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Lowering Your Standards

Daniel C Olsen, Senior Consultant, SDAO
Should you lower your standards to recruit and retain volunteers?

The recruitment and retention of members continues to be a challenge for organizations utilizing volunteers.

Lowering standards can be a quick solution. It can also be extremely controversial. In this article, I am not going to give you the answer. I will raise some questions I would ask you to consider when making the decision. I expect that this article may upset, or even anger some.

Recruiting and retaining volunteers is about quantity, quality and how much you are willing and able to invest (in time and money) to recruit and retain volunteers.

While some may think this is a new issue, it is not. It has been around a long time. I can personally remember back in the 1980’s this was a question that volunteer departments were asking.

Before going further, let me state that I am not an attorney, nor a physician, nor licensed insurance professional. Before deciding for your district, I urge you to talk with these representatives and get their opinions on the matter of lower standards.

Changing Times

However, as time moves along, there are issues today’s departments face that were not there in the past. Two of most prominent are background checks/investigations and use of legal drugs. The most prominent is the use of cannabis (marijuana, weed, pot) which has been legalized in most states.

Currently, at the time of authoring this article,

·       The use and possession of cannabis is illegal in the United States under federal law for any purpose by way of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 .

·       Although cannabis is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, most states have legalized it for either or both medical and recreational use.

·       Some cannabis-derived compounds have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for prescription use. 


You probably have heard of Departments (public safety agencies both police, fire and emergency medical) who lowered or eliminated standards for career personnel relating to entry requirements in order to attract candidates.  There have been incidents involving the conduct of individuals brought into these departments under those standards. These incidents include arrests and convictions.

Standards should be periodically reviewed

There are some entry standards that you should review and adjust because they may be outdated or not relevant. These included the ability to climb a rope, bench press two hundred pounds or run a six-minute mile. There are some entry standards, such as performing job tasks, which have been eliminated for fear of lawsuits and insurance claims.

The question that should be asked: does the candidate have the ability to perform the necessary duties of the position physically, mentally, and emotionally? This includes the ability to make decisions effectively.

Ability to Test for substances in the body

Adding to the issue of legal drugs is the testing for alcohol and cannabis in the body, there is a vast difference. For example, the time period in which the substance stays in the body and can be detected by different means of testing, can range from a few hours to several weeks or longer depending upon a variety of factors and testing methods.

If you believe an individual may be under the influence of alcohol, cannabis, or other intoxicants there are various methods of testing including samples of breath, blood, saliva, and hair. If you suspect a volunteer member is under the influence, before making a judgement, a person who has been professionally trained (i.e., law enforcement officer) should be used to make a proper assessment.

Trust and personal responsibility

The fire-rescue and emergency medical service enjoys a high level of trust from the general public. In the event of an emergency, your firefighters and medics are allowed access to private residences. They provide emergency care in critical situations when a person is in an extremely vulnerable state. Your crews are trusted by family members, friends, and others to make decisions and take appropriate actions in emergency situations.

The overwhelming majority of volunteers have demonstrated the ability to make decisions that benefit the patient and general public. They have demonstrated the ability to take responsibility for actions. Their conduct maintains the trust of their teammates, department, and general public.


I am not making a judgement on a person, or a department that allows the use of alcohol or other legal drugs. I am stating that any discussion should include the best available information and thoughtful deliberation by the leadership of the organization before a decision is made. It should not be a decision that is a short cut to recruiting or retaining volunteers.

If a person chooses to drink alcohol, use cannabis in jurisdictions where is legal, prescription drugs or OTC medications that is their personal choice.

 If a person has drank alcohol, or taken cannabis, are they able to drive their personal vehicle? Can they exercise the judgment to make a safe and prudent decision. It would seem common sense that if you drink, don’t drive. If you drink, don’t respond. It is the same with legalized drugs including those prescribed by a medical professional or obtained over the counter.

A person is responsible for the actions they take. This implies that a person is physically, mentally, and emotionally able to make decisions, especially an emergency responder.

Ask yourself five question questions

When discussing the lowering of standards for your volunteer members, especially in the areas of background investigations and these of intoxicants, where legal, start by asking what are the short- and long-term impacts on your organization’s reputation and ability to:

·       Recruit new members?

·       Retain existing members?

·       Maintain a desired level of performance by each of your volunteer members?

·       Maintain a high level of trust by the general Public?

·       Ensure individuals will take responsibility for their actions?