6 cultural changes made by successful volunteer agencies

Volunteers have an obligation to move the EMS profession forward by being informed, engaged, and involved


Volunteer EMT’s, who typically have primary careers outside the field, are usually dependent on their organization's part-time leadership to keep them up to date on the EMS profession. As a result, many volunteers may not be aware of the adaptations and improvements many EMS agencies are making. 

The most successful volunteer organizations have made these cultural changes as part of their commitment to continuously raise the bar to maintain modern standards of care.   

1. Every shift has a scheduled crew

In this photo, kids explore an ambulance during a show and tell. Taking the ambulance out to interact with the public is great practice which builds confidence in low-volume providers and develops a rapport with the community. (Image Nancy Magee)

In this photo, kids explore an ambulance during a show and tell. Taking the ambulance out to interact with the public is great practice which builds confidence in low-volume providers and develops a rapport with the community. (Image Nancy Magee)

The practice of scrambling ambulance crews is archaic, dangerous, and unprofessional. Having a dedicated crew ensures an immediate response and eliminates members "cherry picking" – only responding to the best calls.

If you do not currently have sufficient staff to do this, an effective recruitment and retention program is your first priority. If you have gaps in your coverage schedule, alert dispatch so that time is not wasted toning and re-toning for a crew that will never respond. Yes, you are admitting to a deficit by doing so, but you are doing the right thing for your patients.

2. Response is from the ambulance station 

Responding from the station can be a huge cultural change for some agencies. Responding from home or work in a personal vehicle contributes to the risk factor for the crew, and often adds to response time. 

Help your membership understand that there are many additional benefits to having an “in house” crew. The crew is mentally prepared, in uniform, and has the opportunity to conduct vehicle and equipment checks .By investing in a computer-based learning program, scheduled shifts can be used to refresh knowledge and complete training requirements. 

Take the ambulance out into the community while on shift and interact with the public. Invite them into your ambulance, do vital sign wellness checks and talk to people about their medical issues. Interviewing and assessing people in a non-emergent environment is great practice which builds confidence in low-volume providers and develops a rapport with the community. Talk to people about the satisfaction volunteering brings you, ask for support and promote membership during these contacts.

3. Ambulance crews are uniformed and carry identification

Presenting a professional appearance as well as ensuring safety is the responsibility of the agency and needs to be part of the budget. Dress uniforms are a nice perk, but if there are budget limitations the working uniforms and safety gear need to be the priority, not parade uniforms.

4 Education and training are a priority

Access to required and elective continuing education is provided to members. Attendance at conferences and local CE opportunities is encouraged and funded by the agency. Outside educators can be brought in house to keep it convenient, and to keep content fresh and people interested and excited. All drivers are EVOC or CEVO certified.

Be careful about offering “Free EMT Classes” in an attempt to boost membership. "Free" creates a perception that the class has little value or importance. Instead, consider offering a scholarship to qualified applicants who are willing to make a contracted commitment to the agency for a predetermined length of time.

5. Volunteers need to be competent, not just nice

There is no denying that volunteers are altruistic providers, dedicated to serving the people of their community. But simply being “nice” is not enough. Knowledge and clinical skills matter too. The desire to cling to outdated ideas, practices and policies out of a misplaced sense of tradition or fear of change must be overcome. Define your operating policies based on a commitment to excellence in service, not by what is convenient for the membership. 

6. The agency plays a significant role in the health of the community

To do their part in forwarding the progression of EMS, volunteers need to become an integral part of healthcare in the community. Volunteer EMS should be dedicated not only to emergency response, but also to providing support services. Prevention, education, patient advocacy, car seat safety, first aid classes, well-being checks on seniors, standby for local events - the possibilities are endless. For example, every town should be a Heart Safe Community. Provide frequent opportunities for 'Friends and Family’ CPR classes and make it happen in your community. Be ubiquitous.

According to the NAEMT 62 percent of EMS in the U.S. is provided by volunteers and hybrid volunteer/paid departments. The vast number of volunteers demands that they remain informed, engaged and involved in order to take their place at the table and have a voice in the EMS community.They have a responsibility to do their part to move what is still a young profession forward.

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