Why volunteer firefighters volunteer

Rick Markley, FR1 Editor-in-chief

I may have been wrong about volunteer firefighters.

Well, maybe not completely wrong, but wrong enough to reconsider a strongly held belief.

This all begins earlier this week when I had the radio set to NPR while driving to dinner. There was a story about altruism, sharing and basically, why we do what we do when it comes to volunteering. It was one of those stories where you sit in the parking lot and wait for it to finish.

Actually, this begins with an on-going conversation I've had with National Volunteer Fire Council President Phil Stittleburg on recruiting and retaining volunteers. I've maintained that, given the economy and pressure on volunteers, it would take about $20 per hour to attract and keep good volunteers.

Phil disagrees. He maintains that money is not a motivator.

So there I sit, in my truck, in a restaurant parking lot stomach rumbling and rethinking my position.

The story established that people will do things against their apparent best interest — that is, give something away that would help them, and it is often to strangers. It then explores several ways this happens and speculates on why.

It cited one experiment to test altruism among blood donors. In short, one blood bank paid people, the other didn't. The one that didn't pay, drew more blood.

One theory for why this happened is that paying people stripped them of their need to do good — be altruistic. The theory went on to say that many of those people simply found other avenues to do good.

Another interesting finding had to do with people's reported levels of happiness after doing something for someone else, like donating money. Those who were publically recognized reported being happier than those who gave anonymously.

So what's the take away from this for volunteer fire departments struggling to attract and retain firefighters? As I see it, it is two fold.

First, paying volunteers may not be the answer to better recruitment. That's not a huge surprise; most volunteer firefighters I know would gladly do it for free and many do.

The second is that if you want to keep volunteers motivated, be sure they are recognized for their commitment. This means both within the department and within the community. It's a fairly easy, low-cost thing for most departments to do.

But, back to the money.

I've read many of the reader comments that looked down upon taking money. It seems counter-intuitive, but the radio story seems to back that up. In my own experience, I offered to forego pay when applying to my department; they hired me and declined my offer, which I'm not grateful for both.

I still hold that municipalities should place a real dollar value on their fire protection — this puts us on par with police protection. It makes municipal leaders and the public know that firefighting is a highly skilled endeavor of vital importance to the community — not some hobby or social club.

All that aside, Phil was probably right; I'm just hoping he's kind enough not to rub my nose in it.

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