A Time To NOT Volunteer

If you know me or you’ve come by this blog a few times, you know I’m very passionate about the role of volunteers in the world of emergency services, particularly in the fire and EMS world.  Today marks a change.  One, I’m about to give some very broad, generic “free” legal advice.  Two, I’m about to tell you NOT to volunteer.

Event medical standbys. At least in Texas, those fall into a massive loophole where they’re not subject to any regulation from the state. In Texas, transport providers (officially called “EMS Providers”) and “first responder organizations” are subject to state regulatory requirements.  Because event medical standbys don’t fit into Texas’s definition of EMS Provider or First Responder Organization, they’re completely outside the purview of our state EMS regulatory system.

These events always say “BLS only” or “CPR/first aid” but seem to recruit heavily from the ranks of EMS providers. If they truly only want “BLS” or layperson aid, why are they recruiting so heavily from EMS?  Simple.  They want EMS providers on site, but they’ve gotten some legal or risk management advice to not call it an “EMS standby.”  They think that by saying it’s only first aid that their liability will somehow be limited.  Truth be told, I’m not sure if it would or wouldn’t be limited.  But I know this much from law school — anyone that can be sued will be sued, both collectively and individually.  While you may not end up being found liable, I can guarantee that will not protect you from either a suit or the lawyer’s bills to represent you.  (Speaking of which, you do have your own EMS liability insurance to protect you and provide for legal representation, don’t you?)

This is the closest you’ll ever get to free legal advice from me. Just say no. You’re unlikely covered by any medical direction or protocols, which begs the question of what you’re doing there and whether you’re practicing “medicine” or delivering EMS care. And if all they want is “BLS” or first aid, why are they asking you to be there by virtue of you holding an EMS certification? I’ve helped at these events before and it feels very odd to be there without the ability to function at your certification level, assuming they’ve even verified your certification.

In the very best case, you’re probably going to be poorly equipped.  You’re even more likely to be expected to supply your own gear. And I will virtually guarantee that if something bad happens, you will be on your own. The worst part? Many of these events are for profit. Those that aren’t are usually run by nonprofits that have plenty of money for everything besides real EMS coverage. Many of these so-called event medicine companies have a business model based on you being an “independent contractor,” meaning that they’ll throw you to the sharks and claim that they had no oversight of you.  In other words, helping some of these events out for free as a “volunteer” isn’t much better than offering to drive Lyft or Uber for free.

If you truly want to “feel good” by volunteering, get a t-shirt, and/or be thanked for your service, there’s probably a volunteer service within an hour’s drive of you that would actually benefit from your volunteer hours. To me, it’s really ironic is how many paid firefighters/EMTs jump at the chance to work at these events and then say how volunteering “holds back the profession” and artificially lowers salaries.  If that’s the case, then it’s high time that we tell each and every one of these large public events that they need to provide EMS coverage just like they have porta-potties, trash collection, food service, and security on site.

Want to Volunteer?

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m pretty passionate about my volunteer work in EMS.  To me, it’s a wonderful way to give back and it’s a wonderful change of pace from my workday of moving contracts through the bureaucracy.

Those of us in the fire and EMS world hear a lot about the supposed shortage of volunteers.  Last week, I saw the irony of a state volunteer fire association doing a media outreach at the state capitol using trucks from a department that is primarily paid and doesn’t even have information on its webpage about volunteer recruitment.

So, in the spirit of an intervention filled with tough love, I offer you the following advice.

Want to join a volunteer fire or EMS department? Let’s talk about what happens.
1) Good luck finding the department online. If you do find them online, good luck finding an application.

2) If you do apply, you can expect some sort of committee process to see if you “fit in” with the prevailing culture of the department, which is probably dysfunctional.

3) If you have no interest in 80% of the fire department’s calls being medical, no worries. You don’t have to even get your first responder. But even if you already have your EMT or Paramedic, we will demand that you be a firefighter.

4) Training? What’s that? We’ll do training when we feel like it, on topics that only interest us, conducted by people with no qualifications. If you need additional training to maintain your certifications, that’s probably going to be on your own, with your own money.  But if the training sounds “cool,” you can fully expect that the connected members of the department will be travelling to it — on the department’s dime.

5) Equipment?  Yeah…. Here’s a t-shirt or two. We’ll issue you a radio, pager, safety apparel, and EMS equipment sometime, maybe — if we like you and/or you still keep coming around after putting up with us.

6) Leadership?  What’s that?  We’re likely run by a self-perpetuating group of insiders who are completely insular in our thinking and definitely don’t wear how anyplace else does things, especially from you, the new guy.

7) You’ll be on some sort of probationary process for a while, which will be a form of institutionalized hazing until we “check you off.”  Good luck getting one or two of the very specific training classes that you need to be released from probation.  We only offer those every few months at best.

8) We will continue the same things we’ve been doing for 40+ years, then wonder why we can’t find volunteers.

9) If we have paid guys, they’ll unionize and then claim that they can’t work with volunteers.

10) We will beg and plead everywhere for volunteers, show zero flexibility, and use that as political cover to put in another tax levy to pay for more unionized firefighters. Once we do that, we’ll then try to become an “all-hazards” department and get ambulances staffed by 18-25 year old firefighter/medics who want to do suppression only.

If you find a department where the majority of these thing don’t apply, stay there.  You’ve found a gem.

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