Research Letter 2.1


A friend of mine described volunteers as the "glue of society". Ian Kiernan, the Cleanup-Australia originator, called them "grass-roots heroes". In this International Year of the Volunteer, there has been a lot of praise for volunteers and a continual search to find the right images to describe the roles that they play. I like the idea of volunteers as 'essential oils'. This play on words gives the idea of the necessity to have volunteers in a smoothly running society but also the notion that they are 'sweet smelling' (like the 'essential oils' of aromatic herbs) to society at large for the good work that they do. This Letter concerns volunteers in fire-related services.

What motivates volunteers? Why do they do what they do? In a survey contributed to by 542 volunteers administered under the umbrella of the Fire and Emergency Services Authority of Western Australia (FESA), 50% responded that they joined the volunteer services (Fire and Rescue, Bush Fire Service, State Emergency Service) out of a "sense of community" (Aitken 2000). The next two major categories of motivation were 'social and mateship reasons' (13%) and 'to try something different or to learn new skills' (8.5%).

Volunteers in Australian fire services are administered and supported by government agencies concerned with either land management or emergency services. While there are significant structural changes in government administrations, "there are [also] a range of significant social and economic issues emerging that threaten the viability of the volunteer culture, and thus, the foundations of a range of emergency services" (Reinholdt and Smith 1998). Because of these concerns there have been a number of limited surveys related to volunteer participation and retention including Reinholdt and Smith (1998) but also Aitken (2000). From these surveys a number of factors emerge as to why people may be 'unavailable'. For example, competition for time was identified as a factor by a volunteer Captain in the FESA survey: "if what you are offering is not more interesting than other things, they are not prepared to consider joining" (see Aitken 2000). 'Competition for time' may be manifest in the current prevalence of two-income families, single-parent families, fewer farm and forest workers, and the rise in forms of home entertainment, longer working hours and distance education.

There are many challenges awaiting agencies concerned with fire suppression and fire management that have to do with volunteers and the trends in society at large. For example, 'Duty of Care' and 'Occupational Health and Safety' are important issues. Aitken (2000) pointed out that "heart attacks and other fitness related matters are the greatest cause of death amongst firefighters, particularly volunteers" so volunteers should "meet laid down minimum fitness and health requirements". With any shortage in personel, whether paid professionals or volunteers, increased mobility of people between regions and countries seems more likely. Therefore, the need for readily identified skill levels in volunteers who move beyond their normal region of operation needs to be appreciated. This situation highlights the importance of a national, even international, system such as the Incident Management System.

There are many fire-related issues facing volunteers, ordinary citizens and government agencies in this International Year of the Volunteer. However these challenges are met, volunteers will continue to be 'essential oils' in our society.

  1. Aitken, A. (2000). Identifying key issues affecting the retention of emergency services volunteers. Aust. J. Emergency Management 15, 16-23.
  2. Reinholdt, S. and Smith, P. (1998). Directions in Volunteer Development in Australian Emergency Services. Country Fire Authority, Victoria. 70p.
A. Malcolm Gill
August 2001