Research leader

Michael Jones
A/Prof Michael Jones Research Leader

Research team

Andrew Sense
A/Prof Andrew Sense Research Team
Dr Yoke Berry Research Team

End User representatives

Peter Jeffrey End-User
Toni Richardson End-User
Narelle Koteff End-User
Madonna Day End-User
Adelaide Cooper End-User
Troy Davies End-User

Student researchers

Bill Calcutt
Bill Calcutt Student Reseacher
Dr Vivien Forner Student Reseacher

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 – was the focus of this study. 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.

Michael Jones Conference Poster 2016
12 Aug 2016
Using the principles of diversity acceptance and organisational inclusive behaviour
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...