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 Principles for Retaining Volunteers Part 7: Workspace: Do you have enough volunteers?

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

The question: “Do you have enough volunteers?” 

If you were to ask that question of 10 Fire Chiefs, nine would say NO. And they would be correct. Because that is what they have heard for a long time.

Oh, by the way, they never will have enough volunteers.

So, you may ask why I mention this topic. I am supposed to be writing about “Retention” of volunteers not their demise. You may think this will not gain me too much popularity.

Why is this important to volunteer retention? There are four important points I want you to consider.

Point 1:  The prevailing dialogue about the volunteer fire service

I have heard about a lack of volunteer firefighters since 1979.

In 1979, Jack Snook contacted me, he was starting a company called Management Development Institute (MDI) which would provide training and consulting services to the fire service. He asked me to join him. So, for the next decade we worked together in the United States and Canada teaching classes including “Recruiting, Training and Maintaining Volunteer Firefighters” (which Jack and I authored the first edition of the book of the same title).

Since we both had full time positions, the training was on weekends and vacation time. It was a remarkably busy time, but I genuinely enjoyed traveling and collaborating with Jack. It was an extremely rewarding experience and one, for which, that I am profoundly grateful. Jack and I made a positive contribution to the those we taught and helped. (Jack would go on to establish Emergency Services Consulting, Inc. (ESCI) and had an extremely successful career retiring as Chief of Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.)

During that time, in our classes, we heard many times that fire departments were having a hard time getting and keeping volunteers. However, a year or two later, we would hear from those same departments, who had implemented the skills and programs that Jack and I were presenting and how well things were going with their volunteer program. It was rewarding to hear those positive comments and success stories. It was not magic. It was presenting a solid, positive, common-sense approach to managing volunteers. It was an optimistic message to those who listened and applied it to their departments.

I imagine that you could go back to 1853 when the City of Cincinnati, Ohio, started the first all paid fire department. I am sure that there were people who were saying that volunteer fire departments were going to rapidly become outdated at that time.

There are articles appearing regularly in fire journals about the decline in volunteers and problems confronting departments across our great nation. Yet, there are many success stories that go unmentioned or forgotten.

My point is that there will always be critics forecasting the end of the volunteer fire service.

Point 2:  Volunteer recruitment and retention is a long-term strategy.

Volunteer recruitment and retention must be looked at on a long-term basis. There is an “ebb and flow” within volunteer organizations. Sure, there are long-term volunteers. But many volunteers come and go for a variety of reasons. These reasons include life changes such as job reassignments, relocations and martial relations. Things over which you have little or no control.

You need to anticipate these long-term changes and prepare for them. Do not wait for them to happen and then react to them…sometimes in panic mode. These changes are part of your department evolving. (And to be fair, adding paid firefighters to your force is also a change which can happen.)

Point 3:  How you measure the success of your organization.

Often times when I talk with volunteer organizations, a major factor, I hear, in measuring success is the number of volunteers you have in your organization.

Are numbers the sole criteria for evaluating your program? I don’t think so.

The measure of success is not the number of volunteers you have on the rolls. I know of organizations that have kept volunteers so they could add them to the count although they were not active or contributing to the program. A better question is how many active volunteers do you have?

Measure how your organization is providing a service to others which makes a positive difference in your community. It is the area you serve. It is the population you serve. It is the programs you are offering. It is the number of alarms to which you respond. These are better items for discussion and measuring success.

Point 4:  Where is your focus on your volunteer program?

Is your focus on lack or abundance? Often times, the focus is on “lack”.  Lack of volunteer numbers, lack of time available for training, lack of funds for acquiring new equipment, lack of qualified trainers and the list goes on and on.

The focus should be on abundance and contributions of the volunteers you have. The discussion needs to be about what you have in your organization which makes it work: the talents and dedication of your people. What are the programs you have in place? What are the accomplishments you have made during the past year? Your vision for the future. The energy and optimism your volunteers bring to the department.


All of these four points affect the way you view your volunteer program, feel about the success of your agency and the manner you treat your volunteers. All of which impact the retention of your volunteers.

  1. Listen to the discussions about positive aspects and accomplishments of your program. There will always be critics and people who choose to engage in negative comments. Don’t listen to the negatives. Focus on the positives.
  2. Take a long-term look at your volunteer program. Realize there will be changes in the people who join and leave your organization. Do not panic if there is a change. There always will be changes.
  3. Decide how you measure and talk about the success of your volunteers. Focus on solutions, not the problem.
  4. Focus on what you do have and not on what you are lacking. Plan and prepare to meet the future challenges. But do not lose sight of what you have today. Celebrate it.