While some of us spend lazy hot summer days in the pool, thousands of volunteer firefighters and support crews battle fires and floods across the country. And it’s not just in summer. Emergency services volunteers are there for us rain, hail or shine; 365 days a year.
In Australia, it is economically impractical to employ the number of emergency service workers to adequately respond to fires or other natural hazards such as storms and floods. As a result, Australia benefits from the benevolent support of around 235,000 emergency services volunteers, many of whom have followed in the footsteps of their family’s tradition to volunteer. This volunteering is a way of life for many in communities and has been for a long time. Volunteer fire brigades were established as early as the mid-19th century and emergency and rescue agencies, such as the State Emergency Services, have their origins in the Civil Defence established in the 1950s.
Volunteer brigades and units are managed by the volunteers themselves. This quasi-independence of volunteer groups on the one hand, and the corporate environment of paid staff in a regional, district or head office on the other hand, 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. As a result of these problems many volunteer-based emergency service agencies experience high rates of volunteer turnover. In some cases, this is as high as 20 per cent volunteer turnover each year and it can be that as much as half of all new recruits leave within the first two years.