Enhancing Volunteerism


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.

Related News

Brigade shed at Anakie
Two final reports from the Bushfire CRC’s seven-year Enhancing Volunteerism project are now online.
As Australian recovers from its worst ever fire season, a new study establishes for the first time the safe physical work standards that should be applied for the nation’s 220,000 volunteer firefighters.
Emergency service volunteers and their partners or spouses are being asked to comment on how their volunteer community role fits in with their family life. “We know that volunteering as a firefighter or emergency worker puts a unique blend of pressures on volunteers and their families,” said Sean Cowlishaw, a Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre PhD student at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
The need to develop the next generation of fire researchers was one of the key reasons for the establishment of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre in 2003. Now, four years on, there are 31 student researchers working on Bushfire CRC projects around Australia and in New Zealand, including 27 PhDs and four masters students.
La Trobe University scientists are playing important roles in the new Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) established to improve all aspects of preventing and fighting bushfires. The Federal Minister for Science, Peter McGauran, launched the new CRC—one of a number financed by the Federal Government to bring together researchers in many organisations working in the same field— in Melbourne on 9 December.
Australia has about 250,000 volunteer firefighters but for the past 30 years memberships have been declining. Fire agencies fear that if the decline persists a shortage of volunteer firefighters may emerge that degrades the provision of fire services.
A unique survey following firefighting volunteers six months after recruitment has begun to provide the basis of better volunteer recruitment strategies.
Emergency service volunteers and their partners or spouses are being asked to comment on how their volunteer community role fits in with their family life.

Publications from this Project

Journal Article

S. Cowlishaw; L. Evans; J. McLennan


J. McLennan; A. Birch; A. Palmer
J. McLennan; A. Birch; F. Acker; R. Beatson; R. Jamieson


Conference Paper

Conference Proceedings

J. McLennan; A. Birch; R. Beatson; S. Cowlishaw