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Social science solutions to EMS volunteer recruitment and retention

Another piece of the volunteer ambulance staffing puzzle: a declining middle class


There is a volunteer shortage with a dwindling amount of people who are able to volunteer.

Photo/Southern Tier Health Care System

By Allison G. S. Knox, faculty member, American Military University

Many volunteer ambulance agencies throughout the United States have a difficult time staffing their ambulances. In decades before, it seemed that volunteer ambulance companies had a surplus of members who were happy to help their community in their free time.

Now, there is a volunteer shortage with a dwindling amount of people who are able to volunteer. A July 2017 article by Arthur Hsieh on EMS1 recently suggested that rural emergency medical services agencies are on life support, making it difficult for them to recruit volunteers. Similarly, an April 2015 article published by “Westchester Magazine” explained that numerous ambulance agencies in Westchester County, New York are moving to a paid service because of a lack of volunteers able to assist with emergency medical services.

Social science approaches could be useful in analyzing ambulance staffing problem

It’s no secret that recruitment and retention are at the forefront of the volunteer drought. But it is in the best interests of ambulance agencies to utilize social science approaches to address the problem. Social science could help ambulance agencies understand what specific staffing problems may be, beyond recruitment and retention, in their respective communities.

Declining middle class and need to work two jobs discouraging volunteers

Some social scientists have recently argued that there is a declining middle class in the United States. A declining middle class may be an indicator that a community is not able to sustain volunteer agencies. For instance, some individuals find it hard to volunteer because they need to support their families first.

USA Today reported in 2016 that many Americans work second jobs to pay their bills. Thus, many volunteer agencies find themselves with fewer and fewer members not because people don’t want to volunteer, but because they simply can’t.

Volunteer agencies must find other methods of volunteer recruitment and retention

Volunteer agencies have struggled with recruitment and retention for a while. In some cases, volunteer agencies have had to close because of a lack of volunteers. While there are measures that ambulance agencies can take to retain volunteers, the unfortunate reality lies in the fact that as times become harder financially, it will be harder for individuals to volunteer.

Volunteer agencies need to get an idea of what is going on in their general community. If they’re not able to support their agencies with volunteers, they need to come up with other means of retention to keep their members and attract new ones.

They cannot rely on an old model that was able to substantially support volunteers in this era, when people need to work two jobs due to a declining middle class. Ultimately, it will take serious contemplation to solve this piece of the volunteer puzzle.

About the Author
Allison G.S. Knox is an emergency medical technician and a political scientist, focusing on Emergency Management and Emergency Medical Services policy. She is a faculty member at American Military University and has taught at the undergraduate level since 2010. Prior to teaching, Allison worked in a level-one trauma center emergency department and for a member of congress in Washington, D.C. She holds four Master’s degrees in Emergency Management, National Security Studies, International Relations and History. She also has a Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. She is trained in water safety instruction and large animal emergency rescue. She serves on the Board of Trustees for Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society and also serves as the Advocacy Coordinator of Virginia for the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. Knox is a contributor to EDM Digest and In Public Safety, American Military University-sponsored websites. To contact the author, please email

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In Public Safety is an American Military University (AMU) sponsored blog that features analysis and commentary on issues relating to law enforcement, emergency management, fire services and national intelligence. This blog features in-depth discussions authored by leading experts with decades of experience in their field. To stay updated on blog posts and other news relevant to these sectors, please follow us on Facebook by “liking” AMU & APUS Public Safety Programs. You can also follow us on our sector-specific Twitter accounts: @AMUPoliceEd, @AMUFireEd, @AMUDisasterEd, @AMUIntelStudies
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