Home Opinion Low Wages, Volunteerism and Budget Cuts

Low Wages, Volunteerism and Budget Cuts


It is no secret that Emergency Medical Services (EMS) agencies throughout the country can have a difficult time with their respective budgets.

Numerous articles have been published on the issue. For example, the Journal of Emergency Medical Services published an article specifically about how emergency managers can work to save money in their respective budgets. 

It can be very difficult for local governments to provide the resources an EMS agency needs to run a staffed organization well because there are so many programs that the local government needs to provide its citizens. Emergency medical services (EMS) is of course, an important public safety program the local government provides, but it can be difficult for a local government to effectively manage a budget for EMS -- especially with the numerous resources that are needed to make it robust.

EMS and the fire department are two agencies that can be staffed with volunteers because so many people in the community want to assist their fellow citizens during times of need. Agencies throughout the United States often use volunteers to staff their ambulances. But, following basic principles of supply and demand, volunteerism combined with small budgets can make it difficult for wages to increase for emergency medical technicians, paramedics and firefighters.

Volunteers – Will Work for Free

The overarching world of emergency management, ultimately, is a tremendously fun, adrenaline-pumping experience. It is an area of expertise that requires tremendous training, skill and a mindset that enjoys what most citizens would call a stressful experience.

Those who volunteer in aspects of emergency management absolutely love what they do – so much that they will serve on call for 24 hour shifts, all night, over major holidays and will get up before the crack of dawn to be at the station. For these volunteers, work is often a labor of love, as they truly enjoy serving their community while volunteering for a good cause. They love what they do.

Low Wages, Budgets and a Vicious Cycle

Because local governments don't have to pay wages for volunteers, the communities can effectively budget without the worry of accounting for staff wages. Paying employees a salary is tremendously expensive. 

However, the notion of large quantities of people volunteering can change the demand required for paid positions. Ultimately, this is a situation that will leave other agencies scratching their heads as if to say, “why pay for the same services if we can get it for free?"  

In many respects this is an ideal situation for local governments, but for those who are career emergency medical technicians, paramedics and firefighters, this situation can potentially make it particularly hard for them to have higher wages.

Furthermore, it also drives the demand for the amount of certifications and experience for a middle class salary way up in a simple supply and demand equation. Many localities have job lotteries for the few open positions that they have – and the amount of applications that come in can be so overwhelming to narrow down the list of candidates.

Assess the Situation Carefully

Volunteerism is tremendously important for some communities to staff their fire departments and ambulances. After all, some communities just aren’t particularly wealthy and they need volunteers from the community to assist.  However, in some parts of the country this can be rather detrimental to the paid branches of these same services.

Thus, before a local government works to create volunteer opportunities, they need to assess the situation carefully as it will impact the paid positions tremendously, especially where principles of supply and demand are involved. Further, this issue would need a lot of organizational change and political support to stop this cycle from continuing in the future.

Allison G. S. Knox Passionate about the issues affecting ambulances and disaster management, Allison focuses on Emergency Management and Emergency Medical Services policy. Allison has taught at the undergraduate level since 2010. Prior to teaching, she worked in a level-one trauma center emergency department and for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. She holds four master’s degrees in Emergency Management, National Security Studies, International Relations, and History; a Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security; and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. Allison is an Emergency Medical Technician, Lifeguard, and Lifeguard Instructor, and is trained in Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue. She serves on the Board of Trustees for Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society as Chancellor of the Southeast Region, Vice Chair of the Tactical Emergency Medical Support Committee with the International Public Safety Association, and serves as the Advocacy Coordinator of Virginia with the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. She is also a member of several committees including the Editorial Committee with APCO, the Rescue Task Force Committee with the International Public Safety Association, and the Advocacy Committee with the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. She also serves as Chair of the Leadership Development Program for the 2020 Pi Gamma Mu Triennial Convention. Allison has published several book reviews and continues to write about issues affecting ambulances, emergency management, and homeland security.