This isn’t just a lesson regarding volunteer fire fighters; it’s a lesson for any organization that involves volunteers. Your organization might need volunteers, but does it really want them? Is this want expressed in the attitude and action of everyone that interacts with potential volunteers, and in all of your procedures regarding potential volunteers?
Yesterday, I reposted a blog from 2010 that was inspired by my husband’s frustration at trying to be a volunteer firefighter in the USA since moving here in 2009. As I noted in yesterday’s blog, my husband is German, he’s been a volunteer firefighter for most of his adult life in Germany, and he wants to remain such here in the USA. He has no interest in a professional firefighting career — he already has a career. He’s fluent in English, and ready to start out from the very beginning with training and certifications.
Since moving to Oregon in 2009, he has visited at least six fire stations in the state that involve volunteers, trying to find a place to volunteer. I was with him on most of those visits, and talked to him at length about all of his visits. And I am astounded by how differently each of these fire stations talks about volunteers and to potential applicants.
Take Silverton, a small, picturesque town outside of Salem. We happened to be passing by the fire station while on our motorcycles just a few weeks after arriving in Oregon, and thought we would stop by just to see if anyone was around. Indeed, there was someone – one of the paid, career firefighters, who, after hearing our story, said, “Volunteers are the backbone of this fire station!” He took us immediately on the tour of the station, told us all there was to know about becoming a fire fighter, detailed what volunteers get to do, which includes fighting fires, gave my husband an application to print out, and said that, while there were no guarantees, he would love for us to move to Silverton.
Another station that was excellent was Estacada, which we happened upon while it was having an open house. All of the firefighters were friendly, and we met one who was oh-so-proud to have volunteered for more than 10 years and enthusiastic about showing us the protocol for going on a call. After hearing my husband’s situation, he said, “Oh, please move to Estacada!” Had it been closer to Portland, we would have!
Unfortunately, both Silverton and Estacada were too far from Portland, where my husband works and where I travel to frequently for work. So we moved elsewhere, to a town with a fire station with a sign out in front saying, “Volunteers Needed.” My husband went in during regular business hours. According to my husband, the chief seemed annoyed to have to talk to him, wasn’t very forthcoming with information, gave short answers, and was vague about what the exact steps would be to become a volunteer. He also made statements that made it clear his preference for paid career firefighters rather than volunteers. Nevertheless, my husband filled out the application and turned it in in-person at the station. In the next few months, the fire station never called my husband – so he called them, two or three times. Each time, he felt the person on the phone didn’t really want to talk to him. In those calls, he was told that:
- someone from the fire station had tried to call him but the number had been wrong (my husband confirmed the phone number they had on record was correct)
- someone from the fire station had sent emails but my husband never responded (he never received such, and he confirmed the email they had on record was correct)
- the academy for new volunteers was canceled, the next one wouldn’t happen for 10 months, and my husband could not go to another fire station’s academy as a substitute (later, we found out that the station had sent a small group of applicants to the academy in Silverton, in contrast to what they had told my husband)
He checked the web site and this fire station’s Facebook page regularly, but no information on volunteering was every posted or updated. As my husband put it, “Volunteers are needed, but they aren’t wanted.”
On his own, my husband visited another fire district during an open house, where he was told, for the most part, volunteers don’t do any fire fighting or emergency responding; they clean up the hoses or other equipment after a call. By contrast, another city’s firehouse staff invited him to view a training and said that, while volunteers were never first responders, they were often second responders, and in those cases, might undertake firefighting or emergency treatment responsibilities.
We ended up moving to Forest Grove, Oregon this year. We live two blocks from the fire station. The application process to be a volunteer is online, and my husband filled it out almost immediately after we moved into our home in January. Since then, he’s passed the physical test and the interview, and he will begin the academy next month. One of the leaders at the station saw us at a local event and approached us, asking if he had received the official offer yet and if he was excited. He was also proud to tell my husband, “Our volunteers aren’t just hose-rollers. They’re essential.”
What is your organization’s attitude regarding volunteers? Do your words, actions and procedures say, “Volunteers are essential, we value them, and we’re transparent and explicit about how to volunteer!”? Or do your words, actions and procedures say, “Volunteers are needed here, but we don’t really want them. They aren’t essential. If we didn’t have to involve them, we wouldn’t.”?