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.
5. It’s not about the money, but it can help
Most volunteers join because they like giving back to their community, or like being there for their neighbors. They knew when they joined that they were volunteering their time and no one expected to get rich. One thing that I’ve seen work in departments struggling to fill their call shifts is transitioning from volunteer members to “paid-on-call” members. It doesn’t take a huge payroll. In one case I’m familiar with the struggling department went from barely being able to fully staff one ambulance to staffing two ambulances daily, day and night. This department paid its people $10 per 12-hour shift to be on-call, plus a flat rate of $10 per 9-1-1 call, and a small hourly stipend for inter-facility transports since they took longer. Sometimes a token amount like this is just enough to make it worthwhile for your volunteers to be on-call.
6. Invest in your people
Do you have a way or rewarding those high-performing volunteers for all their calls answered, or all the time they spend on-call? Do the same volunteers who ran 70 calls last year get the same training opportunities that the volunteers who ran two calls get? If so, it may be time to reevaluate things. You need incentives that encourage volunteers to aim high. Training can be a good incentive. Maybe your top performers get to go to state-level EMS conferences with expenses paid, your middle performers get to attend regional trainings, and your low performers are limited to in-house trainings. Those who are awarded these training opportunities not only feel appreciated and good about having “earned” it, but they also bring back that training, which benefits the community and the other members of the service.
7. Get innovative
Just because something has “never been done here before” doesn’t mean it won’t work. Think outside the box. As outlined in the previous tip, develop an incentive program for high-performing volunteers. Recruit high school seniors who plan to go into nursing or the fire service and wish to get some experience as an EMT. Consider allowing people to join who aren’t already certified in EMS. They can gain experience as drivers while completing their EMS training. Having people trained as drivers also frees up the already-certified EMS providers on the crew to focus on patient care. Create a support or auxiliary division for volunteers who want to contribute to the department, but are no longer able to run calls. One of our retired fire officers functions as a photographer on incidents, which provides us with great photos for training and to add to our department’s archive. Other volunteers may not be able to run calls but may be up to teaching CPR and first aid classes, keeping notes for incident command during large incidents or helping with ambulance maintenance. Start a department newsletter to keep your volunteers up to date and let people in the community who have donated money to your department know what you’ve been up to. And make sure you’ve got a department website! For a lot of young people today, if it’s not online it doesn’t exist. Websites can be done on almost any budget and they only increase your department’s visibility.
8. Solutions do not always require money
You can do a lot of good with plain common sense. Do you make trainings fun for your volunteers? Do you volunteers like to hang out at the station, or attend department social events? Do your department’s leaders express their gratitude for the work you do as volunteers? People who volunteer as EMS providers often do so because they want to make a difference. So when they do make a difference, let them know it. Assign an experienced, respected volunteer to be a mentor for a new volunteer and implement an in-house training or orientation program to ease new volunteers into their role and provide a foundation for what to expect in your organization.
9. Adding ALS into the mix
If you have recently added, or plan to add ALS personnel to your department, be prepared for the challenges it will bring. It’s possible to have ALS and BLS members living in harmony within your volunteer service, but not without a lot of communication. With the addition of ALS members, BLS members often feel like they are no longer needed, or will no longer get any hands-on patient care. To remedy this allow the majority of calls to start out with BLS providers leading the crew and providing patient care, with the ALS member only taking over if the call requires ALS intervention. Both ALS and BLS members must be reminded of the fact that BLS skills are the backbone of EMS, and ALS members must respect the role of the BLS members within the organization.
10. Consider a combination approach
Having paid and volunteer members on a department can be a great way to provide excellent service to your community without the expense of an all-paid department, but it can also lead to turmoil and headaches if department leaders are not careful. Everyone must know and respect each other’s roles in the department. It’s essential for volunteers to take ownership in the department alongside paid staff members. If a volunteer can handle a responsibility, let them do it. Paid members must have patience with volunteers and understand that volunteers are not always as experienced or as highly trained as they are. Paid members must be used to support the volunteer members, not vice-versa. Paid members must mentor the volunteers, identify training needs and see that every volunteer is given the support needed to be successful.
It’s become essential for EMS leaders to be innovative when it comes to recruiting and retaining volunteers. We have a duty to keep our volunteer and combination departments strong, so that when our patients need us there’s not just silence on the other end of the radio.
Kyle Starr is a full-time assistant chief/EMS operations officer with Red Lodge Fire Rescue in Red Lodge, MT. He has been involved in EMS for 12 years, as a professional firefighter in Kansas, as well as a critical care paramedic/captain with Glacier County (MT) EMS. He has also worked as a 9-1-1 dispatcher and a reserve law enforcement officer. He is a member of the Montana Fire Chiefs Association. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.