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​Emergency services on the line – the future of volunteering
Thursday 11 May 2017 – 10:00 AM

Reports show that less people are volunteering, recruitment is stagnant and it has become harder to retain volunteers. So where does that leave emergency services? The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES), recently released a volunteering sustainability strategy looking at ways to deal with some of those changes. 

DFES Manager of Strategic Volunteer and Youth Programs Jennifer Pidgeon said there is a fundamental shift in volunteering that is affecting everyone across the sector, emergency services personnel especially.

“What’s happening in the broader community is definitely having an impact on us,” Jennifer said. 

“We have 26,000 emergency services volunteers responding to over 8,000 incidents in WA every year. With an ageing workforce as well as retention and recruitment issues, we need to act now.”

The DFES Volunteer Sustainability Strategy which launched in March 2017 aims to tackle the changing nature of volunteering. An eight year plan with 137 strategies, it looks predominately at increasing recruitment and retention rates, but also how volunteering opportunities are structured to create a sustainable workforce. 

“We know that how people volunteer is changing and that it doesn’t necessarily fit well with our traditional model of volunteering,” Jennifer said.

“People tend to leave the services very quickly. You’ll have them for 12 months, maybe three years and then they’re gone. Whereas before we used to have folks who were volunteering long term out of a sense of duty to their community.”

Jennifer said people are valuing shorter volunteering experiences over long term commitment and want to learn about different parts of the community. Once they’ve had that experience they move on.

“There’s also a perception that emergency service volunteering is hot, dirty and dangerous work. People are not necessarily willing to go into that space like they used to,” Jennifer said.

“Our community has changed as well. People are much more engaged in work and want quality time with their children. If they volunteer, many prefer to do it with their kids. 

“Here at DFES we’re looking at how we can work with brigades, groups and units to build their knowledge and understanding of how to restructure volunteer opportunities.”

By offering more non-operational roles Jennifer said organisations will gain more diversity across the board.

“It will take the pressure off those who do want to climb on rooves, do swift water rescue and go to fires so they are free to concentrate on their training and operational role,” she said.

Over the next eight years DFES will prioritise activities and projects to raise the profile of emergency services volunteering and develop resources to attract and recruit volunteers.  

With a national approach Jennifer thinks organisations like DFES that rely on volunteers may be able to tap into new recruitment avenues to reach a wider section of the community.

“We’re working with our colleagues in the eastern states because this is not just an issue in WA, it’s a national issue. Many organisations that have traditional volunteering structures are facing the same problems. Doing nothing is not an option.”