Resilience to Hazards

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Many volunteer-based emergency service agencies experience high rates of volunteer turnover, in some cases as high as 20% each year. At times, up to half of all new recruits leave within the first two years. Finding out why this happens – and developing ways to improve volunteer retention – has been the focus of this study, which is now in its utilisation phase. While the team determined there was no need for a leadership program per se, because most agencies offer a variety of programs that meet the traditional needs of leadership development, self-determination theory has been identified as a simple method to introduce to volunteer leaders.

It is economically impractical to employ the number of emergency service workers needed to adequately respond to fires, storms and floods. As a result, Australia benefits from the support of around 235,000 emergency services volunteers.

Volunteer brigades and units are managed by the volunteers themselves. This quasi-independence of volunteer groups – in contrast to the corporate environment of paid staff in a regional, district or head office – can sometimes cause tensions, especially related to communication and authority along hierarchical structures. However, these tensions also occur within volunteer groups, where effective leadership is a critical element for job satisfaction and for the retention of recruits. Many volunteer-based emergency service agencies experience high rates of volunteer turnover, in some cases as high as 20% each year. At times, up to half of all new recruits leave within the first two years.

Volunteer turnover is an economic liability to volunteer-based agencies. Training, uniforms and protective equipment are expensive. More importantly, volunteer turnover has a bearing on operational capacity, flexibility, resilience, and to some degree, morale. Research on poor volunteer retention is therefore valuable.

Finding out why this happens – and developing ways to improve volunteer retention – has been the focus of this study, which is now in its utilisation phase. While the team determined there was no need for a leadership program per se, because most agencies offer a variety of programs that meet the traditional needs of leadership development, self-determination theory has been identified as a simple method to introduce to volunteer leaders.

Self-determination theory recognises that people have three basic psychological needs for optimal functioning and wellbeing:

  • Autonomy – having the opportunity to express personal initiatives and ideas
  • Belonging– perceiving themselves to be part of the group
  • Competence – feeling effective through positive feedback and appropriate training.

A nine-week program, called Inspire.Retain.Engage, was developed, which consisted of:

  • One day of learning about leadership, self-determination theory and generation of ideas
  • Nine weeks of on-the-job application and active reflection on the principles of self-determination theory with the support of an online mentor
  • A final day of reflection and sharing within communities of practice.

The program was piloted with volunteer leaders in 2014 with the NSW State Emergency Service and the NSW Rural Fire Service. It was delivered again in 2016 to volunteer leaders and staff of Victoria State Emergency Service and Queensland Fire and Emergency Services.

The Inspire.Retain.Engage training and the use of self-determination theory improved the retention rate of volunteers, as shown by the statistical effectiveness of the program on behavioural change in the participants, job satisfaction and turnover intention of team members.

The program is available to all emergency service agencies in Australia.

Fire Australia Issue Two 2017
2 June, 2017
There is plenty of CRC science in the latest edition of Fire Australia.
SES volunteers undertaking a search.
30 May, 2017
Finding out why volunteers leave - and developing ways to improve volunteer retention—has been the focus of CRC research.
ACT ESA staff met with the UoW research team to learn more about the leadership program. Photo Paul Jones
15 December, 2016
A leadership program developed by Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC researchers at the University of Wollongong is helping the State Emergency Services and the Rural Fire Services tackle one of the biggest challenges they face: reducing the turnover in their volunteer workforce.
13 October, 2016
New journal articles and reports on CRC research are available online.
SES volunteers performing a rescue in bushland. Photo by ACT SES.
10 July, 2015
A recently released Hazard Note gives an overview of the Sustainable volunteering cluster of research projects.
RFS volunteer. Photo: Damien Ford NSW RFS
9 February, 2015
This update provides news on the four streams of research in the Emergency volunteering project.
22 October, 2014
New research is focused on retaining active emergency services volunteers, and better engaging untrained ‘informal’ volunteers who offer to help when incidents and natural disasters happen.
Michael Jones Conference Poster 2016
12 Aug 2016

Using the principles of diversity acceptance and organisational inclusive behaviour

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Improving  the retention and engagement of volunteers in the emergency service agencies
30 Jun 2017

Volunteers were surveyed to identify the dominant and shared values of volunteers in the NSW SES and SA SES followed by participatory action research with units in the NSW SES. The findings have implications for all facets of volunteer engagement in the emergency service sector, including targeted recruitment, tailored training, differentiated management strategies, new models of engagement, and the alignment of organisational and personal values.

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