Volunteerism in EMS: We're at the crossroads

The two divergent paths of volunteerism and field care will continue

Editor's note: This week, it emerged that a volunteer shortage is forcing the closure of an NY ambulance service. It's all part of a growing trend, says Art Hsieh. 

Volunteering is a noble effort. Each year, many of us take time out of our busy lives to lend a free hand to a cause we are passionate about.

Volunteerism grows out of our national history and our sense of civic pride. It accomplishes a great many things that otherwise would not ever come to fruition, either for a lack of funding or staffing.

Yet EMS has been at a crossroads with its volunteer workforce for some time. I began my career as a volunteer and proudly served four years.

Yet even then it was difficult at times to get a unit to respond to a call in a timely manner. We didn't measure response times then, but I'm fairly sure it took us longer to get there than what would be expected today.

There have been reports and studies conducted over the past 20 years about the decline of volunteerism in EMS. Reasons cited include increases in initial and recertification training and increases in cost to the provider.

Systems have tried to compensate by offering financial and other incentives to recruit and retain volunteers. The simple fact remains: In our current economic world, very few people have time anymore to stay proficient in EMS, despite every good intention to do so.

Meanwhile, EMS has grown from providing simple first aid to an increasingly complex part of the health care continuum. Staying competent really needs a career-focused mindset and the time to learn and retain the information necessary to provide field care.

We can debate about the value of this evolution, yet we cannot turn back the hands of time on this one.

The two divergent paths of volunteerism and field care will continue. At some point individuals will need to decide what the priority will be for the safety of their communities, just as this one town has done.

It won't be easy, but it will be necessary.

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