Calling all volunteers: 3 ways to increase the volunteer member pool

Recruitment efforts can focus on non-traditional members, people who live outside the area and even members of neighboring departments


It’s 3:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Tones have just dropped for a medical call for a 72-year-old female who has fallen.

Silence over the radio as you get up and respond to the station. No one else has responded on the radio or your phone app, so you request dispatch to page the call out again.

Is this a familiar scenario for your volunteer department? Does it leave you wondering what it’s going to take to get volunteers into your department who are passionate and motivated to be available and respond to calls?

While each department has its own unique setup and situation, whether it’s an independent rescue squad or a combination fire/EMS department, there are a few options to consider when looking to solve our volunteer problem

[Read next: ‘And that’s OK’: Not all volunteers want to operate like FDNY]

1. Open recruitment to non-traditional members

First, start considering non-traditional members. For example, are there individuals who want to donate their time to help in areas of logistics for your department, such as ordering and stocking supplies or even responding non-emergency to assist with rehab on larger incidents? These might be individuals who would never consider running into a burning building or touching a bloody patient, but who would be willing to set up a cooling station.

Also consider partnering with organizations, such as schools and churches, that require or desire community service hours. These individuals could help clean the station and rigs on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis – an activity that has the potential to expose younger community members to the fire service and may encourage their future enlistment. 

When it comes to recruiting and staffing EMS care providers, there are options as well. Many volunteer fire/EMS departments want their members to be cross-trained in firefighting and as EMS care providers. But if you haven’t done so already, consider opening up to individuals who just want to be a care provider.

Also, consider recruits who would have a limited or short-term timeframe within the department, such as students who are currently attending college or graduate school in your area. Many medical schools are looking for students who have both community service as well as some type of medical experience. By assisting them with their EMT license and making them a member of your department, you could provide both.

College students in general are another great recruitment option. They may not be from your community, but if recruited as freshman, they could potentially serve at least two years, if not longer, depending on their degree choice. This can also give students the volunteering “bug,” so that when they return home, they continue passionately serving their community. 

2. Reconsider residency requirements

Another hindrance we often place on our volunteers is residency requirements. We require our volunteers to live within a certain area; otherwise, we don’t even consider them as potential volunteers. If we started considering time commitments instead of residency, we may increase our volunteer pool. This could include individuals who live outside of our jurisdiction but work within our community. These would need to be individuals who are available to respond and are willing to meet training requirements.

Once again, this may also work well for college students and young adults. If we create a space within our stations with a quality internet connection, they can study or just hang out. This has the added benefit of increasing our response times as members are already at the station. 

Left: Full-time college students who volunteer with two local departments attend a joint training burn; Right: Students who took EMT classes attend a joint training burn.Photos/Kyle Kuehmichel
Left: Full-time college students who volunteer with two local departments attend a joint training burn; Right: Students who took EMT classes attend a joint training burn.Photos/Kyle Kuehmichel

3. Use members from other departments

Lastly, we should consider trained members of other departments. If someone is going to be a member of two departments, the common expectation is that they meet the training demands for both departments. That can be time-consuming and nearly impossible to balance with family, work and other hobbies.

Consider this: Mutual-aid partners could be allowed to respond to a call with the dispatched department if they are in the area when the initial call goes out. This would hasten the response for second-due departments and bring additional members to assist without the usual delays.

This will take a little extra work on our departments by conducting joint trainings where personnel can get to know each other and their capabilities, but can reduce the excess and duplicate training individuals would be required to go through to be on two separate departments. These neighboring department members would still be working within the command system established by the responding department but would serve as additional personnel able to assist, as directed by command.  

Let’s adapt

There is no one-size-fits-all method for solving our volunteer issues, but with a little creative thinking, we can make changes that ultimately benefit our departments and our communities. 

Editor’s note: What tactics has your department used to encourage volunteers to join the department? Share in the comments below.

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