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2 top lessons from successful volunteer ambulance services

Leaders set a high standard for the members of high-performing volunteer EMS agencies

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The best volunteer EMS agencies have high-standards for leaders and members.

Photo/Greg Friese

Despite a dwindling pool of volunteers, a handful of volunteer ambulance services continue to attract and keep people. What makes them thrive when others are falling apart, and what can they teach us about creating organizations that people truly want to be a part of? Over the past five years, my consulting partners and I have made it our business to pay close attention to these rare services. After studying several dozen around the country, two distinct features stand out: These organizations have recognized leadership and compelling cultures.

1. True leader

In many emergency services organizations (paid and volunteer), the direction of the organization is often vague or set by group consent. The person at the top is often simply a manager who keeps things running and ensures that operations carry on. But these thriving volunteer organizations have a true leader. In all of them, someone is clearly in charge and is recognized both internally and externally as the leader. They have the credibility, confidence, personality and charisma to get people to follow. When listening to these leaders, you hear a clear description of what the organization is about and where it is going.

Interestingly, these leaders are not necessarily flashy or bossy, but most are tough — they have high expectations and are not afraid to make a decision, get something done or hand out discipline. At the same time, they possess an openness to input and criticism and know how to make people feel a part of the process. People in the organization (and in the community) want to work for these leaders and speak highly of them.

2. Inclusive culture

Every organization has a culture — a set of stories, practices, beliefs and behaviors that guide how the organization does its work and conducts itself as a group. However, we have noticed that these thriving services have some distinct and similar cultural characteristics: They are inviting, warm, respectful, fun and family-like. There is often an emphasis on education and learning, and simply being a part of the organization adds to people’s quality of life in terms of enjoyment, camaraderie and meaning.

Most surprising about these organizations’ culture is that they have extremely high performance and behavior expectations for their people. Rather than lowering standards to attract more volunteers, they actually make it more difficult for volunteers to join and stay in their organizations. They expect volunteers to be reliable, on time, professional, competent, kind, and willing to keep facilities and equipment looking great.

Policies are strictly enforced, and bad attitudes, ongoing interpersonal conflict and nonprofessional behaviors are simply not tolerated. These organizations are not afraid to fire volunteers (yes, you can fire volunteers) who do not fit in.

In the end, organizational leadership and culture matter because at the core we are social animals, and connection to others, as well as meaningful activities, are what count most. Even if we consciously think wages and career advancement are most important to us, mounting research suggests that it’s our unconscious that really determines happiness. Reporting on this growing body of scientific research, New York Times journalist David Brooks writes that happiness, fulfillment and meaning show up “when we connect with other people ... happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities.”

John Becknell, PhD, is a partner in the consulting firm SafeTech Solutions, LLP. John has been involved in emergency services for 40 years and writes and researches in the areas of leadership, culture, community and psychological wellbeing. He leads workshops, retreats and training programs for EMS, law enforcement and the fire service in living well, peer support and transforming the first responder experience into a path of growth, satisfaction and meaning. He is the author of Medic Life and numerous articles. John’s Masters and Doctoral degrees are in psychology with an emphasis on community psychology. Contact John at