security Integrator had him at the World Trade Center at 9am for a sales presentation; as fate would have it, destiny called, and his appointment had to be rescheduled for an hour later… it saved his life—and perhaps countless millions more!? His was the first building to be hit; it’s times like this when There but for the Grace of GOD go I will resonate at the core of your being. Overwhelmed with a deep and profound sense of gratitude, he experienced one of those flashing epiphanies—there was something else he needed to do with his life!? As the nation resumed a certain normalcy, so did that overwhelming and often esoteric emotional impulse; Jim settled in to producing security guard training tapes to appease his creative talents.

However, it wasn’t long after when a client asked him to produce a video to recruit volunteer firemen for the local Ocean City Fire Department that the idea for the country’s only nation-wide fire department database was birthed. He called on his old friend John, the current Salem County Fire Marshall, to investigate further. There indeed was a national problem… a growing deficiency in skilled fireman… and getting worse every year! Ever buy a new car only to find everyone else had the same car in mind? Signs for “Volunteer Fireman” were popping up everywhere—yet, there wasn’t one single place people could go on the worldwide web to investigate how they could learn about the process of volunteering for their local fire department!? Jim’s preliminary market research, coupled with his previous convictions, convinced him this was a needed, necessary and worthwhile endeavor—one in which the nation desperately needed, primarily as a volunteer firefighter recruitment and training protocol, but, perhaps more importantly, as a conduit to recruit First Responders in preparation for a national emergency—or God forbid, another homeland security threat or terrorist attack.

Jim went about the task of gathering his team together… Comrades-in-Arms. Respected businessman and trusted colleagues who likewise caught the vision: “If You Build It, They Will Come” was their mantra. A new story was emerging; one in which the last Chapter told of an America that was praying for the best… but prepared for the worst! Its author and architect was a man named James Combs accompanied by able-bodied soldiers he knew and trusted. A humble guy from humble beginnings, Jim is a man with impeccable integrity, professionalism, creativity and moral fiber… and a man armed with a vision about How Things Can Be if one man makes a decision on principle. Many of our founding fathers had this intangible virtuous quality about them; those who fought for our freedoms and liberties we’re blessed with today possessed “the spirit”—and you can see it in the yearning eyes and thirsty souls of our nation today: To have The Courage of Your Convictions is a noble calling… albeit, a very discriminating one.

The first task at hand was to develop a sample database website based on zip codes where anyone could obtain vital and relevant information regarding existing volunteer fireman opportunities on a local, regional and national scope. First stop… Salem County, NJ. It wasn’t long before Jim was able to convince his hometown county that this was a viable and necessary project. Within short order, a complete, very creative and very affordable user-friendly “cookie-cutter” media campaign including broadcast, print and digital was launched. While Jim created the media mix for virtually pennies on the dollar in today’s ad budget terms, Firefighters Needed Recruitment Initiative Inc. (FNRI) subsidized the majority with several large sponsors from established businesses subsidizing a small part. Creatively produced brochures, flyers & DVD’s were circulated.

During the campaign kickoff event there wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium during the DVD video premiere and accompanying awards ceremony.

Four months after the recruitment campaign kickoff, the Salem County Fire Academy “Firefighter One” training class had twenty-five students of which seven new firefighters came directly from the recruitment campaign. Six months later the next “firefighter One” program had nine more graduates directly come from the recruitment campaign. The program was a success!

The word quickly spread. The door opened up to Gloucester and Cumberland Counties… they were off-to-the-races! Then the recession hit. Sponsorship funding and grant money was harder to find leaving FNRI no viable alternative but to chug-along at a snails pace. Jim, frustrated over the mounting business debt he absorbed, decided to seek full-time employment. But his passion and dream for a safer America hasn’t died; he continues to work with any fire company that wants help.

Today, he’s uploaded 2,600 fire departments from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. He receives inquiries and positive feedback from Maine to Florida. His dream is to take firefightersneeded.com national. There are approximately 33,000 fire departments across the country with only 10,000 one hundred percent salaried. 22,000 fire departments are a mix of  “career” (or paid) and volunteer. There are 800,000 plus volunteers and 300,000 career fireman in America today… but that is not enough to keep pace with the current demand on our towns and smaller suburban cities. Out of those numbers, 40,000 are women volunteers with 9,000 career women. But the rank and file are dwindling fast: there is no influx of young adults ages 18-20—and that keeps Jim up at nights!

 It's a scary scenario that plays out in his mind over and over again. Iran, North Korea or some other heretofore unknown enemy launches a nuclear or chemical attack on our soil; several large American cities are ablaze with chaos and panic in the air. Support from several of the neighboring rural fire departments is swift but inadequate—countless thousands of lives are unnecessarily lost that day because America Wasn’t Prepared! There’s another major flood like Hurricane Katrina, or a quick blow from an earth-shattering earthquake or devastating Tsunami—only this time, it’s worse… much worse! Who will show up to rescue your family? Who is prepared to put their life on the line and rush headlong into your burning home without concern for their own well-being like John and Joel Rechlitz and thousands like them? Who today has that type of courage, passion, integrity and moral fiber? Firefighters Needed Recruitment Initiative does—along with all the volunteer fireman they’re helping to recruit and train to protect you when a natural disaster strikes! Together, they’re burning with passion and an overwhelming desire and commitment to build the mechanism by which our nation will protect itself during a time of sudden peril in www.firefightersneeded.com. Come join them, like the Greatest Generation, it’s a call to civil service that you’ll never regret; and likewise, your children and grandchildren will thank you for the America you helped create and protect.

Dave Moitizo is a guest writer for Philly2Philly.com He can be reached at DMoitozo@yahoo.com

photos: Dave Moitozo