One of the biggest problems facing volunteer organizations today is attracting and retaining qualified volunteers. Whether its a volunteer FD or EMS agency, a local Red Cross or Salvation Army chapter, food pantry, pet shelter, whatever, the ranks of volunteers are becoming alarmingly thin. With the economy the way it is these days, those fortunate enough to have jobs often have two jobs, trying to make ends meet. The spouse will often have two jobs, as well. In addition, there is that nebulous conglomeration of housecleaning, cooking, etc, not to mention a couple of things I have heard of, called "sleep" and "having a life." The result is simply insufficient time to engage in volunteer activities.
For skilled volunteer professions like firefighting or EMS, there are ever-increasing training requirements to be met.
For example, the EMT-Basic class is now somewhere around 200 hours, plus clinical rotations and state and national Registry testing. In Maine, an EMT-Basic is also required to have a minimum of 38 hours of Continuing Education, in the following areas: Preparatory, Operations; Airway, Breathing, Circulation; Assessment; Medical; Trauma; Obstetrics, Pediatrics; Psychomotor Skills; and Further Continuing Ed (essentially, electives).
Firefighters are in an even tougher situation: most departments encourage and strive for Firefighter I and II certification, but many also require Haz-Mat Operations, EMT-Basic, commercial driver licenses, or other skills. The career fire departments -- FDNY, Boston, DC, LA -- include these topics in their 3-6 month academies. The volunteers, however, do it a couple of hours a night, a couple of evenings a week... for a couple of YEARS. Yet the public expects volunteer firefighters in Pudunk, Maine, to have the same basic skillset as FDNY (and notice I said basic skill set, not the sophisticated things like high-rise firefighting, urban search and rescue, dive team, or air operations). It is an understandable expectation, even if perhaps currently unattainable.
Volunteers are expected to attend training sessions and meetings without compensation, even if they receive nominal compensation while responding to calls. Many volunteer departments charge annual dues, require members to pay for (required) training out of their own pockets, and some even require members to purchase their own firefighting gear (which runs about $2000 per person).
What's the quick-n-easy solution? There isn't one.
Some not-so-easy solutions:
- Eliminate volunteer fire departments and EMS and go to career departments. This would cost a bloody fortune, which most taxpayers would refuse to authorize. A full-time firefighter costs at least $100,000 per year, depending on base pay, benefits, etc. In rural areas, this would probably take the form of a county department, similar to the situation in Virginia and Maryland.
- Eliminate most of the training requirements for volunteers agencies. This would be unacceptable from a public safety point of view. Firefighting and EMS require highly specialized skills... after all, we are literally talking life and death here. Besides, we don't mind training, we just don't want it to take over our lives, especially if it's training in skills we are not allowed to use (foolish, yes, but it happens).
- Reevaluate training using evidence-based research, and provide government-funded stipends. There is a lot of training that continues simply because "this is the way we've always done it," regardless of the impact on patient outcome (for example, backboarding patients based solely on mechanism of injury as opposed to appropriate assessment); eliminating such outmoded protocols would allow more efficient use of training time and improve patient care. Extending existing stipends to cover training time would reimburse participants somewhat for committing their time to the community. Most stipends, by way the, are nominal at best: $15.00 per call, or $500.00 per year. Nobody will ever get rich working as a volunteer.
- Leave things the way they are. And watch the ranks of volunteers thin even more. We need sufficient staffing and resources to do our jobs properly and safely. But even more importantly, perhaps, we need time off, too, no matter how dedicated we are, time to spend with our wives (or husbands) and children, time to have a couple of beers, time to just kick back and do nothing.