N5FDL's Seven Tips: How to be a Volunteer that Leaders Love

Reprinted from the ARRL ARES® E-letter, May 25, 2011:

Having spent two months talking about how to build and kill EMCOMM groups, this month I'll touch on what it takes to be the volunteer every leader wants on his or her team. Here are seven tips:

Sign-up and show-up: This is really simple, but can't be overstated. Leaders need dependable volunteers and need them to commit early. We need to be able to plan based on the number of volunteers we can expect. So sign-up early, let your leader know if your plans are "tentative," and cancel as soon as you know you cannot attend. That makes the planning job much, much easier. Ten people who become available the "day of" aren't very helpful, unless I have ten unexpected no-shows. People respect our group because they know if we commit to something, we will deliver. This group reliability depends on volunteers who are equally reliable.

Dress like an emergency communications professional: I feel stupid saying this, but what we wear impacts the image of all Amateurs. Now that we wear orange or green safety vests much of the time, individual fashion expression is not so apparent to served agencies or the public. However, as unpaid professionals we need to look like the paid professionals we work alongside.

In general, dress in office work/casual office attire when on an assignment, unless you have a special reason (cleared with your leaders) for dressing differently. If you don't wear an official government-issued patch, I am not wild about uniforms. I have a Sheriff's SAR uniform - silver badge and all - and I try very hard not to wear it. Polo shirts (with your group's logo) are almost always the best thing to wear. Try not to have too many logos or call signs (even your own) visible at the same time.

Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!: We all have better and worse days, but great volunteers develop a "game face" and "game attitude" they bring to public events. Whiners are not allowed. Egos get checked at the door. No, it really isn't about you, it's just what net control said or did, probably without thinking, and usually in the heat of the moment.

Seek Feedback (And Offer It): We all need to talk about what we do well as well as where we could improve. Volunteers need to understand that the people who provide feedback (volunteer bosses) are sometimes insensitive louts. Please forgive us. We didn't mean to hurt your feelings and it really isn't personal. Nor is it personal when you tell leaders how we might improve. We are here to serve the public and our communities and we win or lose as a team.

The key to this is being a decent human being and treating others the way you'd want to be treated yourself. Sound familiar?

Build Your Skills: Newcomer mistakes must be forgiven. And some people - like me - make the same silly mistakes over and over. But, we need to constantly "sharpen the saw," as the book 7 Habits of Highly Successful People calls it. Great volunteers sharpen the saw on a regular basis. The reason we provide support for all these bike rides, community fairs, rodeos and other non-emergency events is two-fold. Sometimes these events become real emergencies. Mostly, though, we're training for when "the big one" (whatever that is where you live) happens. Use these events to train yourself while having fun. Then read, take classes, do free online training, anything to improve your skills. Reading this newsletter is a good use of your time.

Help solve problems: I was really pleased at a recent event when our volunteers at a remote site solved problems that occurred at their location without help from anyone. It was an issue related to signals and geography and these were new hams - all KJ6 call signs - who took initiative and made things better on the spot. And some people say HamCram hams are know-nothings! In the process, they improved our ability to serve the organization we were working for. Great volunteers give great customer service.

Observe Lines of Authority: Not long ago, I came unglued (it had been a bad day) when a fairly inexperienced volunteer tried to do something that went against the goals of the organization. It was not ill-intended, just inexperience. But, it was the second or third problem. This was a hugely promising volunteer, who just needed to understand why certain things are done the way they are. Even insensitive louts sometimes have good reasons behind their logic.

Good volunteers have ideas and want something to do. They want to contribute but can be overly enthusiastic and cause problems without meaning to. Long story short, the volunteer and I decided to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and at his first event he performed marvelously. He wants to become a leader and at the rate he is going, he will. But, he will need to work within the rules of the organization and ask questions before just "doing."

This is another way of saying, "Respect your elders." But if you feel your local leaders are killing the group don't just sit and watch it happen. That is a topic for another column, based on some of the letters I've been getting from E-Letter readers.

"What did you do at the bike race, dear?" That is what my wife, K6SWE, asked Saturday after I got home from working all day at a bicycle race. As leader of the group, I delegated much of the organizing to Matt, KI6ZTY, who served as net control. I purposely arrived late so Matt and his assistant NCS, Conrad, KJ6CNV, would get started without me. They did just fine, though I was ready to jump in if needed (I can delegate tasks but not responsibility).

What did I do from 0730 until 1530? Mostly drive around to make sure things were going OK. I occasionally cut in on the radio to ask a question, offer a clarification, and help handle emergencies -four riders were injured during the day.

The most critical thing I did was help get our operators moved around and instructed as to how to assist Highway Patrol, fire and race organizers when a racer had to be airlifted from the scene after a crash. I also took the injured woman's friends and their bikes back to the start line and later hauled in another rider with a minor injury and her bike. I also filled in at various locations when operators needed a break, etc.

What was the most important thing I did? I made sure our operators all got the lunches and t-shirts the race organizers provided for them. I made deliveries when necessary and made sure everyone was taken care of. My operators, hopefully, felt supported, fed, happy, and got a nice souvenir for their efforts.

Making the troops as happy as possible is key for any manager's success--especially when the workers are not getting paid. Leaders exist to support their volunteers, not vice versa. - ARES® E-Letter Contributing Editor David Coursey, N5FDL, is an emcomm leader in San Joaquin County, California and author of the www.N5FDL.com blog.