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Protecting your combination department


Jason J. Zigmont, MA, NREMT-P | | Thursday, November 13, 2008

This past month_s Volunteer Voice looked at how volunteer organizations can avoid sliding down the slippery slope to a partially or fully paid department, specifically by utilizing a volunteer administrator. Unfortunately, many organizations have already landed in this situation. Having paid and volunteer staff turns your organization into a combination department, which can be a nightmare to manage.

When people think of a combination department, they think of both hourly paid staff and volunteer staff. But when you start offering your members payment for their services beyond reasonable reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses, they become paid staff, even if they_re not getting hourly pay. This means that pay-per-call arrangements, yearly stipends and other monetary incentives can alter the core of the volunteer service.

Combination departments have been around for ages, and every chief I_ve spoken with has agreed that they_re much more difficult to manage than a 100% volunteer or 100% paid department. Although paid and volunteer staff are essentially completing the same core duties, all too often the paid staff starts to feel they_re "better," even though they may have been volunteers at one point.

This class warfare can be even worse when the paid staff is managed by volunteers or has to answer to volunteers. Arguments might break out among those who are being paid, as some receive more or less money or work more or less. The result can be a downward spiral in morale.

Paying people turns what may be an enjoyable volunteer experience into just work, and volunteering to go to work is not only rare, it_s illegal in most cases. This situation often results in a messy legal challenge, so consult a lawyer. You might want to begin by reading the U.S. Department of Labor_s response to the International Association of Fire Chief_s request for

guidance under the Fair Labor Standards Act letter should be kept handy by any volunteer service that pays its staff at all. It covers most of the common scenarios, arrangements and problems that come with paying volunteer staff.

It_s also a good idea to consider these tips:

Ensure that everyone is rewarded fairly and consistently.Members at the same level (e.g., EMTs, paramedics, officers) should get the same reward for the same amount of work. Incentive programs shouldn_t favor anyone, no matter who they_re friends with.

There should be no exceptions. If the rule says a member has to respond to 100 calls in order to qualify for pay, and they responded to only 98, then they didn_t make it for the year. If multiple members request an exception or "just missed" qualifying, then maybe the qualification number should be changed. But if you bend the rule once, you always have to. Besides showing favoritism to those who need leeway, making exceptions may lead to expensive legal issues.

Watch out for positives turning into negatives. An incentive program can quickly turn into a disincentive when a member doesn_t qualify. For example, if your organization gives a property tax break, what happens when members don_t own any property, don_t own enough property to gain the full benefit of the tax break and/or don_t live in the local area? They can_t benefit from the tax break at all.

Keep thorough records. Your accounting of any incentives must be perfect, because they_ll be scrutinized and may be part of public record. Detailed records are also a way to prove you_re awarding incentives fairly, and showing members why they did or didn_t qualify.

Be creative. Tax breaks and pay-per-call programs aren_t the only options. What about offering low-cost health and disability insurance? Another great option is to pool the money and give everyone an entry into a raffle for each call or event they attend. At the end of the year, you can raffle off donated or purchased prizes, such as a trip to the Caribbean or a lease on a Porsche!

Don_t forget what_s on the front of the building: volunteer. Remember your roots and make sure volunteers see the program as an incentive or appreciation for their service, not a payment for their job.

Being a professional EMS provider doesn_t depend on whether you_re paid, but on the service provided. If everyone remembers that the organization is a volunteer organization to help the community, some of the disputes between paid and volunteer staff can be avoided.JEMS

Jason Zigmont, MA, NREMT-P, is an EMS instructor, executive director of the Center for Public Safety Education and the founder He_s also a PhD candidate in adult learning at the University of Connecticut. Contact him

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Related Topics: Administration and Leadership, Legal and Ethical, Training

Jason J. Zigmont, MA, NREMT-PJason Zigmont , MA, NREMT-P, is an EMS instructor, executive director of the Center for Public Safety Education and the founder of He's also a PhD candidate in adult learning at the University of Connecticut. Contact him at


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