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EMS Volunteerism

“We don’t have to do that, we’re just volunteers.”

“Why do we have to write reports? we’re just volunteers.”

“Why do I have to attend HazMat classes? I’m just a volunteer.”

Just volunteers. Just? When did being a volunteer become a “just?” I always get confused — a little angry — but mostly saddened when I hear this phrase. Unfortunately I seem to be hearing it more and more often these days.

Living and working in a rural, county-based system, the majority of the EMS providers here are volunteers, or “vollies,” as I’ve heard them called in other regions of the country. EMS in the United States was founded on a predominately volunteer basis, and that tradition continues in many agencies today. But I think that today's volunteer foundation seems to have lost that sense of pride it once had.

Volunteerism has always been seen as a noble endeavor; an individual or community action geared to do what needs to be accomplished, especially when no funding is available. EMS has been and should always be proud of the foundation of volunteers who are performing a job that can be difficult – both mentally and physically — but often rewarding beyond words.

The volunteer EMS provider sacrifices time with their families, missing children’s events, birthdays and holidays. They take time away from their jobs, often times losing pay. They certainly deserve kudos for their commitment.

I was fortunate when I began my career as a volunteer during the infancy period of EMS — I humbly admit I’m not as aged in the profession as some — that I had instructors that instilled not only pride, but also insisted on professionalism. The instructor who taught my EMT-A class began the course with a presentation that defined the differences between paid EMTs and volunteer EMTs, pointing out the only real difference that should exist between the two: money.

The career EMT acts with professionalism at all times, conducting patient care with compassion and empathy for the patient. They achieve and maintain a degree of proficiency at utilizing the knowledge and skills needed to provide the highest caliber of patient care, receiving a monetary wage as compensation.

And the volunteer EMT? Besides not receiving a monetary wage, there should be absolutely no difference.

So, what happened? When did volunteers start thinking they were excused from professionalism? Should not the volunteer EMT perform the same level of patient care as a paid provider? Should they be held to a different standard than career providers? Or are volunteers holding themselves to a lower standard?

The volunteer service in my area has reached a crisis point. Now, this isn’t a new issue for us, or for most EMS systems around the country for that matter. However, recruitment and retention seem to be increasingly difficult. We have been trying to recruit new volunteers for the past eight years, as our numbers steadily declined from 25 to only five volunteer EMTs and drivers.

It came to a head one particular day when there were not enough volunteer EMTs in town to cover the ambulance. A call occurred and the patient, being attended by first responders, had to wait more than 20 minutes for the next closest transport service, which is 18 miles away. The community was very upset over the delay and suddenly the need for more EMTs was taken seriously. When the community leaders were asked why it took such an event for them to see how dire the situation had become, the response was: “Someone has always shown up right away in the past.”

Soon after this event, the community began to actively seek new volunteers. Even the county stepped in and offered to provide funding so that individuals could take the training class for free. Pride in volunteering suddenly began to resurface. I witnessed a change in the way the current volunteers saw themselves. While speaking to the 40-plus people who showed up to hear about the class, they remembered exactly why they had decided to volunteer in the first place.

My community is rejuvenating its ambulance squad and, more importantly, the volunteers have changed how they define themselves. They are no longer saying that they are “just volunteers.” They now proudly introduce themselves by saying, “I am a VOLUNTEER EMT!”

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