With many EMS Agencies heavily reliant on volunteers, it’s important that these volunteers are satisfied with their involvement in EMS and are well supported in their role.
This is not always the case though, with many who choose to be an EMS Volunteer left with negative impacts on their mental and physical health, as well as being affected by department and workplace politics.
This article is an in-depth look at Volunteer EMS, what is working, what isn’t working and how Agencies and Governments can make improvements going forward.
To assist us in writing this article, knowing our own personal experiences of volunteering is not enough, we created a survey which was open to EMS Volunteers globally, and posted the link to our Facebook & Instagram pages, as well as on our website.
We surveyed 116 EMS Volunteers to find out how satisfied and supported they feel.
The majority of those we surveyed (34.5%) currently volunteer over 40 hours per month to Emergency Medical Services.
And for most people, their service is comprised completely of volunteers, while 37% reported being part of a mixed service comprised of both volunteer and paid staff.
Why do people volunteer in EMS?
When we asked why they decided to volunteer in EMS, 77% stated it was to give back to their community and to help others. Examples of other responses included to gain EMT/Paramedic training, to gain experience, or in the hopes of eventually gaining employment in EMS.
Volunteering has been seen as a stepping stone into paid EMS in many areas for some time. Of the 116 Volunteers we surveyed, 38.8% of them are not interested in Paid EMS work, and did not sign up for that purpose.
8.6% already had paid EMS employment prior to volunteering, and were not seeking career progression when making the decision to volunteer in EMS.
33.6% stated that their volunteering in EMS directly helped them gain employment in the industry, and 19% stated that being a volunteer did not help them gain employment in EMS.
It seems for most people that their reasons for volunteering are genuinely wanting to assist others, and while some also hope to use it as a stepping stone into a career in EMS, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have the same levels of passion and dedication as their non-career focussed counterparts.
If you are going to do something without being paid for it, then it’s important that you enjoy it!
On the whole, most survey respondents enjoy their volunteering. With 35.4% rating their enjoyment at 10/10 (10 being the most enjoyable). While 81% of those we surveyed said that they enjoy volunteering, it’s concerning that 22.4% stated they were considering resigning from their volunteer commitments.
30% of those we surveyed would not recommend volunteering in EMS to other people.
These statistics are alarming, because one of the most concerning aspects of volunteer EMS is the lack of new volunteers joining the ranks. Over 70% said they are worried about the lack of younger volunteers to replace an ageing volunteer workforce.
One major benefit to volunteering is that 73.3% stated their Volunteering in EMS had positively impacted on their friendships and social connections. This benefit can be used by EMS agencies and organisations when marketing/advertising for new volunteers.
Another element of concern, is the number of volunteers who do not feel appreciated by their organisation, or by their community.
Many of the comments we received on the survey were centred on increasing appreciation for Volunteers, not only from the organisations but from the communities that benefit from them too.
Some respondents suggested appreciation events for Volunteers would be something they would implement to improve Volunteer EMS.
Of further concern is that 15.5% of those surveyed are extremely dissatisfied with the opportunities to debrief after a stressful incident, with a further 15% rating their satisfaction between 2-4 (Not Satisfactory).
59 people (65.6% of respondents) states that their EMS volunteering has had a negative impact on their mental health.
The impacts of EMS on your mental health can be extreme, and they are a known risk, so there is no excuse for employers and/or EMS agencies to not be providing support for their team.
When people choose to volunteer their time, they should at a minimum, be provided with avenues to access support should their volunteer EMS activity cause them distress.
While some people have credited being an EMS Volunteer with making new friends, there are other impacts that volunteer EMS can have.
52.2% of those we surveyed identified that their Volunteer EMS activities has had a negative impact on their relationship with their partner/spouse, and 48.9% said it had a negative impact on their relationship with their family members.
Recognising these impacts, and making adjustments to help volunteers continue their volunteering without causing unnecessary stress and burden on their partners and families is crucial to the survival of Volunteer EMS.
One suggestion here would be to get the families involved with the organisation, hold appreciation events and listen to feedback.
Volunteer EMS Training
When it comes to volunteer EMS training, there are many obstacles to overcome. These include cost, time and equipment.
14.6% of respondents do not feel that the training they receive as a volunteer is adequate.
Training volunteers can be a costly exercise, and many EMS Agencies, both paid and volunteer, have limted budgets and funding available to utilise.
We believe community fundraisers would be a good strategy for Volunteer EMS Organisations to explore in order to help them fund their volunteer EMS training and education requirements.
Improvements to Volunteer EMS
Many improvements are necessary for Volunteer EMS. These improvements can be split into the following categories:
- Recruitment & Marketing
- Training & Education
- Retention & Care
- Incentives & Compensation
- Evolution & Development
Recruitment & Marketing:
In order to recruit more volunteers, it’s essential for Volunteer EMS agencies to develop a marketing plan and strategy. There may be people locally who would be willing to volunteer to help their communities, but who are unaware of the opportunity.
By increasing volunteer numbers, we can share the load across the team, rather than rely on a select few who frequently over-volunteer until burnout.
Training & Education:
Having a team of volunteers means having regular meetings and training sessions. It means ensuring that all volunteers are trained appropriately, and partnered with senior colleagues to guide them through their initial shifts, and beyond.
Volunteer EMS Training and education does not stop when the volunteer is successfully inducted. EMS, and medicine in general, is a rapidly evolving industry with new and exciting research and development occurring every day.
It’s imperitive that all EMS professionals (including paid & volunteer) keep up to date with evidence based medicine.
Retention & Care:
Once you have the volunteer, don’t forget about them. Check up on them after their calls, implement an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for volunteers to access and receive professional counselling services external to the organisation.
Hold regular CISM debreifings as required and promote mental & physical health within your organisation, and your community. For volunteer EMS agencies, maybe a local Gym would be willing to allocate some free or discounted memberships for your volunteers to help them keep physically healthy, while a local counsellor may devote some sessions each month to helping your volunteers pro bono.
Hold regular volunteer appreciation events, and get the community involved. These don’t have to be anything formal or expensive.
Listen to your volunteers, ask for their feedback, and do your best to make continuous improvements.
Incentives & Compensation:
Many of our survey respondents flagged tax incentives for active volunteers as a good strategy for incentivising Volunteering in EMS.
Providing tax incentives could be a good way of compensating volunteers, however one concern would be people rushing to volunteer only in order to gain benefits on their taxes. Those people will probably not last long in EMS, and so the cost to train them would be wasted if they resigned not long after realizing that it’s not for them.
Overall, this idea could work, provided the eligibility criteria are strict enough.
Holding volunteer appreciation events was also flagged by many respondents and we believe this is a great idea for organisations and communities to show their appreciation to their volunteers.
Evolution & Development:
Listen to the feedback from your volunteers, your community, and the EMS Industry. Work to implement appropriate changes and policies efficiently and always in consultation with your Volunteers and Staff.
Be prepared to make changes, don’t just continue with what you’re doing because “that’s how we’ve always done it.”