5 myths about the EMS volunteer shortage

The evidence does not always support common rationales given to explain the decline in volunteer memberships


Where have all the volunteers gone?

The answer to this question has been deliberated for years as volunteer EMS, fire departments and rescue squads struggle to attract and retain enough volunteers to guarantee reliable response today, and a sustainable workforce for the future. 

But evidence does not always support the usual rationales given to explain the decline in memberships. Here are five myths we often hear about the decline in volunteer EMS.

Fire departments and rescue squads struggle to attract and retain enough volunteers to guarantee reliable response today, and a sustainable workforce for the future. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
Fire departments and rescue squads struggle to attract and retain enough volunteers to guarantee reliable response today, and a sustainable workforce for the future. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

1. Time constraints

Myth: “People don’t have time to volunteer.”

Truth: It is a widespread misconception that volunteerism is driven by free time. Research shows that not only do many volunteers work more than one job, they also volunteer for multiple organizations.

In workshops and conference sessions, I routinely ask this question; “Who here volunteers at their rescue squad or fire department because you have nothing else to do?"

I’ve only seen one hand raised. That gentlemen clarified that he was retired, and since his wife had recently died, he felt less lonely hanging around the fire station.

2. Training requirements

Myth: “The increased amount of training required for EMS today is a turnoff to potential volunteers and is driving out current members.”

Truth: Potential EMS volunteers understand they need to obtain the skills and knowledge needed to be responsible for patient care.  

Difficulty in finding local, affordable education that fits their schedule is the more likely issue. Because of this challenge, many give up before they ever get started. Most volunteers are not anti-education. But for experienced volunteers working full time and covering the daily schedule, their frustration at the lack of CE opportunities that are relevant, affordable and convenient is an issue.

Research has shown ever-increasing overall time demands is driving volunteers from EMS, not education itself. 

3. Financial stability

Myth: “People can’t afford to volunteer. The need for dual incomes has made volunteering almost impossible.”

Truth: The need for dual income households and second jobs is true for some Americans, but not all. Seventy percent of mothers with children under 18 participate in the labor force, with over 75% employed full-time. Yet, 38% of women and 33.5% of working parents in their 30s and 40s continue to be the largest cohorts volunteering today. They are invested in the community where they are living and raising their family.

Many of today’s youthful baby boomers and healthy retirees have both time and financial stability. They want to contribute in a meaningful way, meet people and experience new things. This group offers not just maturity and a renowned work ethic, but years of desperately needed professional skills, knowledge, leadership and business management experience.

4. Young people lack volunteer spirit

Myth: “Young people these days are special snowflakes who don’t understand the volunteer spirit.”

By 2020, Millennials will make up more than 50% of the workforce. Complaints about millennials not having an interest in volunteering have no basis in fact. Because of this generation’s increasing commitment to social responsibility, and attraction to positions with companies displaying ethical corporate values, 90% of Fortune 500 companies offer employee volunteering programs.

Volunteering among teenagers ages 14-18 has increased dramatically over the last 20 years. Today, 86% of schools offer volunteer opportunities and encourage students to participate, creating awareness and interest in activism and volunteer participation. Historically, youngsters who enjoy the volunteer experience and find it meaningful return to volunteering later in life.

5. Lack of financial incentive

Myth: “Volunteering is a noble ideal whose time has passed. Just pay them.”

Truth: It is a fallacy that volunteers are typically people who would rather be paid for their time.

The very definition of volunteering is “an altruistic activity where an individual or group provides services for no financial or social gain to benefit another person, group or organization.”

Unfortunately, the trend toward offering minimal stipends for on-call response has created another class of EMRs and EMTs working for minimal wages. The national average value of a volunteer hour in 2018 was $24.69. The idea that $2.00 an hour, or $10-15 per call is going to attract new people or keep members committed to your agency is misguided, insulting and most likely an FLSA violation. Stipends are an unsustainable quick fix that often lead to internal strife, fighting and resentment.

Volunteers want a rewarding experience, not a crappy wage.

Is there actually a volunteer shortage?

The information historically used to demonstrate the decline of volunteerism in the U.S. originates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, using CPS data starting in 2002. These numbers reflect a surge in civic involvement and interest in volunteerism caused by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That surge  peaked in 2008, and has been slowly dropping by tenths of a percentage annually to the current rate of approximately 25%.

The same percentage of Americans are volunteering today as did in 1974. Between 1974 and 2015, adults who reported formally volunteering at least 100 hours with an organization increased 28-34%.

A new breed of EMS volunteers

There are many reasons people are either unaware of or attracted to EMS and fire service volunteerism. But a lack of people willing to devote their hearts and their time in the service of others is not one of them.

What has changed is where people are spending their time volunteering, and why. Current research reveals a shift away from volunteer participation in civic, political and healthcare-related activities, and towards organizations focused on education, youth, and social and community activism.

For volunteer EMS and fire departments, successful recruitment, retention and ultimately, organizational survival will depend on two key elements:

  1. Embracing a diverse and multigenerational workforce who want to effect change, not forcing everyone to fit in with the way you’ve always done things.
  2. A commitment to cultivating an emotionally intelligent culture that is engaging and rewarding to the current membership, and appealing and accommodating to today’s new breed of volunteers.

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