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Cleaning House: Rebuild Your Agency from the Top Down

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In the May Volunteer Voice column (˙Just Ask ThemÓ), I suggested you poll your members to find out 1) why they joined, 2) why they continue to volunteer and 3) why they might stop volunteering. For those of you who already asked these simple questions, you may have been amazed by the answers. For those who haven_t had a chance to poll your membership, I_ll share what I_ve learned from talking to thousands of EMS and fire agencies across the nation.

I recommend you ask those three questions so you can get a feeling for what_s working within and what_s not. Members tend to progress in their career from a period when they can_t get enough of it to a point when volunteering becomes a ˙botherÓ or just another ˙job.Ó We encourage this shift when we move away from the concept of volunteering for intrinsic reward toward a system in which we must pay our members just to respond.„

I challenge the common notion that this is merely a ˙change in volunteerism overall,Ó as I_ve heard. If it were true, every volunteer EMS agency would be hurting for members and in danger of having to close its doors permanently.

Even when members or potential members cite a lack of time, it_s often a secondary issue that limits their volunteering. After all, we always seem to find time to watch our favorite TV show, work out, play poker or do some other activity. So the challenge is to create and maintain an environment where volunteering is each member_s favorite pastime.

Nationally collected data about retention in volunteerism reveal trends that are likely similar to your member poll results. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) recently released a new guide titled, ˙Retention & Recruitment for the Volunteer Emergency Services: Challenges & Solutions.Ó For this guide, the NVFC surveyed U.S. departments and found that, with the exception of ˙lack of time,Ó the top responses why members leave their organization were ˙conflict in the organizationÓ and ˙organizational leadership created an adverse atmosphere.Ó„

Rather than blaming ˙the system,Ó mandatory requirements, time considerations, or the changing world, we should look at the real factors. Often passed off as ˙personality issues,Ó they_re actually related to a failure of the leadership to support their membership. It may not be popular to say, but the largest factor in department success or failure, especially in terms of recruitment and retention, is the relationship between management and members of an organization.

If you use what your members told you to improve your agency, it may mean doing some ˙housecleaning.Ó By that, I mean it_s time to address the dusty parts, whether it_s updating protocols or coaching members and managers who aren_t performing up to their potential. Not only will housecleaning help you retain great members by addressing their top concerns, it will also provide a unified organization that ensures new members will enjoy volunteering.„

Housecleaning starts at the top, and this is usually where departments have the most trouble. Most issues relate to the management, with some leaders perceived as getting in the way of the actual mission of the organization ƒ to save lives.„

Maybe Emily is passed over for a promotion because the chief_s son was voted in. Sometimes, it_s a petty issue. Maybe Jack is mad because the body voted to paint a blue stripe on the ambulance instead of a red one.„

You can create a mission statement (or revise it) to keep members focused on bigger goals, but the problem may actually be in how that mission statement is carried out. Management should provide the support needed for safe responses and care, and then get out of the way. For a great book on minimizing bureaucracy, check out Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie. The ˙giant hairballÓ is the accumulated rules and regulations that keep our members down, and the author describes how to let your members get out of the hairball of bylaws, protocols, etc., and be productive.

I_m an advocate for volunteers being professionals and held to a high standard, but they don_t actually have to be trapped within the hairball to do so. We_re trained to be in charge ƒ to be independent and use our skills confidently to treat our patients ƒ and it_s this same take-charge nature that can fuel professional conflict when members aren_t given enough empowerment. It takes a skilled management team to successfully run any EMS organization, especially a volunteer one.„

It may not be a pleasant task, but objectively analyzing your organization ƒ its leadership and membership ƒ is essential to cleaning house and sustaining an environment in which your members are proud to volunteer. Once you_ve done your cleaning, it_s time to start recruiting. In a future column we_ll discuss recruitment techniques that really work.

Jason Zigmont„ is an EMS instructor, the executive director of The Center for Public Safety Education and the founder of VolunteerFD.org. He has been a member of the East Berlin (Conn.) Fire Department for more than 10 years. Contact him at„jason@psecenter.org

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