In my volunteer department’s “heyday,” we boasted of having more than 200 volunteer members. As time passed and the community grew, the department reorganized into a combination department. The original career members were very receptive to the volunteers; most of them started with the department in that capacity. However, as training demands increased and the older volunteers retired, the volunteer force began to dwindle. At the time, the economy was good, and the organization added more career staff to meet the demands of a busier department. The department started losing volunteers until it reached a low of 18 active volunteers in 2013.
During this time, the county (like everywhere else) had suffered a severe economic downturn. In addition, two distinctive geographical areas lost their Insurance Services Office rating because there were no fire stations within the required five road miles. Elected officials were receiving phone calls daily from angry citizens complaining that their insurance premiums were doubling and tripling. The department was challenged to find a solution that would staff two additional stations with minimal budget increases. It created a committee to find an acceptable solution that would provide the needed coverage without compromising the current coverage. After months of going over different scenarios, we decided to revive the volunteer program. Of course, the question presented was, How do you bring a volunteer program back to life?
Most of us are trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to bring a dying victim back to life. When taking CPR courses, I learned that the key to a successful resuscitation was following the “ABCs.” So, to bring our volunteer program back to life, we developed our own set of ABCs, which follow:
- Buy-in, and
By following these principles, we increased the number of our active volunteers by more than 300 percent over an 18-month period.
The fire service has allowed itself to become a sort of “secret society.” To attract new volunteers, a department must be accessible to potential volunteers. We accomplished this by changing our policies and making all of our stations more accessible to the public. This included keeping the apparatus bay doors open during the day and into the evening (weather permitting), making our entrance easier to locate, and creating more parking for the public. We educated our career firefighters on having the right attitude toward accepting volunteers. We eliminated any attitudes that were perceived as wanting to keep people out.
We also held open houses at each of our stations so the public could get information about volunteering. All senior staff, elected officials, and current volunteers attended these open houses. We supplied each station and our vehicles with volunteer applications, promoted our recruitment and open houses through advertising, placed ads with local newspapers and radio and television stations, and created departmental Web and social media sites. Senior staff made presentations to civic and volunteer organizations, and we distributed recruitment flyers at the local university and technical schools. In addition, our firefighters carried flyers when they went on calls or to the grocery store. We discovered that many people were interested in volunteering; they just did not know how to do it.
For your recruitment to be successful, you need buy-in from several groups. First, you will need approval from your governing authority. Although most will be open to the perception of unpaid labor, you must educate them on the costs associated with having volunteers. Often, these authorities do not consider higher workers’ compensation insurance premiums or the cost of extra personal protective equipment, immunizations, paging devices, training, and other miscellaneous expenses. In addition, they need to be aware of the limitations of volunteer firefighters. You do not want your program to start off well only to have it fail because of an extended response time.
One of the most important groups from which you will need buy-in is your career firefighters. Assure these members, whose livelihood depends on their firefighting job, that the volunteers are not there to replace them. If your career members are represented by a labor union, maintain open communications with that organization’s leadership. It is imperative that the career firefighters have a voice in how the volunteers will be used. Set clear rules as to what you expect of the volunteers and how they will interact with the career firefighters, and address early on any questions regarding to whom these volunteers will answer. In our case, volunteers fall into the normal chain of command. If they are on scene or are spending time at a station, they answer to the career officer in charge. However, we also have one senior volunteer who serves as the liaison for volunteers with the senior career staff.
You will also need buy-in from the community members you serve. Sometimes, residential and commercial property owners fear that response times may be affected. Alleviate this by holding events such as community town hall meetings and speaking engagements with business and civic organizations where you present facts to help answer the public’s questions and emphasize the value volunteer firefighters can provide to their community.
Volunteers must be confident that what they do is worthy of their time and that they are appreciated by the department, or they will find another way to volunteer their time. Remember, today we are competing for someone’s valuable time; volunteering is challenging, but it should also be fun and rewarding. Training creates confidence, so have career and volunteer members train together as much as possible. For career firefighters to have confidence in the volunteer segment, they must know that the volunteers have been trained to an acceptable level. In addition, new volunteers must feel confident they can do the task required of them. Accomplish this by using your career personnel as instructors for your basic firefighter recruit class. All volunteers assigned to firefighting duties must complete the same training as your new career personnel; this builds a level of trust between the two segments.
In our department, recruits who have not successfully finished the training wear a yellow helmet. Once they have passed all of the objectives and are certified, we provide them with a black helmet (the same color as the career personnel). We make every effort to schedule training at different times and days to accommodate our volunteers’ busy schedules. In addition, we use electronic technology for some of our training sessions to make the scheduling more user friendly.
This is just the beginning for our continuously growing program. We are constantly on the lookout for ways to improve. What works for us may or may not work for you, but one thing is certain: If what you are doing today to revive your volunteer department is not working, try something different.
SCOTT W. BLUE is the chief and department head for Carroll County (GA) Fire Rescue. Blue started his fire service career as a firefighter with the United States Air Force. He has also served with the Hinesville (GA) Fire Department, the Georgia State Fire Marshal’s Office, Terrell County (GA) Emergency Services, Worth County Fire Rescue, and Heard County Fire and Emergency Services. He has a degree in fire science from West Georgia Technical College and is a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government Management Development Program. Blue is also a certified fire officer IV, emergency medical technician, emergency manager, fire instructor, fire inspector, life and fire safety educator, and fire investigator.
Scott W. Blue will present “Reviving Your Volunteer Program” on Friday, April 22, 8:30 a.m.-10:15 a.m., at FDIC International 2016 in Indianapolis.
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