Another Volunteer Crisis

As sure as the day is long, we can count on the EMS news sites to do a post on the volunteer crisis in fire and EMS organizations. And EMS1 did its part yesterday.

And of course, y’all know I have to comment.  So, let’s do a rehash and repeat.

Folks, it’s real simple. Too many organizations make it hard to volunteer, whether its applying or what’s required to remain a member. I’ve lost count of the number of volunteer organizations that don’t have their membership application online. Likewise, I’ve lost count of the number of “all hazards” departments that will allow volunteers to remain exclusively firefighters but won’t allow for EMS only volunteers, even when well over half of most departments’ call volumes are for medical calls. I’ve also lost count of the number of departments that are combination departments that only offer their “mandatory” training during the week when we “normal” people with an office job are already pulled in multiple directions. (Hint: There are infinite platforms online to make these classes available on demand or as webcasts.)

I’ve always held the position that standards should never be lowered. All that most volunteers (or potential volunteers) ask for is a bit of flexibility in how you reach those standards. Something as simple as allowing a volunteer more time or the ability to work with different field training officers could be a huge asset in getting a volunteer cleared to independent duty, especially as an advanced life support provider.

If you don’t believe that there’s a pool of volunteers out there, do this.  Look at how many people out there hold a fire and/or EMS certification and are currently unaffiliated with any service, whether paid or volunteer. If the National Volunteer Fire Council, NAEMT, or any of the other fire and EMS groups are truly serious about volunteers, I’d recommend a survey targeted at those people to find out why they’re not currently volunteering.  If you wanted to go above and beyond, survey those people who are active volunteers with departments not near their home.  Find out why they’re not affiliated with a closer department. Dollars to doughnuts, the answers will the same — there will be some artificially created barrier preventing them from volunteering nearby.

I’ll also note that the value of a volunteer group, especially in a combination department, isn’t immediately obvious until you have a disaster or other incident that’s stretched your department thin and/or exhausted mutual aid resources.  That guy who’s just a volunteer EMT can now free up the paid firefighter/EMT staff from medical calls.  That lady who’s qualified to drive and operate a tanker/tender means that apparatus is now in service and the paid crew isn’t cross-staffing it.

Unless of course, your goal is solely to show that you “can’t find volunteers” and really need that sales or property tax to hire paid staff. If that’s your real agenda, then, by all means, keep on doing what most departments seem to be doing. Sadly, in my neck of the woods, this strategy has been effective as a jobs program for paid firefighters and EMTs.