Rural fire services rely heavily on volunteers. Ensuring adequate crewing levels for our brigades is essential for protecting the environment and communities vulnerable to bushfires. Around 250,000 volunteers across Australia engage in bushfire suppression and mitigation work.
In some rural communities, economic and demographic factors result in declining and ageing populations. Some new housing developments in previously rural areas have low levels of community participation in voluntary activities. Structural changes to employment and social and economic pressures on families also restrict opportunities for volunteering.
The Volunteerism project -- led by Latrobe University psychology professor Jim McLennan with researcher Adrian Birch – has provided fire services across Australia and New Zealand with information to help strategic planning and policy development concerning volunteer numbers, and suggested new ways of recruiting and supporting volunteer workforces.
The project team conducted research into factors affecting the recruitment of future volunteers and the retention of current volunteers. The researchers used surveys, interviews with current volunteers, case studies of best-practice brigades, and surveys of employers of volunteers. The project also tracked the experiences of new volunteer recruits as they moved through recruitment, induction, training, and initial deployments to fires and related emergency incidents.
As part of a longitudinal study, volunteers were surveyed six, 12 and 24 months after recruitment, an initiative that led to improved volunteer recruitment strategies for Bushfire CRC partner agencies such as Victoria’s Country Fire Authority and the Queensland Rural Fire Service.
The project reviewed the annual resignation rates for volunteer-based fire agencies. The findings indicated the need for agencies to distinguish unavoidable reasons for resigning (such as moving, age and health) from potentially avoidable reasons such as work, family and dissatisfaction, to balance demands on volunteers’ time including their family and work needs, and to enhance the skills of brigade leaders.
An important input was the doctoral study of Sean Cowlishaw that looked at the impact of volunteering on the wider family and how this influenced recruitment and retention. This study surveyed the families of volunteers and found a critical need for cultural change to provide broader support, to the volunteers and their family.
“What I have found is that families are often not as prepared to deal with these conflicts and pressures as we might hope,” said Cowlishaw. “My research has informed interventions that agencies can use to support families and volunteers and to minimise the conflicts between volunteers and family life.”
The combined research of this project has led to agencies reviewing the way they manage volunteers, with enhanced training, support services for volunteers and families and recruitment campaigns that target younger and more diverse sections of the population. The Queensland and Victorian agencies in particular have reported that younger people than previously have responded to recent campaigns, noting younger inquirers were making much greater use of online information than older inquirers.