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Use ‘em or Lose ‘em

By Daniel C Olsen, Senior Consultant, SDAO and Thad D Olsen, Fire Chief, Cloverdale (OR) Fire District

There is concern about losing volunteers by “burn out”.  And that can be the case when you overuse one or a few volunteers.

However, you can lose volunteers by underutilizing them.  Boredom can be a cause of not retaining volunteers. Lacking a sense of personal value and not a feeling of being needed can cause them to leave your organization. Volunteers need to feel they are being a part of something that serves the greater good.

You need to constantly find opportunities for volunteers to use their skill set that benefit your organization.

Chief Thad Olsen of the Cloverdale Fire District in Central Oregon says, “If you don’t use ‘em, you’re going to lose ‘em”.  Volunteers join your organization to contribute and be productive. Not all volunteers are looking for a career.

Chief Olsen’s department is comprised of career, volunteer, and student firefighters. His career of 33 years includes being a career, volunteer and as student firefighter. And, yes, I am proud to say that Chief Olsen is our son.

Chief Olsen says that you need to:

  1. Look for opportunities and capitalize on them. Volunteers will step up to the plate if it has value to them and the organization.
  2. Be creative in using your volunteers.
  3. Be flexible.
  4. Communicate to all involved what you are doing.
  5. Tasks and assignments need to be consistent with your mission and productive. Avoid “busy work” just to keep them occupied. Assignments needs to be meaningful.

Look for opportunities
Often times, you may use mutual aid companies to move up and cover your stations. Use your volunteers for move ups and coverage.

Sometimes, volunteer companies may respond to the scene, but you decide to return them to their stations. Instead, bring them into the scene. You can slow them to a code 1 (no lights or siren) response instead of code 3 (lights and siren). They can provide needed staffing which you may not have considered.

Benefits include they get some experience, vehicle familiarization, put their training to use, keep other crews available for response and team building.

What tasks are not getting done because of a lack of on-scene personnel? These could include traffic control, hazard mitigation, incident stabilization and rehab.

Can you use volunteers to perform other duties such as taking over control of pumping, water shuttle and other specialized tasks?

Are there opportunities to have volunteers serve as mentors for new volunteers on tasks they may not get the opportunities to perform very often? It is an opportunity to be a “training buddy”.  The training buddy is assigned to a new, or struggling, member to assist with all aspects of being a member and responder.

Be Creative
I can remember having senior volunteers come to me and saying they were going to retire because of their age. They were concerned about performing tasks which required more strength and agility than when they were younger.

Rather than lose them, we established a “special service” group of volunteers. Their duties included restoration of antique apparatus, special projects and other support functions.  They retained their membership as volunteers, functioning as members without the physical demands of a first responder.

Other programs can include:

  • FIRE CORPS programs
  • Smoke alarm inspection/installation
  • CPR/first aid classes
  • Incident support services
  • Home safety and defensible space inspections
  • Address signs
  • Vehicle and equipment maintenance/repairs
  • Office/clerical help
  • Facilities and ground maintenance

All of these will increase your service delivery and effectiveness within your community.

Be Flexible 
When something is new, adjust as needed. The issue is how can you best utilize your volunteers and involve them. How can you utilize the time they are contributing?

It is important to remember your volunteers’ time is valuable. Do not waste it. At drills, provide more "hands-on activities" using the trucks and equipment. Get them on their feet and active.

Create response groups/companies. Are you having issues with response or back filling of the station? Consider your volunteers who are consistent responders. They will eventually suffer burnout at some point and may become bitter towards less involved volunteers.

Volunteers want time off. The need for a volunteer response weighs heavily on them. They will respond even while others other do not. If you create "duty days” (example: specific assigned days of the week with 2 or more responders) you may get more involvement from other volunteers.  This will provide a minimal guaranteed response or back filling of stations. By doing this, they know that some days they will not be expected to respond and will have some off time.  

What are the issues and needs of your volunteers? Ask them. They may surprise you with their insight and can provide you with opportunities you have not noticed.

Communicate with all involved.
Everyone involved needs to know what is going on. Tell your volunteer personnel they are needed and appreciated. Career staff must embrace the volunteers. Tell them what you are doing and why.

Have a "TRULY" open door policy. Let them know you want to take action to address a volunteer issue prior to it becoming a problem. Involve them in discussions.

Volunteer activities need to be Consistent with mission of department. Not busy work.
Your volunteers joined to contribute their time, skills, and effort. They want to be productive. They did not join, just be assigned work that will just keep them busy. They can do that on their own. Your volunteers joined to make a difference in their community. They desire to have a positive feeling about what they are doing and being a contributing part of the crew.


  • Look for opportunities and capitalize on them. Volunteers will step up to the plate if it has value to them and the organization.
  • Be creative in using your volunteers.
  • Be flexible. Adjust, as necessary.
  • Communicate with all involved. Everyone needs to be on board and understand.
  • The use needs to be consistent with your mission and productive. It should not be “busy work” just to keep them occupied. It needs to be meaningful.

Remember: If they do not feel valued, you will lose them. If they do not have the opportunities to contribute, you will lose them. If you do not use them, you will lose them.