Fire station turns away volunteers – & how it could be different

This blog was originally published on 12 April 2010 on my blog platform at the time. More than three years later, I finally have an update on this situation, which I will post tomorrow. But first, let’s revisit this blog:

A fire station turns away volunteers – and how it could be different

My husband is an experienced, highly-trained, highly-skilled firefighter. He’s been a volunteer firefighter for most of his adult life, and wants to remain such (he has no interest in a professional career — he already has a career). Imagine our shock when we moved to a small town in Oregon with signs outside all of the area fire houses proclaiming Volunteers Needed but upon asking about volunteering, were told, “We only bring in new volunteers once a year. We won’t be talking to new candidates until June. If you are still interested in 10 months, we’ll talk to you then.”

This isn’t just the policy of many fire stations or emergency response agencies that need volunteers. There are other organizations, such as domestic violence shelters, that also have only a once-a-year new volunteer training or induction.

If your organization has just one window of opportunity for new volunteers to join, you are regularly turning away potential volunteers for most of the year.

Most people who are interested in volunteering are not going to wait around for months for your once-a-year training. You need to explore ways to keep those candidates involved until the once-a-year induction rolls around.

Here are actions you can take to either alter your program or to keep potential candidates engaged until your once-a-year window comes around:

  • Ask anyone interested in volunteering to immediately fill out either your full application to volunteer or a special one-page pre-volunteering application that asks for just basic information (full name, email address, mailing address, note about why the person wants to volunteer). Keep track of this information so that you always have an up-to-date list of everyone interested in volunteering with your organization; you do not ever want to say to a potential volunteer “We lost your information.” Have a rock-solid system for making sure all applications or pre-volunteering applications are accounted for.
  • Invite everyone on your list of people interested in volunteering to a meeting or event at least once-a-month at your organization. This can be a training event (allowing candidates to observe but **not** to participate), a celebration, an open-house, a presentation, etc. Have a sign-in sheet for candidates at the onsite event. Ask staff and current volunteers to greet these candidates at each event. Your goal is to build relationships between the potential volunteers and current volunteers and staff, which better ensures the potential volunteers will be around for your once-a-year induction of new volunteers.
  • Create an email distribution list for all those interested in volunteering with your organization. This can be a YahooGroup or GoogleGroup that you configure so that only you can post to the list. Ask anyone interested in volunteering to join this group. Use this group to post
    • a notice about new information on your web site that might be of interest to potential volunteers (photos, a new program that’s been launched, a message from the Executive Director, an evaluation report — the material does not have to be specific to volunteers)
    • a request for potential volunteers to complete an online survey (such as via zoomerang or surveymonkey)
    • a reminder of a deadline
    • an invitation to join an organizing or exploratory committee
    • an offer from another organization (an invitation to an event, for instance)
    • a link to an article online about your organization, or that relates to the mission of your organization and that you think volunteers would find helpful
    • an essay or testimonials by one of your current volunteers
    • a link to photos of volunteers in action at Flickr or Picasa
    • a reminder about training activities at other organizations that could be helpful to a potential volunteer (for instance, for potential firefighters, classes offered by the American Red Cross or the state agency that oversees firefighter training)
  • Look for ways to offer your induction/training for volunteers more than once-a-year. If you absolutely cannot offer it at least twice a year, look for an organization within a 50 mile radius that has the same induction/training for new volunteers as your organization, but that offers such at a different time of year. Sit down with that organization and look for ways to create a reciprocal agreement so that you can send potential volunteers to their volunteer induction/training, and vice versa. It may mean adjustments to both of your induction/trainings so that they meet each others’ needs. Talk with your legal adviser to make sure insurance covers volunteers trained at another facility. You can still require these volunteers to go through parts of your own induction/training when the time comes, to take a mini-induction/training so that they are familiar with all equipment and unique procedures at your organization, or to be limited in their volunteering activities until they go through your own induction/training.
  • Could volunteers-in-waiting help with events that honor current volunteers, or their training activities? Could they staff sign-in tables, hand out food and drinks at training events, help prepare a venue for an event or training, etc.? If they do any of these activities, they need to thanked very publicly by the current volunteers.

The goal is that potential volunteers start to feel a part of the organization as soon as possible, even though they are not yet active volunteers. You have a much better chance that these candidates will be around for your once-a-year induction for new volunteers if you create ways for potential volunteers to be involved in some way right away. This process will help volunteer candidates learn the culture of your organization — the language you use, the vibe of your work place, etc. This process will also help you screen out people who will realize volunteering at your organization isn’t really for them, and screen in people who are a good fit to your program. And isn’t it better that people realize this before they go through your actual full training/induction?

If all of this seems like too much work, you need to take a hard look at your commitment to involving volunteers. What is behind your reluctance to involve volunteers? What value do you see in volunteer involvement at your organization? Is it time for you to go to your supervisor and be honest and ask for help to overcome your reluctance to involve volunteers?

Also see:

International Association of Fire Fighters is anti-volunteer

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