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Breaking volunteer recruitment and retention barriers

NASA Security Specialist and former Firefighter/EMT Dr. Candice McDonald offers a rapid overview to what EMS volunteers need from their agency, and no, it’s not money


If there’s a delay in getting someone started on the ambulance, get creative, Dr. Candice McDonald, DBA, PIO, said in her EMS Today 2020 session. Invite them in to go over equipment and learn how to break it down.

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

In a session at EMS Today, Dr. Candice McDonald, DBA, PIO, offered research-based and proven strategies to offset the biggest issues volunteer organizations face in keeping their members happy and engaged, based on a 3-year doctoral study on retention. Learn more about what she shared in this EMS Today Quick Take.


Dr. Candice McDonald, DBA, PIO, offered research-based and proven strategies to offset the biggest issues volunteer organizations face in keeping their members happy and engaged, based on a 3-year doctoral study on retention.

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While recruitment and retention challenges are not unique to volunteer EMS agencies, their retention barriers can be uniquely difficult to overcome.

In a session at EMS Today, Dr. Candice McDonald, DBA, PIO, offered research-based and proven strategies to offset the biggest issues volunteer organizations face in keeping their members happy and engaged, based on a 3-year doctoral study on retention.

McDonald has served as an EMS officer, firefighter EMT and public information officer. She currently works full-time for NASA in the Office of Protective Services as a physical security specialist/federal special agent. She is a member of the FDIC International educational advisory board, 2nd vice president of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association, and a Women in Fire trustee.

Key quotes on EMS volunteer retention

Here are a few quotes that stood out from Dr. McDonald’s presentation.

“We know bullying is costing us a lot of volunteers.”

“As leaders, we don’t need to own everything. We can delegate and when we do that, they begin to get invested in the organization; they get buy-in.”

“Young people are eager to climb the career ladder. Provide a written clear path, assign them a mentor to help them get there.“

“If things are happy at home, the volunteer is able to be happier and more engaged.”

Takeaways on volunteer EMS retention

We talk a big game, we wear the T-shirts, but when surveyed, only 38.5% of emergency service volunteers said they were happy with their organization, McDonald reported.

She stressed that volunteer EMS retention needs to be initiated immediately, from the moment the application is submitted. Engage them quickly, she recommended, even if it’s to invite the potential recruit down to the station for a cup of coffee and a tour. It gives you the opportunity to feel them out a bit and let them know how the process works. Maybe it’s not for them – and that’s fine. You could offer a support role instead, equally necessary in the overall operations.

If there’s a delay in getting someone started on the ambulance, get creative. Invite them in to go over equipment and learn how to break it down.

“We have a magic 3-6 month window to retain people, she said. “If we don’t get them engaged to buy in to this organization in the first 6 months, they’re out the door.”

Here are 3 takeaways from McDonald’s presentation on retaining volunteer EMS providers.

1. Put family first

When you ask emergency responders why volunteer ranks are shrinking, a commonly pointed finger oft lands on the young people, McDonald noted. And the numbers tell an interesting story. Millennials report only being engaged in the workplace 29% of the time. “Us in the older generation see that as they don’t want to get involved, they’re selfish,” she said. But the reality is that their priority is their families. “And we should be proud of that,” she said. “They are more concerned with their kids at home and their loved ones. We need to look at what we’re doing and respect that.”

As it stands, 70% of volunteers report a failure to balance work and home life. “And when you fail to honor your commitments at home, what happens? Conflict,” McDonald said. That conflict leads volunteers to resent the organization. And if the loved ones are not supporting the volunteer, the volunteer is most likely starting to disengage.

So, how can we get family to support the volunteer?

  • Create a family guide. It’s no secret emergency responders’ families are impacted by their duties. At times, the schedule will cause the volunteers to miss out on things at home. Don’t let that be a surprise, McDonald said. Tell them what to expect upfront, what the commitment entails.
  • Distribute family surveys. Ask how your organization is doing and what you could be doing better. Make sure to respond. If you can’t implement every idea, choose the 5 you will work on this year, and that you’re logging the rest to revisit.
  • Offer instructional classes. Bring in an expert who can address the things that contribute to daily stress. Host a food and nutrition class for the whole family, where they can learn to shop on a budget, and how to cook healthy meals. Or, bring in significant others for a class put on by a financial counselor.
  • Foster a family environment. Hold regular Friday-night family movie nights at the station. Put up a projector screen and pop some popcorn. If, or when, the tones go off, the volunteers load up and answer the call, but the family gets to remain, in the company of others.

Addressing family concerns – budgeting, eating right, fear of the unknown, being alone, creates a supportive environment that enables the volunteer to focus on their service.

2. Sleep is not optional

Volunteer EMS providers get about 3-6 hours of sleep on a night they are deployed. And for most, the next day, they get up and go to work at their other job.

Accustomed to marrying volunteer hours with other positions, McDonald was in for a change of pace when she joined NASA and was told those in high-risk positions were prohibited from working any other job for the 8 hours proceeding their shift. NASA had found that back-to-back shifts were leaving people exhausted, leading to errors, and not speaking up. So the organization implemented a safety culture change to ensure high-risk employees are awake and oriented, and ready to act.

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When we’re tired, we’re cranky, McDonald related. Our work suffers, our relationships at home suffer. You’re zoned out at home, you’re not in the moment, and your family can tell. And as for your performance? Does sleep deprivation impact our judgment in patient care? Of course it does.

How can you accommodate multifaceted schedules and ensure volunteers get enough downtime?

McDonald encouraged attendees to let their volunteer EMS staff to sign up for their own duty shifts. “When we allow people to self-schedule, retention improves. People are able to have control and balance work and home life.”

And more, we need to get away from a system that requires volunteers to run so many calls to stay a member. “You can’t predict when emergencies will happen,” she said. Instead, implement a time requirement – and not one that has to be served all in large blocks of time. A volunteer shouldn’t have to choose between little Johnny’s soccer game and EMS, she said.

Get creative with training time, while you’re at it. Try Friday nights. McDonald has found volunteers love Friday nights, as they don’t conflict with children’s activities, and they can sleep in on Saturday mornings if they work a 9-5. Try virtual training options. Offer the classroom lecture, as everyone has a different learning style, but give people the option to watch the video portion at home and only come in for the hands-on instruction. Scheduling flexibility can add considerably to work-life balance without costing the organization.

3. Open the lines of communication

Throughout her many roles, McDonald is often privy to complaints and conflicts at the agencies she’s worked or consulted with. She shared a couple of those with attendees.

In the first, a female firefighter called her because her chief put her on desk duty after learning she was pregnant. “It’s discrimination,” she told McDonald. After speaking with the chief, McDonald learned instead, it was a communication failure. She educated the chief on what the firefighter’s physician had said about her ability to keep working. And she educated the firefighter about the chief’s intentions – to keep her safe, to protect her and the child she carried.

At another station, McDonald observed a paramedic chief call a young provider to task, to demonstrate a new piece of equipment to the personnel. When he turned aside, and consulted his phone, the chief turned to McDonald – “Do you see that disrespect,” he demanded. McDonald educated the chief: he’s not texting, he’s Googling how to use the equipment. You didn’t give him advance notice that he would be called to perform this task.

So many conflicts in emergency services start with these communication failures, McDonald noted. If, as a volunteer, you don’t agree with a directive, speak up. Don’t get aggressive or defensive, but instead, ask, “This decision was made, can I ask why?” or “This is how it made me feel,” she encouraged.

For both volunteers and managers, don’t make assumptions. We’ve had a big shift in how we communicate, McDonald noted. “That’s great, we’ve evolved, but for many older generations, we haven’t evolved in how we communicate, and then we get angry. We need to think about assumptions.” What you might see as someone being disrespectful – texting or typing on a laptop or tablet – could actually be researching, taking notes or fact-checking.

McDonald offered the following tips to open the lines of communication with EMS volunteers:

  • Ask how your volunteers like to communicate. Survey your staff, and find out who prefers a call, and who prefers email because they work nights. People say its overkill, but it’s not, McDonald said. Instead, it shows respect and that you’ve taken the time to get to know them.
  • Create a culture of feedback. You’ve got to check in to measure, benchmark, shift your plan
  • Provide written feedback. Regularly evaluate your volunteers. It gives an opportunity for constructive criticism and for direction for advancement.
  • Survey members about leadership. Ask what leadership could be doing better, invite that feedback.
  • Create a widely distributed and accessible calendar. Whether it’s a community event or a training activity, there are certain events that your members are expected to attend each year. People can plan vacations as much as a year or more in advance. Communicate early, and often, the events with mandatory attendance.
  • Communicate change. The worst thing you can do as an organization is to implement change and have people find out about it from someone else

Additional resources on volunteer EMS retention

Learn more about how to support and retain your EMS volunteers with these resources from EMS1:

This article was originally posted March 6, 2020. It has been updated.

Kerri Hatt is editor-in-chief, EMS1, responsible for defining original editorial content, tracking industry trends, managing expert contributors and leading execution of special coverage efforts. Prior to joining Lexipol, she served as an editor for medical allied health B2B publications and communities.

Kerri has a bachelor’s degree in English from Saint Joseph’s University, in Philadelphia. She is based out of Charleston, SC. Share your personal and agency successes, strategies and stories with Kerri at