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Together we are stronger

How public safety organizations can recruit, retain volunteers

11 Jan 2021 8:34 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Lawrence Nolan, Ph.D., Program Manager, Capstone Corporation, IPSA Member

An important component of the public safety sector is the unpaid staff in organizations serving communities as volunteers. Individuals who volunteer willingly give of their time, and in many cases, do it in order to make a difference or give back to the community as addressed in the Volunteer Engagement Toolkit Guide. There are many dedicated individuals across the nation that devote their time as volunteers to government, non-profit and charitable organizations. The U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics reported in 2015 that about 62.6 million people were volunteers in America. During that period, volunteers 16 years and older contributed 8.9 billion hours and volunteers over 65 years were responsible for 2.2 billion hours of the total. This provides an insight into the value that approximately 20 percent of the population places on service to others. The public safety community is supported by a portion of these volunteers.


To consider volunteers in public safety, it is helpful to understand who they are. Jeffrey Brudney’s article on volunteers in the public sector characterized volunteers as supporting a government organization and mission, providing their time freely, receiving no remuneration for their time or labor, however they may be compensated for their personal expenses in support of their work. These volunteers support federal, state, tribal, and municipal government organizations, religious, non-governmental, non-profit, and community-based organizations involved in providing safety to the public. Their support is provided to a wide variety of public safety sectors.

Emergency services volunteers

This is not a comprehensive list of public safety organizations with volunteers, but it does provide a perspective on the diversity of ways volunteers support public safety. Recruitment and retention of volunteers are important to the public safety community.

Volunteer fire departments, emergency medical services and ambulance transport serve many communities across the nation. The National Fire Protection Association reported in their U.S. fire department profile that there are an estimated 1,115,00 firefighters in the nation during 2018, with approximately 33 percent career and 67 percent volunteer firefighters. Those 745,000 volunteer firefighters are making a significant contribution to public safety across the country.

Other public safety volunteers support Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD), American Red Cross, Medical Reserve Corps, Neighborhood Watch & Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS), Fire Corps, Civil Air Patrol, American Radio Relay League (ARRL) and Meals on Wheels Association of America as reported in Ready Gov.

The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary has approximately 26,000 volunteers with a focus on recreational boating safety.

Volunteers’ motivation

Recognition of the value of volunteers drives effective management and success of organizations. Providing an environment that appreciates volunteers leads to an increase of services to the public. Knowing what motivates volunteers can assist in the development of organizational policies. In a study of volunteers in non-profit organizations, community service, career advancement and well-being were common underlying motivations for individuals. The Volunteer Functions Inventory created in 1992 by E.G. Clary, M. Snyder, and R. Ridge was addressed in a systematic review  and identified six motivations in volunteers.

  • Values
  • Understanding
  • Social
  • Career
  • Protective
  • Enhancement

Organizations need to appreciate these volunteer motivations and ensure they are managing to support the recruitment and retention of volunteers.

Successful volunteer programs in the public safety sector understand the importance of focusing on volunteer motivations. Addressing the needs of volunteers increases organizational output and maintains their commitment to the mission. In the article volunteers in the public sector, it identifies the following best practices for managing volunteers in organizations.

  • Support from senior leaders
  • Documented policies and job descriptions
  • Orientation and on-going training
  • Volunteers as managers
  • Recognition
  • Records, evaluations, timekeeping
  • Training for those working with volunteers
  • Budget and resources
  • Newsletter
  • Liability insurance

It is important to implement these best practices in organizations that utilize volunteers. It allows the volunteers to feel valued and appreciated for their contributions to public safety. It also maximizes the support provided by volunteers in the office.

Volunteers are a resource for the public safety sector to consider in fulfilling their mission. They are used in a wide variety of roles and are motivated to assist their communities. Effectively managing volunteers leads to their retention and assists in the effort to recruit new members. Utilizing volunteers may be an alternative for public safety organizations, when funds are unavailable to hire to requirements.

About the Author

Lawrence Nolan, Ph.D. is a Program Manager for Capstone Corporation, retired from the Department of the Army and U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the USCG Auxiliary. 

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