Emergency service volunteers would like to be paid for their help

Published 16 May 2012

Tony Baxter-Tomkins
State Emergency Service and Rural Fire Service volunteers believe they should be compensated for working outside of their communities, according to research by Southern Cross University.

Anthony Baxter-Tomkins, who will graduate with a PhD this month from the Southern Cross Business School, focused his thesis on volunteers in the SES and RFS from NSW.

“While Australia’s population continues to grow, membership rates are steady in both organisations,” Mr Baxter-Tomkins said.

“I specifically wanted to know why people volunteered in these organisations; what they got out of volunteering; how were they recruited and what made them either stay or leave.”

According to Dr Baxter-Tomkins, who is an active RFS member, the bonds of the local SES and RFS volunteers are more akin to soldiers who have seen action together. Indeed, volunteers feel more loyalty to their individual unit than the organisation they represent.

“Most volunteers are recruited by word of mouth and the reason for that is that members like to recruit like-minded people. Actually, more than 80 per cent of those recruited are either a friend or relative of a member,” the researcher said.

“The motivation as to why people wanted to volunteer was interesting. I expected most of the responses to say they did so to serve the community or help the community. And while that may have been partially the case, volunteers also said they got a lot of rewards through things such as skills development, respect from the community, acceptance within the primary volunteer unit and positive media portrayal.

“They were also very specific about what they considered their community. Community to the volunteers meant local area, meaning, the area from where the unit is based. A nearby brigade was considered part of the family but beyond that other volunteers were considered somewhat like cousins. Volunteers identified with their own unit rather than the organisation as long as their primary ideals were upheld within that unit.

“The volunteers of both organisations are happy to continue doing their service for their local community but believe they should be compensated if they are tasked to jobs outside of their own community. Many volunteers lose wages when they go outside of their own area for extended periods which is an important growing trend. Fifty-eight per cent of the volunteers interviewed believed that they should be reimbursed for out-of-area responses. They said that they should be paid an honorarium, have a superannuation scheme established or their wages reimbursed for extended out-of area work because their loss of wages are considered to be out of pocket expenses. All of the participants of this study flatly refused to entertain the idea of any form of payment for work within their local area however.

“While they do get out of pocket expenses they could lose two weeks pay. To get around this most of them take holiday pay to keep the money coming in to the family but then that means they don’t have holidays with their family. This could lead to burnout and a strain in family relationships. There also seems to be a growing number of emergencies in the past few years and members have found themselves deployed all over Eastern Australia.”

Dr Baxter-Tomkins, who is a community development manager at Moree Plains Shire Council, also found friction within the unit was more likely to cause the SES or RFS to lose volunteers. However, volunteers interviewed by the researcher also listed second-hand equipment and issues with career officers as causing friction.

“The human resource management of both organisations must realise they are dealing with volunteers and volunteers are not like career officers,” he said.

“I think they need human resource management focused on volunteers and possibly mediators who are volunteers. There must be recognition that if there is a fight or friction within a unit of the SES or RFS then it is like a fight in the family and one big blue could see multiple members leaving the service.

“Volunteers also want to be heard when they are dealing with career officers. They are the locals on the ground and often have more experience in certain situations than the officer who could be in charge.”

Dr Baxter-Tomkins compiled his findings from interviewing 72 members from 38 different SES and RFS units across the State.

Photo: Dr Tony Baxter-Tomkins

Media contact: Steve Spinks media officer, Southern Cross University Gold Coast and Tweed Heads, 07 5589 3024 or 0417 288 794.