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Why Volunteer Organizations Need More Data to Improve Funding

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Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on EDM Digest.

By Dr. Randall Hanifen, Faculty Member, Emergency & Disaster Management at American Military University

In my work to help fire service organizations that struggle to recruit and retain volunteers, a community is typically interested in the answers to several questions:

  • What are the problems with volunteer recruitment and retainment?
  • How much will it cost to fix these problems?
  • What data supports the need for recruitment and retainment?
  • How many volunteers respond to the average fire call?
  • How long does it take to respond to incidents?

Sometimes, these questions don’t have precise answers. For example, the number of volunteers responding to an average call varies. Similarly, there may not be a readily available number for response times.

It is easier to provide data on expenses, because many first responder organizations pay their people. That makes it simple to determine payroll and benefit costs.

After receiving the answers to the above questions, those who are responsible for monitoring the costs often experience sticker shock because firefighters and their benefit costs are substantial. Depending on a community’s call volume, those costs can add up to tens of thousands of dollars for a single incident. In some cases, the value of the property saved may not even total the cost of a response.

Volunteer Organizations Are Dedicated to Helping Others, Not Pushing Papers

We didn’t get into this business to be paper pushers. Often, records do not exist, because either there is no real need or desire to keep accurate records.

Volunteering has its own costs, such as the time spent working for free and the cost of gasoline, lights, and sirens. From the volunteers’ standpoint, they leave their family and friends to help the community.

With the need for paperwork, volunteers are expected to invest even more of their time filling out and verifying run reports. Sometimes, this task can be the difference between a volunteer making the fire alarm call or not. While a volunteer sees this work as an onerous burden, the lack of extra time can prompt an urgent request for more money and staff from volunteer organizations.

Approving boards are much more cautious these days about hiring more staff, fearful of bankrupting the service.

So why doesn’t the chief do all of the records? For one, in small volunteer organizations, the chief is often a volunteer too with a full-time job somewhere else.

As a result, many fire department activities are done after a regular work shift. These activities include training, volunteer recruiting and retention, and vehicle maintenance. Some of these issues are more important than tracking data for run reports, because they make a decided difference in determining whether to respond to a call or not.

It Is Difficult to Get Data from Dispatch Centers

The fire department is the key agency from which an executive governing board expects to receive information and the data from a dispatching center. Response times, for example, are calculated from when the initial 911 call is received to when the fire department arrives to handle the emergency.

A small dispatch center, however, might have only one person on staff to handle the dispatch console while tending to a plethora of other tasks. Many times, these small dispatch centers are housed in a police station that answers walk-ins, tends to prisoners and completes many other administrative tasks. Even the best, most passionate dispatcher cannot properly track time changes, take notes to enter into the Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) system, and perform dispatch support functions for the fire department.

Many 911 Fire Department Calls Require EMS and Rescue

Most volunteer fire departments do not perform emergency medical services (EMS) as a primary duty. But the United States Fire Association (USFA) reported in 2016 that 64% of the calls to fire departments required EMS and rescue services.

Even the smallest towns have a regular call volume of emergency medical services. This is often because the median age of small communities is higher than that of the general population and older residents requires greater use of emergency medical services.

Community members with the authority to allocate funds to volunteer organizations must wonder where their money goes if it isn’t being spent on fires.

Since the 1970s, fire calls have declined. Only about five percent of fire department runs now involved fires, according to the USFA report.

Mobile Apps Can Be Helpful for Gathering Data

Some data can be gathered by today’s technology. For example, mobile apps such as IamResponding (IaR) and Active911 track the response times of fire department vehicles and individuals. Some of these applications can move data into a cloud-based records management program, which reduces the need for fire department personnel to enter data manually and ensure accuracy.

These mobile apps capture addresses, times and track who is unavailable for a call, which helps determine reliability statistics.

These mobile apps save time; all that fire department personnel from volunteer organizations have to do is enter a short narrative of an incident and code the call type. Due to the cloud-based design of the mobile app system, that information can be entered from the responder’s home.

From a dispatch perspective, it is important to have accurate times for recording when 911 calls were received and dispatch times. The data help illustrate any time delays involved in responding to 911 calls that may be caused by reasons other than just a reliance on volunteers.

Communities Eventually Need to Pay Their Dispatchers and Other Personnel

While data collection issues can seem trivial, each community will reach a point when it must hire paid personnel to handle emergency calls. Providing valid data to support this need is key to winning funding approval from oversight organizations.

Ultimately, becoming involved in emergency medical services can illustrate the value of the requested funds. However, all funds provided to fire departments and EMS units will truly benefit a community.

dataAbout the Author: Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a Shift Captain for the West Chester Fire Department in Ohio and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of Disaster Planning and Control. Randall serves as the Executive Chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a Taskforce Leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the Vice-Chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees He is credentialed as a Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a Fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. To contact the author, send an email to For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.


Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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