On volunteering

A couple of the EMS websites have been talking about the lack of volunteers in EMS these days.  Each of them cite different matters as to why EMS volunteerism is on the decline.  Most cite either declining community involvement or the ever-so-popular red herring of “increased educational requirements.”  Several years ago, I wrote a piece on developing a volunteer program in EMS systems, especially those that are combination paid and volunteer staffing.  Since no one ever picked it up for publication, I present it here as discussion fodder for the dirty unwashed masses of the Internet.

 

Introduction

Ever since Benjamin Franklin founded the first volunteer fire department in 1736 (the Union Fire Company), the United States has had a long, illustrious history of volunteers in public safety, whether volunteer firefighters, volunteer EMS providers, or even volunteer (or reserve) law enforcement officers.

However, as time has progressed, many organizations that started out as exclusively volunteer have since progressed to either a fully paid department or a department that has volunteers in name only.

I’ve had the privilege to work primarily as a volunteer in EMS, mostly because I’m employed in a profession outside of emergency medicine that I’m unwilling to give up. (Honestly, with as much as I didn’t enjoy taking the bar exam twice, I’m loathe to give up being an attorney for a full-time career as a paramedic!) I’ve had a variety of experiences in volunteer organizations, ranging from being “merely” a field provider (both at the EMT and EMT-P levels) to coordinating a volunteer program and serving on the board of directors of a fire department.

In my opinion, it’s actually easier to start or reinvigorate a volunteer program for EMS than it is for the fire service or law enforcement.   While in some states, there are different training and certification requirements for volunteer firefighters or reserve peace officers, the certification standards for EMS providers are almost invariably the same, whether you are full-time, part-time, or volunteer.

Justifications for Volunteer Programs

There are many reasons to have a volunteer program within your EMS organization, even if you’re primarily a career department.   The first is quite simple – additional manpower. Whether it’s staffing an additional crew member on each truck to assist with patient care or putting up additional ambulances during a disaster or peak volume event, volunteers provide a cost-effective way to supplement your career staff.

Additionally, volunteer programs can help control overtime costs and provide coverage for special events. One of my proudest accomplishments as the volunteer coordinator of an EMS agency was in ensuring that our volunteer providers staffed a PGA golf tournament held in our service area. Previously, our organization relied on our paid staff to cover this event, usually resulting in significant overtime expenses. With a lot of cajoling, coaxing, and some begging, the 2011 event was covered almost exclusively with volunteers aside from a few advanced life support positions covered with management/administrative staff who modified their work schedules for that week.

Almost the exact opposite story happened during the 2011 wildfires around Austin, Texas. Over the years, the other fire departments in Travis County surrounding Austin have transitioned from being almost exclusively volunteer to being small paid departments with relatively small (3-4 firefighters) duty crews staffing each apparatus.   The presumption has always been that, in a major incident, each department would provide mutual aid to the other. Over the past few years, most of these county departments had allowed their volunteer programs to dwindle to a few members, if not completely disappear. When the fires hit the Austin area (the Bastrop County fires, the Spicewood and Steiner Ranch fires in western Travis County, as well as several fires in nearby Williamson County), the majority of the surrounding fire departments were completely taxed for resources, with mutual aid resources coming from all over the state, including the Houston and Dallas areas. In fact, in Travis County, most EMS calls no longer received basic life support first response from the fire department. Of course, in a disaster such as this, it’s extremely unlikely that the event can be managed exclusively with local personnel. Regardless though, the ability to supplement local responders with volunteers, even for covering BLS EMS first response or firefighter rehab and scene logistics would have alleviated some of the manpower issues, freeing up firefighters for front-line duty.

Another possible role for volunteers is to expand your organization’s services. Volunteer providers can be an invaluable resource for covering public relations and community outreach events that might not otherwise be able to be covered. Additionally, volunteers can serve a crucial role in an EMS organization’s education programs, whether serving as “patients” in simulations, helping with skills practice and examinations, or even serving as instructors, provided they have the required qualifications. In fact, by conducting CPR or EMS courses, some of your volunteers may progress from saving your department money to actually making money!

And in more than organization I’ve been affiliated with, the volunteer program often serves as a ready-made hiring pool. A volunteer program allows for you to hire paid from a group of providers who are already within the organization and have at least been somewhat oriented to the organization. Additionally, for those volunteers who joined looking for a paid position, hiring from within serves as a motivation to stay active and involved.

Motivations of Volunteers

Based on my years in both fire and EMS departments as a volunteer, I’ve found that most volunteers fall into one of three categories. First, there are those volunteers who are volunteering as a way to get experience and/or a foothold to apply for a full-time paid position. Second, there are those volunteers who just enjoy EMS (or the fire service) and want to stay active and involved despite having a career other than being an EMS provider or firefighter. Finally, there are those volunteers who are community-minded and just want to volunteer with an organization. Some of these volunteers would be equally likely to join another community organization if they weren’t involved with EMS.

Particularly for younger (whether in age or experience) EMS providers, a volunteer EMS position is almost like an internship. It gives them the opportunity to gain experience and find out if EMS is right for them. These volunteers should be encouraged to ride with crews who set good examples to emulate. Also, since these volunteers aren’t yet on the payroll, take the time to expose them to other aspects of your EMS organization. When I was a volunteer coordinator, I often encouraged these new volunteers to spend part of a shift observing the communications center, riding with a critical care team to observe that aspect of EMS operations, or riding with a supervisor to expose them to high acuity patients. (In the service that I served as volunteer coordinator with, supervisors were automatically assigned to respond to certain high acuity calls including cardiac arrest, high mechanism collisions, and shootings.)

Occasionally, there are just some volunteers who just enjoy EMS (or the fire service) despite having another career. Some of these people are former full-time providers and some are just people who got “bit by the bug” and want to volunteer. These volunteers often end up as the core of your volunteer program. Since EMS is an avocation to them, they are often passionate about EMS and go above and beyond to be involved with the organization, particularly in acquiring additional certifications and skills.

The community-minded volunteer can be a challenge to develop. Many of these volunteers primarily pursue lower-level certifications. My experience is that some of these volunteers are less interested in the patient care aspect of EMS operations and much more interested in the management, financial, and community service/public outreach aspects of the organization.

One other subset of volunteers exists, especially in college towns. Some people volunteer in EMS in the hopes that volunteering as an EMT will help their chances of being admitted to medical school or some other graduate education in healthcare. These volunteers often run the gamut from enthusiastic participants in patient care to being little more than uniformed ride-alongs. My experience is that the unmotivated of these volunteers often end up leaving shortly due to the time commitments that most organizations require of their volunteers. Having said that though, some of these volunteers may end up our future medical directors and as such, it probably benefits us to mentor them as much as possible and present as positive of a view of EMS as we can.

Perils and Pitfalls

One of the biggest issues that I’ve experienced is that some career personnel see the volunteers as a threat to their position. The easiest way to address this issue is to remember that, for most organizations, volunteers may be supplementing current resources. For example, at both Harris County Emergency Corps and Cypress Creek EMS, the overwhelming majority of volunteer EMS providers ride as a third crew member to assist in patient care. Both of these organizations take care to ensure that volunteers who wish to work as the second or primary crew member go through the exact same field training processes that paid providers do. It has been my experience that, in most cases, the paid staff often enjoys having a third crew member to assist with patient care, particularly with critical or multiple patients. Also, check with your crews to find out which of them enjoy having a third crew member to ride with them. One of the surest ways to run off or discourage a volunteer is to have them with a crew that doesn’t want them.  In other organizations, there can be a rush to put these new volunteers into a field training program to “clear” them to independent duty, which may discourage newer volunteers who might still want the “safety net” of being able to ride as a third crew member.

Scheduling can be another pitfall. At one department I volunteered with, there was no organized schedule for volunteers on the fire crew. Several days could go by with no volunteers at the station and then, particularly on weekends, more personnel would show up than could staff the first-out rig(s). An online/web-based schedule is an absolute must for a volunteer program. My personal experience is that such a schedule is most successful when a volunteer can sign up for the shifts on their own, even at the last minute. Additionally, until new volunteers get a feel for which crews they work well with, I encouraged volunteers to ask me if they needed recommendations on crews to ride with.

One of the biggest pitfalls I’ve observed in my experience is the lowered expectations that so many career staff have for volunteers. It rapidly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One must remind some volunteers occasionally that the same expectations exist regardless of payroll status as the certification status makes no differentiation. Volunteers should be expected, not encouraged, to participate in all aspects of EMS operations, including cleaning and restocking the truck.

A potential pitfall also exists with a lack of organizational support or buy-in. In some organizations, even with management’s support, the lack of buy-in from support staff can cause problems for the volunteer program as well as for the individual volunteer. These issues can range from getting uniforms issued, getting the new volunteer access to the various technology resources (electronic PCR, online scheduling, email, etc.), or even training requirements. If the senior/executive management is supportive of the volunteer program, a discreet conversation with them may alleviate the problem. For organizations that are fortunate enough to designate one person as the volunteer coordinator, the individual volunteer will experience less of this problem as the volunteer coordinator will be the interface between the individual volunteer and the organization’s support/staff functions.

Another issue arises when the volunteer coordinator is given the responsibility to develop the program but does not necessarily have the authority to manage the program. This issue may create difficulties with managing problem volunteers. When I first coordinated the volunteer program at one department, I was the point of contact, but did not have the ability to manage or discipline volunteers. After several instances of discussing problems with management as well as instances where there was no clearly identified person to “solve” a problem at that moment, I gradually received the authority to supervise and discipline volunteers. This is crucial if the volunteers are to truly see the volunteer coordinator as THE point of contact for the volunteer program.

Making it Work

I’ve found that the key to making a volunteer program work is flexibility. As I’ve commented more than once to other medics and to management, “It’s not as if you were paying these people to come in anyway.” In other words, you may need to work with your volunteers on a variety of issues.

At times, some volunteers, particularly those enrolled in school, may need to take time off. My philosophy when serving as a volunteer coordinator was that I would never drop a volunteer from the roster so long as they kept me updated as to their intentions.

The other absolutely essential ingredient to a successful volunteer program is to designate one person as the volunteer coordinator. The volunteer coordinator should be both a single point of contact for volunteers as well as the organization’s internal advocate for the volunteer program.

In order to get volunteers “addicted” to the organization, it’s important to be able to get the volunteer out in the field while they are still eager after submitting their application. Departments that require an orientation class and/or significant probationary time prior to being able to go out in the field often lose volunteers. My greatest successes as a volunteer coordinator came when I was able to minimize the time between getting an application in and getting the newbie in the field. I accomplished this by placing much of the volunteer orientation material in an electronic format to send to the volunteer rather than making them attend an orientation class on a specific day. In fact, on more than one occasion, a motivated new volunteer could be on an ambulance as a third crew member in less than a week. In addition to the required topics such as equal opportunity, blood borne pathogens, and HIPAA training, you should consider some operational matters such as equipment familiarization as part of the orientation as many volunteers may be completely new to EMS aside from their initial education which provided limited education as to EMS operations and almost certainly did not orient the volunteer provider to your organization’s operations in particular. When the volunteer rides as a third crew member supplementing the regular, the pitfalls of a “new guy” on the ambulance are somewhat lessened and the volunteer can benefit from the crew’s mentorship.

Another tip to operating a successful volunteer program is to find out what interests the volunteer. Never assume that the volunteer only wants to be a field provider. This means that your volunteer application should go well beyond asking for basic demographic information and certification verification. In my experience, the volunteer application should inquire as to the prospective volunteer’s other EMS training and certifications as well as their interests in the organization and any outside skills or hobbies. As a volunteer coordinator, I was fortunate enough to have one volunteer in particular who was absolutely overjoyed to cover public relations events, particularly for children. While she was an acceptable field provider, she really shined in the community education role, which ended up being much more of a service to the department. I’ve also had other volunteers who were certified as instructors in various EMS disciplines. Several of these volunteers became excellent instructors and even brought new training opportunities to the organization. Two of my volunteers were also photographers who we relied upon for public relations and training photos. Some of the best advice I remember about using volunteers came from Chief Buddy Crain, the chief of CE-Bar Volunteer Fire Department near Austin, who told me that he could almost always find a use for anyone who wanted to volunteer with his department.

Chief Crain also gave me an additional piece of advice that I strove to live by when I coordinated a volunteer program, namely that it should not cost anyone to volunteer. Chief Crain, being the chief of a well-funded department, was often able to “spoil” his volunteers with a variety of uniforms, personally issued medical bags, radios, pagers, and opportunities to attend outside continuing education. Regardless of funding, volunteers should not have to expend their personal funds for their basic uniforms and equipment. And if funding permits, additional uniform items such as jackets or the opportunity to attend outside educational offerings serve as excellent tokens of thanks to valued volunteers who continue to contribute to the organization. One organization that I’ve been involved with both at the EMT and paramedic levels provides a small gas stipend to its volunteers, most of who come from nearby communities.

Recruiting is crucial in maintaining a volunteer base. Most organizations currently maintain a web presence which may include a volunteer recruiting aspect. In this current age of social media, outreach via Facebook or YouTube may be particularly helpful in reaching the younger or more technologically savvy potential volunteer.   Organizations that I’ve been involved with have also found college-based EMS education programs a ready source of volunteers. Many of the students in the paramedic programs are ready and eager to get 911 EMS experience while still in school once they get their EMT-B certification. However, the best source of new volunteers almost always comes from current, happy volunteers. Just like in any business endeavor, word of mouth is still the most powerful advertisement for any organization.

And once you get your volunteer core developed, it’s time to recognize your superstars for their hard work as best as you can. Of course, volunteers don’t typically get financial compensation, but there are other ways to provide recognition. As previously discussed, some volunteers begin volunteering as a way to get a foot in the door for a paid career. If these volunteers perform well, the easiest reward is to transition them to a paid position. Other volunteers can be recognized at department awards events and banquets. In fact, I’ve seen more than one department that offers a “volunteer of the year” award, often with a plaque, small gift, and perhaps a medal/ribbon to wear on their uniform. Other volunteers who regularly contribute to their organizations can be recognized inexpensively with new titles and responsibilities. For instance, a volunteer medic who has covered many of the organization’s public relations events could become the community relations coordinator. In other departments, I’ve seen volunteers promoted into officer ranks such as lieutenant, captain, or shift captain. In my own experience at one department, I was given the opportunity to go through the field training process to transition from being a third crew member to being part of a two person crew. (Credentialing several volunteers to work as part of a two person crew or even to function solely as a driver ended up saving the department significant overtime costs.)

Conclusion

In short, it is more than possible for a combination department to continue to succeed with a volunteer program. A successful volunteer program provides additional resources to any department, whether in providing its core services to the public or providing services above and beyond what the department could provide with its paid staff.  Organizational commitment and a willingness to be flexible will help an organization recruit and retain volunteers who end up being more than just ride-alongs wearing the same uniform.

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