Finding Your Balance as a Volunteer

Many of us began serving our communities first as volunteers. Some may have chosen to become paid/career emergency responders while others have maintained their status as volunteers. And there are even some who are paid career firefighters, rescue technicians and emergency medical responders who also serve as volunteers within other organizations.


Regardless of your status, if you are volunteering in any capacity, thank you! Your contribution to community service is appreciated, even if it’s not always readily acknowledged.

Serving as a volunteer — whether as a firefighter, rescue technician, emergency medical responder, or a combination thereof — will always be fulfilling. There can be times, however, when serving as a volunteer can be overwhelming. While we always have the luxury of simply unplugging ourselves from the organization for a time, most of us are not wired to do so. We volunteer for a variety of reasons, but we all share that personal commitment to helping others in their time of need. Yet sometimes we forget to help ourselves — to find that elusive balance as a volunteer.

For many years in my capacity as a volunteer firefighter/EMT, I had been associated with combination paid and volunteer departments. There was always at least one paid staff member to make sure that a truck responded, to keep the apparatus cleaned and well maintained, to tidy up the station, and to assure that all the mundane chores were completed. More recently I have been serving with an all-volunteer organization. There is not any paid staff to perform the necessary tasks — the volunteers do it all or it simply does not get done.

I have never met a volunteer who was not passionate about serving their community. That’s not to say paid career emergency responders lack passion. In fact, I think all emergency responders have passion for what they do. But obviously those who volunteer are not making a living through their service. Understandably, there is something besides financial incentive that drives the volunteer. This drive is most often fueled by their passion. But what happens when the volunteer runs out of gas and the passion wanes? The consequences of such imbalance are not healthy for the responder or for the community!

How Do We Keep Our Passion Burning?

I believe the key is to identify and maintain the appropriate balance in all that we do. And often that is easier said than done. What works for one person may not work for another. Don’t get discouraged if you find yourself struggling to discover your own balance. Patience and perseverance are your friends and a positive attitude paves the way for success. In addition, here are some other tips that I have found useful:

Ask for help! Call on family members, friends and co-workers to help you identify and maintain your balance. Find a mentor to further develop balance techniques. As emergency responders, we thrive on solving everyone’s problems, but often we struggle to solve our own. We operate as teams during emergencies. We should be comfortable in working together to solve our own problems as well. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help!

Set expectations. Do you know what is expected of you as a volunteer? And what do you expect of your organization in return? We often preach the importance of family coming first — at least until the pager activates. Sure, there are times when your service is critical to the success of the response. But if we have set appropriate expectations, we can better balance when we should feel that sense of obligation to the organization and when we should honor our obligations to ourselves and to our families.

Make sure that you are enjoying being a volunteer. Let’s face it; an unhappy volunteer is someone who will make others miserable as well. And if you’re not having fun, why bother? Of course, not everything we do as volunteer emergency responders is going to be enjoyable. So when the bad days outnumber the good days, it is time to assess our balance. What changes can be made to create an enjoyable and fulfilling environment that supports the commitment to volunteer?

Sometimes we just have to say no. As emergency responders we almost always say yes when we are called upon to help. People inside and outside of our organization recognize this and will constantly turn to those of us who drop everything to help. But again, if we constantly say yes to everything, we will become unbalanced. Burnout will develop, performance will suffer, and inevitably our quality of life will diminish. It’s OK to say no.

Under promise and over deliver. In other words, don’t over commit yourself only to find that the quality of your work suffers because you have too many irons in the fire. Choose your commitments wisely then perform them in a manner that demonstrates your excellence. Balance is much easier to maintain when we do not pressure ourselves by undertaking too many tasks without having the time and resources to complete them successfully.

Share the experience. Serving as a volunteer emergency responder is fulfilling. Every member wants to be a part of the action and there is usually plenty of work for everyone.  So don’t think that you have to be the one and only star of the show. If you don’t allow others to participate, you’ll soon find yourself running the calls and then cleaning the trucks and equipment all by yourself. You will find it quite rewarding when you empower others to be successful, providing them with exposure to the limelight.

Understand that everyone might not share the same level of interest and involvement. Don’t take it personally when the entire organization doesn’t show up for a call or training session. According to the Pareto Principal, you can expect about 20 percent of the volunteer force to produce about 80 percent of the work — call response, training, station duties, etc. Especially for that core group of volunteers, it’s critical to maintain a healthy balance to prevent burnout.

Practice gratitude. Be thankful that you have been given the gifts to serve others — the ability to function effectively in an emergency, the skills to care for others in their times of need, the strength to drag hose and lift stretchers, and the endurance to carry on when faced with suffering and tragedy. Thank your fellow volunteers for their service. Thank your family for allowing you the time away to respond to calls and train and fellowship. And give yourself a little pat on the back as well.

Volunteer firefighters, rescue technicians and emergency medical responders are being asked to do more, to learn more, to train more. When someone needs help, they turn to their local emergency services agencies. Many of these organizations are staffed predominately or even exclusively with a precious resource: the volunteer. Communities depend on their volunteer emergency responders, so it is important that we are prepared to serve them effectively by maintaining a healthy balance in our lives. Take some time to care for yourself so that you can care for others. Find and maintain your balance.

Steve Marks currently serves as the assistant chief for the Cove Creek Volunteer Fire Department in Vilas, North Carolina. He has been involved in various capacities within the emergency services community since 1982, working in both operations and administration. As a certified instructor, he teaches leadership, disaster management and multi-agency coordination. Marks earned a Graduate Certificate in Community Preparedness and Disaster Management from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a Masters of Science in Emergency Management from Jacksonville State University.

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