Friday, January 22, 2016

Should you pay volunteers?

Can you have paid volunteers?  

Isn't that an oxymoron?

It has long been custom to pay volunteer firefighters for the time they spend training, attending training, for accommodations, travel, and meals if the training is a distance.  That is the custom in many other nonprofits as well.  In addition, firefighters sometimes receive a stipend for the time they work on a fire, usually a flat amount.

Firefighters whether paid or volunteer love their job.Talk to any firefighter about the last job he or she was on and you'll see.  That doesn't mean they can't gripe, but they are admittedly a pretty satisfied group with their jobs.

Fire departments are running into a problem even with the dedicated volunteers.  There just aren't enough of them.  Fire departments recruit  new volunteers by word of mouth. That's been a pretty good way. Firefighters are highly visible in any community.   I got into a conversation with an employee at a local business in a neighboring town and suggested she talk to our chief about volunteering.  I did that even though I'm not a volunteer, just know lots of them. Fire departments have actively set up junior firefighter programs to help with a pipeline of the next recruits.   If you are familiar with the Rotary, a service organization, it too has set up a pipeline of young people, Rotaract,  who may join the Rotary in the future.

Even with the most ambitious plans, rural and suburban fire departments are increasingly finding it difficult to find enough recruits.  In Vacationland,Maine, (where I am writing this) many communities have the additional problem of losing not only jobs half the year, but population as well. That doesn't mean they need half the firefighters.  There are still 24 hours in a day.  Some of  lack of new recruits  is due to the decline in independent businesses. Employees can no longer take time away from their jobs.  It also has to do with the loss of jobs in our small communities.  It's not uncommon for fire fighters to live in one community and work in another and even volunteer as a firefighter in both communities.  Still that means that many firefighters are not available at the drop of a hat, that is the call over the phone or whatever communication device the fire department uses.  ay.

That leads to the incremental use of more paid firefighters.  Firefighting has long been a skilled practice with new ways and means of fighting being developed, more and more involvement in emergency planning, and even cross training with EMTs and police.  It makes sense that a small departments may now need a professional chief responsible for insurance issues, equipment depreciation, training, etc.  Then a fire department might need a paid Asst. Chief.

You can see where I 'm going now.  One department near  me is considering paying an on-call hourly wage initially of $8.00 for a minimum of two hours to volunteers.  Its an attempt to provide an incentive for more to volunteer.  The proposal also calls for hiring additional full time firefighters at a competitive rate.  Now you are seeing the problem.

Alfie Kohn, has said in Punished by Rewards, that incentives can often be a disincentive, reducing self-motivation.  So oddly enough paying volunteers to work along side paid firefighters, may not work, particularly as volunteers are paid about half of what a full-time firefighter would is paid.
So what is a fire department to do or any other volunteer agency that relies primarily on volunteers to deliver its primary service?  Paying volunteers more won't change the basic structural problems in our rural communities, an older population and a lack of jobs to keep younger volunteers in the community. This then though not the best solution will buy time while considering the costs of a full-time department. For the full article, see