Why Can’t We Get Perfect Volunteers?

Earlier this week, I watched a great documentary movie about the volunteer fire (and EMS) service called Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat. The movie does a great job illustrating the various cultures of volunteer emergency services throughout the country as well as people’s motivation to volunteer and why they remain. As a volunteer myself (almost 19 years now), I saw a lot of myself in the movie and recognized some of the people I’ve worked with, even if the names and locations weren’t the same ones in Texas that I know.

Then, I¬†looked at one of the departments they highlighted. Said department (which is NOT in a poor or rural backwater) wants their members to do a weekly night shift and a 24 hour Saturday shift every 4th week. That kind of schedule isn’t a volunteer schedule. It’s a part-time employee schedule. While this department was along the mid-Atlantic Eastern Seaboard, I’ve seen several volunteer fire and EMS departments in Texas that operate along the same scheduling concept. And the department that I spoke to in Texas seemed genuinely offended that I wasn’t able to meet their 48 hours per month commitment via a twelve hour shift weekly as opposed to my suggestion that I could come for two 24 hour shifts on the weekend. Apparently, at least there, they had a surplus of Texas licensed paramedics willing to work for free.

What I routinely see is the self-fulfilling prophecy that “we can’t get volunteers.” The truth is that volunteers are out there. The truth also remains that not everyone has the time, temperament, or inclination to basically work a part time job — especially with the added burdens of attending monthly meetings, fundraisers, committee meetings, and various mandatory trainings only offered at certain times. Even more so if you’re driving a way because of limited (or no) opportunities to function as an EMS provider or firefighter nearby.

Even the “hiring” process at volunteer organizations can be haphazard. People often don’t know that an organization exists, let alone is looking for volunteers. And attending a few “business meetings” to be voted in as a member, whether it’s a pro forma vote or a popularity contest undermines the notion that a volunteer department is truly staffed by “unpaid professionals.” Attending some department’s monthly meetings also demolishes that notion as you witness the lack of accountability, personal politics, self dealing, sense of entitlement, and rampant spending on pet projects. Thankfully, these are not issues at either of my current departments (one combination department and one entirely volunteer organization), but the stories ring true nationwide when my volunteer (and former volunteer) fire and EMS friends discuss their experiences. And those are just the issues that arise at the business meetings — not even addressing training, equipment, operations, and the other day to day issues that will either cause people to remain long term members or rage quit when the final straw breaks the camel’s back.

Volunteer fire and EMS is often its own worst enemy as it lowers standards, engages in petty politics, and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of not being able to find volunteers. Oftentimes, they can’t fund volunteers because people don’t know they’re looking. Or if people do express an interest in volunteering, they are turned away because the volunteer organization only has one way to use them, whether it’s the failing model of the fixed duty calendar (see also: You’re working as a part time employee at this point and you should be paid as such.) or the idea that one must be all things to the department to be of any use. (See also: Most volunteer fire departments that turn away EMS-driven individuals. Pro-tip: Giving an “EMS-only” EMT or paramedic the keys to a squad truck means those who want to fight fire can do exactly that.) And of course, once a motivated member makes it through the malarkey and is still motivated, they’re all too often met with the conundrum of command staff playing the martyr, yet who are unwilling to delegate anything. The idea that new members need to pay their dues seems in direct contradiction to the martyr mindset of many chiefs and officers who simultaneously bemoan that the younger generation doesn’t want to help while also retaining their positions and duties even longer than some United States Senators. (For example, take a look at the interlocking boards of most of the EMS organizations and “stakeholder” panels where board members and stakeholders haven’t been on an ambulance or fire apparatus since there was a BioPhone and MAST trousers.)

Until we stop chasing the perfect volunteer and take what’s available to us, we’re doomed to the volunteer fire and EMS model being a historical relic that will, at best, limp along only because of the unwillingness of local governments to adequately fund emergency services. While we still have a volunteer or combination model for emergency services (by the way, there are reserve police officers too, even in large agencies), we have to either adapt our organization to reality or adapt the prospective volunteers to the organization. The former will be easier, no matter what the old guy in the back of the meeting says.

Otherwise, the stagnation will continue with the duty roster becoming more and more empty and no one wanting to “put up with that BS” to “work for free.”