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Principles for Retaining Volunteers Part 4: Building Career and Volunteer Relations

By Daniel C. Olsen, Senior Consultant, Special Districts Association of Oregon

The relationship between career personnel and volunteer personnel affects retention of volunteers. If the relationship is good, It is most likely the retention of volunteers will be good. If the relationship is poor, it is almost certain, the retention of volunteers will be poor.

When I was a Deputy State Fire Marshal, I was given an assignment to conduct a volunteer firefighter training academy and to implement a volunteer component into an all-career department.

This was in a rural area of the state. There was an established small city and several surrounding rural fire districts. There was not a good working relationship with the City Fire Department (all career) and Fire Districts which were volunteer.

The decision to implement a volunteer force into the city fire department was made by the City Manager. He had determined that the City did not have adequate funds for more career personnel and needed to supplement with volunteers.

There was apprehension with both groups, the volunteers and career personnel.

I knew that I needed to meet with both groups and have discussions about the volunteer program. These discussions lasted for several hours over several days.

I explained the advantages of having volunteers. The members of the city fire department listened politely but were not enthusiastic.

By the way, I found out later, that side bets were being taken on how long it would be before I was run out of town. Fortunately, for me, nobody collected on any of the wagering.

When asked for the career personnel to express their concerns, they included “baby-sitting” the volunteers. They said the Volunteers would be able to use the fire station as their “club house” and come into the fire station at any time of the day or night. The volunteers would get the good assignments and the career personnel would have to clean up after them. Well, you get the picture.

On the volunteer’s side, a recruitment had been done.

I met with the new, but yet to be trained, volunteers. I listened to their concerns. They wanted to serve their community. However, they too had their concerns. They worried about being used for clean-up work. They probably would not get to be first-in on fire attack. They would be relegated to second class status. That also included training, not the same as career personnel.

Both groups had legitimate concerns. Both groups had also made assumptions about the other. It was obvious this would be a challenging assignment: How to implement a program that would be successful. From a strategic planning perspective, the decision for the City Fire Department to have volunteers was already made. This included an initial recruitment of eager recruits.

To me, there appeared to be four major questions to address about the volunteers:

  • What would be the expectations of performance?
  • What would be the ground rules?
  • What would be the training?
  • What would be the operating procedures?

I met with the two groups and asked for their help. Each group was asked what it would take to address the four questions. More importantly, they were asked to participate in developing the solutions.

On the expectations of performance, both career and volunteer personnel wanted to be respected and trusted. Present a clean and orderly appearance. Both sides wanted to conduct themselves in a positive image that reflected well on the department.

Volunteers wanted to be a part of the team and regarded as an equal partner. They wanted to know that their contributions make a difference. They wanted their time to be used efficiently and effectively.

Ground rules included how the fire station would be used including hours and areas of access. This included cleaning up after yourself.

Both expected the volunteers to be trained to a level of where they could perform effectively on the emergency scene. To help accomplish that, some of the career personnel became trainers for the recruit academy. The recruit academy also included volunteers from the rural districts surrounding the city. This helped to improve the relationship with those Departments. The career personnel did an outstanding job as trainers and coaches.

The operating procedures were developed to insure standard practices for effectiveness, efficiency and safety.

While it took time, the program was a success. This was due to the commitment of all career and volunteer personnel involved. It was a tribute to those folks.

Lessons learned

  • Often times, assumptions are made which are not accurate. It is important to discuss those assumptions openly and honestly.
  • Better solutions come when all parties participate in developing them. It is important to involve paid staff members in helping to develop the volunteer program.
  • Training can not only improve performance, but it can also contribute to building strong relationships among all parties. Paid personnel will be more invested in the success of the volunteers. The interaction between the trainers and trainees can have long-term implications.
  • Avoid creating an “Us” versus “Them” situation. This can include a variety of things from quality of training, duties, uniforms to even name badges.
  • Clarification and understanding of roles, responsibilities and competencies is essential for everyone to understand the complete program.
  • Is important to work toward a unifying approach where both paid and volunteer are viewed as equal partners in the work and the mission of the organization.
  • Both volunteers and paid members seek mutual respect, recognition, support and appreciation. These are essential to building mutual trust.

Keep these things in mind as you work to build an effective and long-term relationship between your paid and volunteer personnel,