Motivate volunteer EMT participation with meaningful incentives

Pay members if you want to become a paid service, otherwise use these tips to recognize and motivate your EMS volunteers

Many volunteer EMS services have adopted, or are considering, financial incentives in an effort to attract and retain volunteer EMTs. Cash stipends, pay-per-call bounties, and paid on call wages are all variations of paying or partially reimbursing volunteers.

Are these incentives effective in the long run?

In most cases, not really. Here is why these volunteer EMT incentives are ineffective.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Wikipedia image)

1. No net gain of members

Unlike other types of volunteering, such as soup kitchens or church ushering, where essentially you just show up and get put to work, becoming a volunteer EMT for your local fire department or ambulance service takes a tremendous commitment of time, effort, heart and usually money. Do you really think that getting paid $1.00 an hour or $20 a call is what attracts people to volunteer EMS?               

Rarely is there a net gain in membership achieved by cash incentive programs.

2. Legal risk

Unfortunately, EMS services are also putting their organization and its assets at risk because they don’t have their incentive program vetted by an attorney who is familiar with state and federal labor laws, or an accountant regarding possible tax implications. Be aware if members are paid as regular employees for any shift, they cannot volunteer at all. It is a violation of the FLSA [1].

EMS is a business, and volunteer and nonprofit agencies are not immune from audits or fines by the Department of Labor or the IRS.

3. Pay-per-call demotivates

Cash incentives often become a demotivator as well. If the rewards are based strictly on response to 911 calls, what is the motivation to commit to call time? Time is valuable, whether you are running calls or not. The member volunteering to cover a likely quiet shift — a weekday in a bedroom community or a muddy spring weekend in a ski resort town — is contributing just as much to the organization as the member who volunteers only to cover the shifts where he is likely to receive a stipend.

If cash is the primary motivator, you have the wrong people.

4. Unnecessary conflict

The top objective for any volunteer organization is commitment of personnel to coverage, not creating competition for the good, incentive-laden shifts. Call jumping or bickering over the most profitable shifts creates divisiveness and conflict.

It also distracts from the real point of being a volunteer — caring for others with no expectation of financial reward.

Why do people volunteer?

How to best provide incentives for volunteers stems from the reasons they choose to volunteer in the first place.

  1. Self-actualization. People like to make a difference, learn new things and have a sense of purpose.  
  2. Self-esteem. Volunteering makes you feel better about yourself. Helping people in need earns respect and builds self-confidence.
  3. Love and belonging. Meeting and being accepted by new people, creating a unique bond with others is a regular benefit of volunteering.

The top three reasons people volunteer align with the top tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs [2].

For the people considering volunteering, their basic needs (physiological, safety and security) are already being satisfied; likely by a paid job. More money is not their goal or need for EMS volunteering. So why is money always the first answer to keeping your members motivated, engaged and happy?

Volunteer emts are motivated by respect, recognition, appreciation

A volunteer EMT is motivated by respect shown by the community, their leaders and their peers for their skill and personal sacrifice. Leaders need to seek out opportunities and be intentional in giving respect, recognition and appreciation.

1. Attend public events

One of the great things about getting your staff out in public is the number of former patients and their loved ones who will come up just to say "thank you." As you know in the midst of a 911 call, those simple words of appreciation can get lost.

2. Support publicly, remediate privately

Being part of a group that has your back is extremely rewarding. Under no circumstances should you allow any member to be disrespected at meetings, by other services or in a public forum. Having a voice in the organization, your ideas heard, and any problems resolved quickly and fairly is very important.

If a member's behavior, skills or actions need correction or remediation do that privately. One-on-one meetings that are respectful and focused on action steps honor a volunteer's needs for self-esteem, belonging and self-actualization.

3. Ask for and share feedback

Seek testimonials from patients and their families. The chief or a designated officer can make how-did-we-do phone calls or send a self-addressed postcard for written feedback. Soliciting feedback is great customer service and will garner the respect of your community. Ask permission to print kudos, well wishes and testimonials on your Facebook page and website.

4. Announce milestones

Use local newspapers and social media to recognize achievements and milestones reached by your members. Those announcements might include recertification, new training courses completed or positive feedback from patients.

5. Open every meeting with kudos

Use the first 10 minutes of every squad meeting thanking members for their contributions and reading patient responses.

6. Appreciation events

At least quarterly host an appreciation event and include families. A promotion ceremony, picnic, banquet, dance, group trip to an amusement park or sporting event boosts camaraderie and address the needs for belonging and self-esteem.

7. Service awards and gifts

Service awards accompanied by a gift card and personally signed by the leadership are generally more meaningful than plaques, mugs and T-shirts.

8. Invite dignitaries to events

Invite local officials and state representatives to your events. Educate them about the value provided by EMS and fire volunteers who save their constituents millions of dollars in additional taxes. Talk to them about ways government can support the volunteer system in the form of tax credits, health care benefits, tuition assistance, educational scholarships and grants for new equipment, building upgrades and PSAs. Let officials know that recognition and appreciation is appreciated year round, not just during EMS week or sentinel events.

What does your agency do to recognize and appreciate its membership of EMT volunteers?

Share your answers in the comments, or email me at

Thank you for all you do!   


  1. US Department of labor Wage and Hour Division
  2. Motivating your Volunteers - Needs, Barriers, and Psychology 101

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