It’s 8 p.m. on a Wednesday when dispatch pages out the local volunteer ambulance service somewhere in rural America. A minute goes by, then another, with nothing but silence on the other end of the radio. Dispatch pages out EMS again and several more minutes go by without as much as a crackle on the radio. All the while, someone who called 9-1-1 in need of an ambulance is waiting, with every minute seeming like an hour. Unfortunately, this is not a fiction novel this is a reality in many communities in the United States, especially rural communities.
It isn’t headline news that volunteerism in our field is decreasing nationwide. Many factors are playing a role. You can put some blame on the hard economic times. People who used to volunteer in their off time find themselves working multiple jobs or longer hours in order to make ends meet, leaving less time for volunteering as EMS providers or firefighters. Some departments have leaders who have failed to flex to meet the changing times. And younger generations are less service-minded than their predecessors.
Whatever the causes, we need to get innovative and ensure that we’re recruiting and retaining enough people to ensure that my opening scenario stops being a reality. Every department is different, every region faces different challenges, and each department’s budget is different. Bearing that in mind, here are my top 10 tips to aid your recruitment of volunteers.
1. It starts at the top
If the leadership in your department (upper or middle) has ever given you the explanation, “because we’ve been doing it that way for 20 years,” that’s your first problem to overcome. We’re in a rapidly changing field, and those in leadership positions HAVE to understand this and be willing to change with the times. The long-term benefits are worth any short-term stress.
2. Evaluate your policies and procedures
Are you making it too difficult for people? For example, do you require volunteers to sign up for an entire shift, or allow them to split shifts with others, or cover only a partial shift? Think about it, would you rather have someone on-call for at least part of the shift, or not at all? Are you going to turn away a potentially great volunteer because they get off of their full-time job at 1830 and can’t go on-call at the 1800 evening shift start? If you are a fire department-based system, do you require your volunteers to do both fire and EMS? If so you may be missing out on valuable people who wish to do one but not the other. See where you can be flexible. Policies and procedures should be evaluated often to see where improvements can be made.
3. Know what makes your volunteers volunteer
What keeps your current volunteers active in your service or department? What do they like about your department, or dislike? The only way to know this is to talk to your volunteers, one-on-one. Encourage open communication. A department with a roster full of “yes people” is never going to reach their full potential. Encourage people to come to you with ideas, problems or constructive comments. Make sure they know that while you cannot always bring all their ideas to fruition, you will always take the time to hear them out.
4. Educate, educate, educate
We need to keep in mind that EMS is still the most recently organized of the emergency services. Do you think someone who doesn’t understand what we do is going to be excited about becoming an EMT and volunteering? Likely not. We all bear the responsibility of educating the public about what we do as we advance our field. It’s scary how many people I still talk to who think EMS is all about “throwing them in the back and driving fast.” EMS Week is a great opportunity to have an article published in your local newspaper, or set up a booth at the local grocery store or other venue with lots of diverse foot traffic. Be creative and let the public know when your volunteers receive new training, or what a recent donation went toward. Advertise your need for volunteers through local media and put up signs on bulletin boards in local stores or community centers. It doesn’t hurt to ask and make sure your current volunteers are also taking an active role in recruiting.