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How a Va. volunteer EMS service successfully retains members

Harrisonburg Rescue Squad values quality service, positive attitudes and knows a little creature comfort goes a long way


Pay is important, but it’s not everything

Recruiting and retaining employees is a huge challenge even for paid EMS organizations. Since volunteer organizations, by definition, do not pay, they must be innovative to attract and retain members. Many volunteer organizations that struggle with member recruitment and retention want to blame the fact they don’t pay as the primary reason they struggle.

The reality is usually quite different. In fact, a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management noted in a 2012 survey that pay/compensation ranked only 3rd in a list of factors contributing to job satisfaction. This means that there are other major factors that volunteer organizations can take advantage of to attract and keep members.

Harrisonburg Rescue Squad (HRS) in Harrisonburg, Va, (Image Lindsey Stein)
Harrisonburg Rescue Squad (HRS) in Harrisonburg, Va, (Image Lindsey Stein)

I have had the pleasure of observing several high-performing volunteer organizations over the years. One of the most impressive is Harrisonburg Rescue Squad (HRS) in Harrisonburg, Va.

First chartered in 1949, HRS has been serving the needs of the local citizens ever since. Today HRS operates out of a building holding nine ambulances, six QRVs, one heavy rescue, one rehab truck, an MCI trailer, and a number of service cars. Not only does the building hold a large number of vehicles, but it also has plenty of amenities to ensure that members are comfortable and enjoy their time in station.

Culture is the most important element to retaining quality members

Being all-volunteer, HRS uses some interesting techniques to attract and retain productive members. I spoke with HRS Spokesperson Lindsey Stein, who told me that for HRS, retaining members starts before those members are even recruited. HRS is a highly structured organization with an emphasis on member performance. They carefully maintain a culture that values quality service and positive attitude. If a potential recruit does not fit into the culture of excellence at HRS, their membership committee will address the issue.

According to Stein, HRS has hundreds of observation riders every year. Out of these hundreds of interested observers, some will decide EMS is something they would like to become a part of, and some decide EMS isn’t for them.

"The core of our recruitment and retention efforts is our culture," Stein said.

HRS has a well structured recruitment process, and membership committee members are trained in interviewing and answering questions. HRS knows that good culture starts with recruiting the right people.

Comfortable seats in the ambulance make a big difference. (Image Lindsey Stein)

Creature comforts and living quarters help keep members active

The member area of the station includes day rooms, kitchens, media rooms, training rooms and fully furnished living quarters. These living quarters help ensure that members spend more time at the station and this of course helps with the ability of HRS to handle a relatively large number of calls (sometimes over 21 a day).

As a side note: I’ve also observed other volunteer organizations that build attached living quarters and allow members to actually live at the station for a small amount of rent - with the understanding that when calls come in they will be willing to respond.

Additionally, HRS provides their members with high quality equipment. Their vehicles are well kept, and the crew seating in the patient compartment was some of the nicest I’ve ever seen!It makes sense that if you are asking someone to do something for free, you should do everything in your power to make sure they are as comfortable as possible while doing it.

Money matters, but isn’t everything. A little creature comfort goes a long way.

Another way that members are retained is by hosting social events and friendly knowledge games like squad jeopardy (Squadardy), and skill competitions they call “Rescue 40 Olympics.” These activities contribute to the culture at their organization that values high quality EMS services, attitude and behavior. Again, HRS focuses on maintaining a culture of positive energy and continuous learning.

"Activities keep our members involved and passionate about learning and helping patients," Stein said.

Local colleges have lots of young passionate manpower

Harrisonburg, Va. is home to James Madison University and a number of other universities. Being a college town, there are a large number of potential volunteers attending the universities. HRS takes advantage of this fact, and college students make up a substantial amount of the HRS member roster. Still, HRS has a core group of community members who lead and ensure the continued success of the organization. Those longtime core members welcome the newer members for their time, their energy, and their new ideas. HRS knows that without new members, an organization quickly becomes stagnant and eventually fails.

If you build it, they will come

Even if your volunteer organization can’t offer cash to it’s members, there are other things it can offer. Pay is very important, but it’s not the only thing that keeps members around. If your organization is struggling, don’t blame it on pay. Chances are there are other problems you aren’t seeing. Maybe you need a culture change. Maybe you need fresh young members to infuse some passion. Maybe you need to look at building residences onto your stations. Whatever the case, money is likely not your primary problem.

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