Groucho Marx is credited with saying, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept people like me as a member.” It may seem counter-intuitive, but it is easier to recruit if you reject some candidates and retention is easier if you get rid of some of your members.
Fifteen years ago, Plainsboro Rescue Squad was down to a few members trying to take as many calls as possible, but floundering on nights and weekends – with a paid crew taking daytime calls from Monday through Friday. At times, it was necessary to have a paid crew handle weekends. They advertised, they held open-houses, they did everything possible to make it look easy and fun. My daughter became the recruiting officer and I was her only recruit. I then became recruiting officer. The president at the time told me that if I did a good job, they would make me president. The following year, the 50+ new recruits and 12 existing members elected me president.
It was hard work, turning the squad into a popular club. It was joked that if a cardiac arrest victim opened his eyes while I was doing compressions, I would ask, “Have you ever considered becoming an Emergency Medical Technician?” But at no time did I tell anyone it was easy or fun.
The problem has always been the same. There is a story told to business students about a company creating a five cent candy bar when most candy bars cost a dime. It couldn’t be sold, because no one wanted a five cent candy bar. When they raised the price to a dime, sales went up. The higher price implied better quality.
So, why would anyone want to join an organization that takes everyone? If people are looking to challenge themselves, why would they consider becoming an EMT if it is too easy? If they want to be around other quality people, why would they join an organization that has no standards?
If you are terribly short of members, it must be painful to reject some potential members. Yet, if the person is unlikely to become a productive member, was it worth the time training that individual? If the person joins and ends up not liking what we do, we’ve not only wasted our time, we become demoralized ourselves. We start to wonder if it is all worthwhile.
When someone applies for membership in Plainsboro, we let them know that they will have to go through a complex vetting process. First, they have an interview with the membership committee. During the interview, we explain that they must train to become EMTs, they must train to a higher level than the state mandates, they must participate in committees, and they must continually advance their skills which will be tested. We tell them that the work is sometimes hard, the training never ends, and calls don’t occur when it is convenient for us.
Before they can be considered for membership, they are required to attend three crew drills which are held every day with rig check at 8 PM. They are informed that the crews will assess their interest and active participation. Only those who show enthusiasm for what we do will be recommended for membership. Subtly, they are informed that the existing membership has already gone through this and must be enthusiastic – and they are right.
Once voted into membership, everyone must advance at a reasonable rate. There are numerous tests one must pass before one can ride on the ambulance. Besides the state and federal training requirements, there are testing modules about the organization, the equipment, standard procedures, and lifting techniques. Only when crew chiefs are satisfied, can an individual start taking part in calls.
Even after someone passes the state EMT exam, we consider them trainees until they prove themselves as capable and competent to handle patient care with minimal supervision. Then, it can take a couple years before one can “first respond” and years more to become a crew chief.
If someone doesn’t advance, they cannot continue riding. In a squad with a lot of EMTs, training spaces on the ambulance have to be reserved for those who are advancing to higher levels. They may contribute administratively, but riding requires both effort and potential.
So, it is clear that once someone starts, they’ve accepted the challenges involved. When someone is looking for a new challenge, they want to know when they are succeeding. Repeated testing, promotions and advancements give people the feedback that they crave. Opportunities to train others along the way is also proof that they’ve gained the confidence of the existing leadership.
After a year or two, members have already made an investment into reaching a level both in terms of riding and squad administration. People tend not to walk away when they’ve invested so much into their current status. And there are still challenges and opportunities for more advancement.
Might these techniques not work for every squad? I don’t know, but I bet that Plainsboro’s 70 EMTs would agree that it works for us.