“In the last couple of years, we just can’t get people interested in volunteering.” —Don Therault, Director of Ambulance Service Inc., Fort Kent, ME, 2001
“Volunteer organizations throughout America are in transition.” —Joseph J. Fitch, 2002
For better or worse, we live in a time of change. Community demographics are changing, the healthcare system is evolving, there is an increase in overall EMS call volume, both parents in a family are breadwinners, cultural norms have changed, the cost of living is higher than ever, most persons do not work in the same municipality in which they live, and EMS finds itself in the middle of a crisis in regard to the state of volunteerism. “Volunteer agencies” are paying personnel and trying other strategies to stay afloat. Recruitment and retention are the big buzzwords these days, but what are we really doing to recruit new volunteers? Can we stave off the inevitable drought ahead?
As a general rule, the regional bedrock foundation of EMS past and present has been the volunteer provider. Webster’s Dictionary defines a volunteer as “one who gives of their time freely.”
It’s been said time and again that the psychology behind the volunteer EMS provider is diverse and reflects the basic human needs of recognition and a sense of belonging. Aside from recognizing these basic needs, as well as the inherent satisfaction that comes from serving the community, there are proven strategies that will work in recruiting new volunteers to your service. There are also some common pitfalls that all volunteer EMS agencies confront regarding recruitment and retention of new members. Here are some fairly simple approaches to deal with these often-unintentional obstacles.
Look at the processes involved when dealing with your agency through the eyes of the people you wish to recruit. Do probationary members have to deal with three different committees whose members meet every other Monday, but only in months that end with the letter “e”? Why is this? Have you ever thought to ask? Rationales like “we’ve always done it this way” or “those are the rules” have no place in a volunteer EMS agency that wishes to move into the future.
There is no reason why an initial application cannot be two pages long, if not less. This size enables you to touch on the critical points, such as current and past addresses, criminal convictions, references, etc., and still leave room for a standard “doctor’s note,” training/education or other documentation on the back of the second page.
Establish specific goals
At the beginning of a probationary period, new members need to have a handbook that maps out what is expected of them over the next few weeks/months. Included within it should be items like the number of calls needed to progress to the next level of membership, meetings to be attended, hours of committee work (e.g., ambulance supply, ambulance maintenance, grounds upkeep or even for attendance at a special event), and other similarly important pieces of information. These are essential items that need to be clearly delineated to every new member. This document should also contain applicable policies and procedures, information on local hospitals and their areas of specialization (e.g., trauma center, burn center, pediatric capabilities, etc.), as well as radio communication protocols, member code of conduct, etc. Obviously, each agency should assess what is important for a new member to know and tailor this document to meet its own specific needs.
Get rid of membership committees
These archaic internal structures can be seen as the gauntlet through which all prospective initiates must pass with the fear of being rejected due to some poorly defined or arbitrary discriminatory practice. Dynamically intertwined with this point is the need to get rid of the “club” or “clique” atmosphere seen in some volunteer EMS agencies. You are not running a fraternity, but providing a vital public service. Policies and procedures should demonstrate equitability to all members and their concerns.