3 non-monetary solutions to volunteer EMS retention

Volunteer EMS providers are motivated by respect; use appreciation, clear expectations and creature comforts to keep them engaged and satisfied


There are many reasons why providers leave, from safety concerns, to the physical and mental toll EMS can take, to outdated technology and policies, disconnected management, and low pay.

In this feature, learn how volunteer EMS agencies are using non-monetary incentives to satisfy members. Learn more retention strategies in our Special Coverage package, “Defying the EMS retention crisis.”

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By EMS1 staff

Most people who volunteer in EMS already have their basic needs (physiological, safety and security) satisfied; likely by a paid job. More money is not their goal or need for EMS volunteering, Nancy Magee, volunteer EMS consultant and owner, MEDIC Training Solutions notes. “So why is money always the first answer to keeping your members motivated, engaged and happy?”

Creature comforts, like well-kept ambulances, outfitted with safe, comfortable seating, and updated equipment, go a long way in EMS retention. (Courtesy https://www.facebook.com/HarrisonburgRescue/)
Creature comforts, like well-kept ambulances, outfitted with safe, comfortable seating, and updated equipment, go a long way in EMS retention. (Courtesy https://www.facebook.com/HarrisonburgRescue/)

Here are three ways to recognize the contributions of volunteer EMS providers, and to keep them satisfied and engaged for years to come.

1. Continuously demonstrate appreciation

A volunteer EMT is motivated by respect shown by the community, their leaders and their peers for their skill and personal sacrifice, Magee points out. Leaders need to seek out opportunities and be intentional in giving respect, recognition and appreciation.

  • Attend public events. One of the great things about getting your staff out in public is the number of former patients and their loved ones who will come up just to say "thank you."
  • Ask for and share feedback. Seek testimonials from patients and their families. The chief or a designated officer can make how-did-we-do phone calls or send a self-addressed postcard for written feedback. Ask permission to print kudos, well wishes and testimonials on your Facebook page and website.
  • Announce milestones. Use local newspapers and social media to recognize recertification, new training courses completed or positive feedback from patients.
  • Open every meeting with kudos. Use the first 10 minutes of every squad meeting thanking members for their contributions and reading patient responses.
  • Appreciation events. At least quarterly, host an appreciation event and include families. A promotion ceremony, picnic, banquet, dance, group trip to an amusement park or sporting event boosts camaraderie and address the needs for belonging and self-esteem.
  • Service awards and gifts. Service awards accompanied by a gift card and personally signed by the leadership are generally more meaningful than plaques, mugs and T-shirts.

2. Use clear position descriptions to set goals and expectations

Nonprofit and public sector organizations establish different job titles and descriptions for employees and volunteers. EMS volunteer organizations could adapt this strategy to reflect the squad’s expectations of their roles and tasks of each type of caregiver, according to Michael Ward, a senior associate with Fitch & Associates.

“Our challenge is that clinical certification has been the de-facto job description in emergency service, regardless of pay status,” Ward writes. “Personnel are defined by their EMS credential, regardless of their tasks within the organization.”

There are task assignments, such as chart review, inventory, vehicle/equipment maintenance, training and state compliance, that may be different for each type of caregiver within the squad.

Establishing different titles with detailed job descriptions will provide the framework of relationships between caregivers.

The Virginia Beach Rescue Squad offers five membership categories. Only the patient care/operational category requires certification. The other four do not require a clinical EMS certification to join. The categories are:

  • Patient care/operational
  • Special response team
  • Marine rescue team
  • Search and rescue team
  • Support member

Engaging caregivers in resetting the organizational goals and expectations can focus attention on what is important now and in the near-future, Ward notes.

3. Provide updated equipment and creature comforts

Living quarters, high-functioning technology and creature comforts help keep members happy and active.

Nathan Stanaway, BS, NRP, an EMS consultant with over 10 years’ experience in the field, has observed several high-performing volunteer organizations over the years. He notes one of the most impressive is the Harrisonburg (Virginia) Rescue Squad.

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, which of course helps with the ability of HRS to handle a relatively large number of calls (sometimes over 21 a day).

Stanaway notes he’s also observed 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.

HRS provides their members with high-quality equipment, Stanaway reports. Their vehicles are well kept, and the crew seating in the patient compartment was some of the nicest he’s 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,” he said. “Money matters, but isn’t everything. A little creature comfort goes a long way.”

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