The Making of a Volunteer in a Volunteer/Combination Department

Let's begin by agreeing that volunteers are needed in today's fire service. However, attracting and keeping them is becoming more and more difficult as the day-to-day demands on our time increase.

Today's volunteers are looking for action, respect, training, a feeling of appreciation and a sense of being part of a team. They only want to contribute a small block of their most valuable commodity—time. Let's look at five things most desired by volunteer firefighters.

Action

Volunteers join fire departments for the action they'll take part in, so a department with a very low call volume is behind the eight ball from the start. If a department is slow, volunteers must be kept active with well thought out and interactive training programs and training drills. Training and drilling with other departments in the area is a good tool to keep your volunteers active and happy.

On the other hand, a department with a large call volume runs the risks of burning out volunteers who are trying to balance family and other responsibilities with their service. If a department has a large call volume, creating teams that volunteers can be part of and scheduling these teams to respond first-out on a regular basis can help, depending on the department's needs.

Allowing volunteers to be actively involved in emergencies, including driving apparatus, is a great way to keep them interested. Many combination departments don't allow volunteers to drive or actively provide services on scene; they simply use them as go-for-this, get-me-that members, which can be devastating to morale.

Volunteer members can be just as effective on the emergency scene as career members if they're properly trained, and they should be valued and respected for the time and effort that they contribute.

Respect

Respecting members is vital if a department wishes to acquire and retain volunteers.

Word travels fast in the fire service, and if a department has a history of treating volunteers like second-class citizens, the department will struggle to get new members. Those in charge must keep volunteers involved in the day-to-day operations of the department.

This can be accomplished by having active volunteer officers in the department, and ensuring that all members work in an environment that demands interoperability of career and volunteer members.

Qualifications for an officer position must be the same whether it's held by a volunteer or a career member; a qualified volunteer deputy chief must have authority over a career captain on the emergency scene.

If volunteers are only allowed to wash and pack hose, change air cylinders, etc., they'll seek out a department with a more respectful and challenging work environment.

Training

A good training program is key, and training for volunteers and career members must be the same.

A new-member orientation program for new and probationary members joining the department can be very effective. This program must educate potential members about a number of topics:

  • the department's history and mission statement
  • membership types
  • organization structure (career and volunteer)
  • training program
  • emergency notification and response
  • the incident-command system
  • accountability
  • the department's apparatus
  • protective clothing
  • self-contained breathing apparatus

There must be a written packet for new members containing this information so a potential new member can read it and get a good sense of what the department's all about.

This type of program isn't just a watered-down Firefighter I program, but also educates members about the department itself. It ensures that new members can hit the ground running as soon as they join.

Here in Old Mystic, our program lasts six months. There are 12 subjects, with classes twice a month. It's a good entry-level program to educate volunteers before sending them to a state-certified Firefighter I program.

With today's volunteers having so many responsibilities in life, departments must offer as many in-house training programs as possible. This makes it easier for volunteers to get certified without spending hours traveling, taking even more time away from their families and other commitments.

Offering in-house refresher training for EMS certification, such as a concert program for MRT and EMT, makes it easier for members to retain time-consuming medical certifications. This program covers all the required subjects over an eight-month period. Conducting this training monthly on a regular evening makes it much easier for volunteers to get recertified without giving up lots of family time.

Presenting volunteer officers with opportunities to attend a conference like VCOS Symposium in the Sun is great for volunteer morale. This particular program is a must for all officers of any volunteer or combination department. Giving the member the option to take his or her spouse can be a nice thank you.

Appreciation

Complimenting volunteers when performance is good is very important; people like to be acknowledged for their accomplishments. A simple "nice job taking the door at that last MVA" can boost morale and confidence at the same time.

Departments that fail to truly show how much volunteers contribute on a regular basis or that take members for granted won't retain volunteers for very long. Personnel in charge must understand, appreciate and acknowledge the commitment of time and energy sacrificed by volunteers to serve their communities.

Also, remember that all volunteers have their own abilities and limitations, and they must be appreciated even if they can't give as much as other volunteers do.

Although praise and recognition are the most appreciated by the majority of volunteers, a stipend for calls and drills attended is also an effective tool to show appreciation. For departments with no such program in place, start out small; each year, add to the account in the budget.

Depending on a department's regulations, volunteers may be required to meet certain OSHA regulations and attend a certain percentage of training sessions or calls for the quarter to receive the stipend, which is based on how many emergency calls/trainings the member attends.

Old Mystic has $185,000 budgeted this year for volunteer compensation and an average of about 41 volunteers that receive compensation. For less than the cost of the salary of 2.5 career firefighters, we're keeping 41 volunteers active and serving the needs of the community in the process—money well spent for any department.

Offering social events such as a holiday party and banquet not only encourages members to get together in a nonwork environment, but also brings members' families together.

Giving awards at a banquet for top responders, firefighter of the year, years of service, etc., is another great way to recognize hard work and dedication. Recognizing members who earned new certifications lets them know you appreciate the time and effort they put in. Everyone likes to be in the limelight for a short while.

Most importantly, treat members with respect and courtesy. Constantly remind them that they're needed for the department to provide the best possible service to your community.

Being Part of the Team

Volunteers want to be part of the team; they want to feel needed and important! Giving volunteers what they need to do the job right away signifies the department's commitment to its volunteers and in turn encourages them to commit to the department.

Being part of the team means being treated the same as members of the career staff—and by everyone in the department. If a volunteer feels he or she is being treated with less respect than career members, the chief and officers aren't properly doing their jobs. Behavior like this will kill a volunteer's drive faster than any other thing!

Likewise, chain of command shouldn't be affected by membership status; working with this in mind will build a well-rounded department with members who respect each other and work together as a team.

Issuing such items as turnout gear, t-shirts and other clothing imprinted with the department logo—something they can wear in public that demonstrates they're part of the team—gives members a sense of belonging right away, not six months down the road.

Another way to encourage membership and make volunteers feel like part of the team is to hire from within the department when career openings need to be filled. If there are qualified volunteers in the department who are passed up when hiring, what message does that send? This practice of hiring from within the volunteer ranks will send a hugely positive message and encourage others to volunteer in the department.

Conclusion

Being a volunteer in today's fire service is a huge commitment, but it can be done with a little help from the department. Effectively training volunteers, keeping them active and respecting them as individuals and as members of your team takes a lot of work and requires commitment from the department and the volunteer. But the returns far outweigh that effort.

Stay safe and always ask yourself, "What can we do for the community?"

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