Prioritize EMS volunteer recruitment and retention

The expectations of EMS volunteers often don’t match the reality of being an EMT or assure long-term survival for the organization


Article updated August 10, 2018

Recruitment and retention is unquestionably the most urgent concern for volunteer EMS agencies. And while there is an abundance of great articles and guidebooks dedicated to addressing this concern, finding and utilizing those resources is of no avail if they are directed at selling an experience that may not be appealing to the people you need to recruit [1, 2, 3].

Word of mouth is by far the most effective means of recruitment for most types of small business and organizations. The volunteer EMTs showcased in the "On Call for Vermont" campaign produced by the Vermont State Department of Health are an outstanding example. The frank, sincere stories and obvious satisfaction make a compelling case to join the local ambulance squad.

Find the right people who fit the mission and reality of being a volunteer EMT. (Photo/InciWeb.gov)
Find the right people who fit the mission and reality of being a volunteer EMT. (Photo/InciWeb.gov)

Contrast "On Call for Vermont" videos with a sandwich board that sits for months or years in front of an ambulance station that simply proclaims "Volunteers needed!!!!!" Or desperate pleas and dire warnings at town meetings of what will happen if people do not "step up".

Look at your organization's recruitment and retention efforts and answer these questions:

  • Is your organization a place where people want to spend their time and energy?
  • Is your current membership excited and passionate about the department's mission?
  • How do members describe their EMS experience to friends and neighbors?     
  • Are you depending on the next class of new recruits to save the day?
  • Do you expect new volunteers to pay for EMT class out of pocket?

Without an honest and candid assessment, recruitment efforts will continue to be frustrating and ineffective.

"Face reality as it is, not as it was, or you wish it to be."
Jack Welch, retired chairman & CEO of GE.

In most areas what was once a group of dedicated neighbors with first aid training and a Cadillac ambulance has evolved into a professional organization staffed with certified, skilled prehospital health care providers operating a high-tech mobile emergency room. The reality of modern volunteer EMS is that you are (or need to become) a non-profit community EMS agency subsidized with volunteer labor hours.

Now and into the future, an informal, loosely constructed neighborhood first aid squad is not sufficient to provide high-quality prehospital care. It will not stand up to public scrutiny and will not attract the people you need to remain in business.

Change the volunteer EMT recruitment mindset

In order to successfully recruit and retain the right people, the volunteer mindset needs to change. The focus of the organization and the members needs to be the provision of EMS and attracting people who understand both the challenge and the commitment this requires. Volunteerism is how it is accomplished, not a goal in and of itself.

Cast a small, selective net for ems volunteers

It is important to distinguish between simply signing up new recruits and attracting the right members to your organization. Sometimes casting too wide a net is a bad idea. An organization that is selective about who they accept is often more appealing than an organization who is just looking to put a body in a seat. And a big part of retaining members is starting with the right people to begin with. 

Recruit the right people

About one in four people in the U.S. volunteer and most of those are adults, 34 to 64 years old [4]. A significant percentage of people interested in EMS and healthcare opportunities are educated professionals [4]. They often have flexible schedules and in today’s high-tech world, many work from home. In this demographic are life-long learners. Gaining a new skill, a sense of achievement, civic responsibility, meeting new people with similar life goals, and feeling like they are making a difference appeals to them [5]. Many of these people are interested in a challenge, not by what is easy.

Why join EMS?

Many of the likely and right candidates to volunteer with your agency probably have no idea what EMS is all about, what your agency does, that you are in need of members and most importantly, why they should join. People don't get on a sinking ship. If that is how you are projecting your situation, it is the first thing you have to fix. Then consider what approach would appeal to your ideal candidate. For example, the Peace Corps’ recruiting slogan is "The toughest job you will ever love."

This slogan tells recruits that this is more than just a job; it takes heart to be in the Peace Corps. Join the Peace Corps and you will be a better person. The Peace Corps is not about money, it is about helping people [6].

Stop recruiting heroes to ems

Too many recruitment campaigns shout "DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES? BE A HERO! SAVE LIVES!" with screaming sirens, flashing lights and a tense resuscitation scene.

That might appeal to the people who want EMS as a career. Seventy percent of paid EMS providers are white males, 20-44 years old [7]. They are continuing their education, developing relationships, socializing, starting families and drowning in debt. For most, it is not their time to volunteer. They need a paycheck for any work they do, including EMS. People in this age group, unless they started as a cadet or are following the path of their parents, are the least likely to be interested in volunteering anywhere [7]. Why are we pursuing them?

Redesigning volunteer EMS

Go back to the questions and your answers about your organization's recruitment and retention efforts. Get started on finding the people that fit your current needs and your vision for the future.

Share your successes, questions and comments about recruiting the right volunteers for your EMS agency in the comments.

References

  1. Minnesota Department of Health: Recruitment  and Retention of EMS Volunteers
  2. NAEMT Recruitment and Retention
  3. How to successfully recruit volunteers EMS World Magazine
  4. Bureau of Labor Statistics -Who Volunteers
  5. "But -Everyone knows" the case for prospective volunteers
  6. "Energize" -Volunteer Leadership Articles 
  7. EMS workforce for the 21st Century A National Assessment

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