Roundtable: Should volunteers be paid?

That's a question that seems to lead to as many questions as answers, so we asked three experts to weigh in

Ask any 10 volunteer firefighters their opinions on financial compensation and you will likely get 12 different opinions. It's a complex issue with no easy answers and no shortage of strong feelings.

With the number of volunteers decreasing; the time demands to become and remain a volunteer increasing; real financial pressure on families increasing; and the mental and physical risk to firefighting increasing, it is time to address the compensation questions.

They are hard questions to answer because they cut to the core of who we are. We have a long tradition of volunteering for volunteering's sake. Yet when we read about volunteers surrendering their paltry per-call stipend to pay for a much-needed fire truck because the municipality won't spend the money, the whole system seems out of whack.

To bring some learned perspective to this, we invited three respected and forward-thinking experts to weigh in on volunteer firefighter compensation: National Volunteer Fire Council Executive Director and LaFarge (Wis.) Fire Chief Phil Stittleburg; Author, Fire Service Consultant and FireRescue1 Leadership Columnist Linda Willing and former volunteer Fire Chief and current South Carolina State Fire Marshal Shane Ray.

They bring both street smarts and book learning, and while they may not have all the answers, they move us closer to that end. And, please, join the conversation in the comment section below.

How much does financial compensation play into firefighter's decision to join or remain on a department?

Stittleburg: I may be wildly altruistic, but I have rarely seen compensation mentioned as a reason for joining, staying or leaving. Financial pressures, often necessitating a second or third job, are sometimes a reason for leaving. But this is more a reflection of not having enough time for the service. VFD compensation almost never rises to the level that it substitutes for a second or third income. I would guess that less than 5 percent leave because of a lack of compensation.

Willing: Everyone is motivated by both intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) factors. So we do things because we love to do them, or we want to do them, but also because we receive some reward (or avoid punishment) for doing them. You have to consider why someone is performing a task or doing a job.

In most cases, those who volunteer as firefighters are not doing it for the money, even when money is offered. Their primary motivation is probably something else — the desire to serve, being part of a close community of emergency responders, the opportunity to learn new skills, and the esteem they receive from family and friends.

Ray: It depends on the type of community and the region of the country. It could also depend on the history of the fire department. If the volunteer was recruited by someone who said, 'join the fire department; you can make an extra $500 per month' it would certainly impact the decision.

Is there a price point that departments can offer that will improve recruiting and retaining efforts?

Ray: Each department has to determine that through a needs assessment — what will ensure deployment while not being a burden on the members. I would also encourage departments not to rush into those decisions and that they don't start anything they can't sustain.

Stittleburg: Once compensation gets into four figures, no matter how it's computed, members start to notice it. However, I would still question it as a recruitment or retention tool since it is possible to make more money than that doing less elsewhere. If compensation has an impact, it is minimal.

Willing: Even when extrinsic motivation is provided, volunteer fire departments must recognize that they are never going to pay their members a living wage, and thus must put most of their efforts into fostering an environment that contributes to intrinsic motivation.

Do new members feel welcome and respected? Are all members included equally and given opportunities for personal development? Does the department have meaningful recognition programs? Does the department have good relations with the community so all department members feel valued? Are professional standards upheld so that department members always feel proud of their affiliation with that organization?

It is my experience that these types of factors are much more important for recruitment and retention of volunteers than just giving them a few more dollars here and there.

Is there any empirical research that's examined effective levels of compensation for volunteers?

Stittleburg: Not that I'm aware of. Many years ago NVFC did a survey of why people joined, stayed and left. As I recall, compensation or lack there of never made the radar screen.

Ray: Not that I am aware of, but it is research that should be conducted.

What is a fair level of compensation?

Willing: The question is: What kinds of extrinsic rewards will be most effective in recruiting and retaining people for these positions? It is possible that paying someone $10 or $15 for responding to an emergency call in the middle of the night is less motivating than giving that person real recognition for their service, or providing educational support or incentives, or providing things like pension contributions or insurance options.

Stittleburg: "Fair" compensation would probably be what career people are paid. Nobody is looking for that. Beyond that, fair is probably in the eye of the beholder (recipient). Frequently, the amount is not as important as the act of giving it. In other words, it's the community saying, 'Thanks for doing what you do and here's a little gift of appreciation.'

Ray: A fair level is what meets the service needs of residents and that is affordable and sustainable to the department.

What do you make of the feeling that getting paid is not true volunteering, therefore volunteers should not be paid anything?

Stittleburg: More power to them. We have about 27,000 all- or mostly volunteer fire departments with at least that many views on the subject. If that works for them; that's great. However, don't disparage anyone who is working for almost nothing, either. Each community and each volunteer fire department needs to make its own choices. Anyone working for less than full pay is volunteering to some degree.

Ray: If the community can afford for it not to cost the member money from their pocket to volunteer, it is still volunteering. Incentive pay or reimbursement for reasonable expenses is still volunteering. It's an argument that shouldn't be an argument; we should focus more on service.

Willing: Interestingly, there are times when offering low financial compensation is worse than offering none at all. For instance, imagine that your best friend asks you to help him move. You gladly do so, and at the end of the day, he hands you a $10 bill for your service. How would you feel? It would probably be awkward, because you were clearly not helping your friend with the anticipation of a financial reward. However, if your friend had bought you dinner at the end of the day, you probably would have gladly accepted, since this gesture of friendship would have been consistent with your intrinsic motivation for helping in the first place.

Will there need to be a culture shift before volunteers receive better compensation?

Ray: There will need to be a change in laws and regulations so we can better compensate volunteers.

Stittleburg: It will take a major culture shift to make the public understand that it doesn't ask police departments to hold a bake sale to purchase a new squad car. However, before that happens the local VFD must want it to happen. Many take justifiable pride in not asking the community to step up to the plate and provide appropriate financing. If that's what they want and are able to maintain appropriate staffing and furnish appropriate service, that's wonderful.

For those that are not able to do that, the public must be made to understand that it will get the level of service it is willing to support. Its options may be increasing compensation (as mentioned, I think this will have limited impact), reducing scope or quality of service, putting on some paid cadre, or merger to name a few options. Ultimately, the choice must be made at the local level.

What other issues are at play?

Willing: Volunteer fire departments have to be careful not to become too transactional in how they reward their members, since by definition, they will never be paying them comparably to a career-based department. It is important to recognize and honor the intrinsic factors that motivate volunteers when choosing what rewards to offer.

Ray: How many departments violate the Fair Labor Standards Act, IRS regulations, etc. by compensating volunteers? We should make it simpler for volunteer fire departments depending on community or department size like we do with the number of employees for other entities.

The other thing is that when departments start compensating or reimbursing members, they should do that for things they should be doing and can't get completed. We had success in accomplishing fire prevention tasks. However, when they don't want to perform those for compensation, you know they are there just to make calls, which is acceptable if that is what your residents want.

Stittleburg: If our focus is broadened to what brings people in and keeps them, it's as basic as decent equipment to work with and an occasional thank you. I place compensation way down the list. When we're talking about declining numbers of volunteers, we are seeing two things: first, an aging workforce where people are retiring at a faster rate than they are being replaced; and second, a failure to engage the teens and twenty-somethings. 

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