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Dr Michael Jones, University of Wollongong, T: (02) 4221 4706 | M: 0425 229 091

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Research into leadership skills helps emergency services retain volunteers

Inspire Retain Engage program takes positive steps to address significant workforce turnover

A leadership program developed by researchers from the University of Wollongong (UOW) School of Management, Operations and Marketing is helping the State Emergency Services (SES) and the Rural Fire Services tackle one of the biggest challenges they face: reducing the turnover in their volunteer workforce.

Of the estimated 1,700 volunteers who join the SES each year, only half are still active members 12 months later. In the volunteer fire-fighting agencies, where the annual turnover rate is around 8 per cent, the replacement cost for those volunteers is estimated at $13 million a year.

A number of studies have identified poor leadership as the main reason volunteers leave an organisation.

The Inspire Retain Engage (IRE) program developed by UOW researchers is designed to give leaders the interpersonal skills they need to motivate and support volunteers.

Dr Michael Jones, Senior Lecturer at UOW’s School of Management Operations and Marketing, says leaders recognise the need to keep volunteers happy but are often unsure of how to engage with them constructively to promote positive experiences.

“For the SES in general, across Australia, the turnover rate for volunteers is about 25 per cent - in NSW it is 26.5 per cent - and we know leadership is the prime factor for volunteers leaving,” Dr Jones said.

“There is a command-and-control leadership culture in these organisations and young people don’t tolerate it - the baby boomer generation is okay with that style but the current generation less so.

“The leadership training they’ve been provided in the past has very much been operational- and task-focussed. They learn the technical skills they need - how to hold a fire hose, how to fix a chainsaw - but they don’t learn how to effectively lead people.

“The cost of having a high turnover rate is very large. We delivered a presentation to the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services the other day and one of them said that for every new volunteer the cost of equipment is $800 and the cost of training is $200, so every volunteer you lose is $1000 lost, and the cost of that adds up very quickly.”

The IRE program was developed by a team of researchers across faculties at UOW, including Dr Jones, Dr Yoke Berry and Vivien Forner (PhD student) from Business, Associate Professor Dominique Parrish from Science, Medicine and Health, Dr Joakim Eidenfalk from Law, Humanities and the Arts, and Dr Senevi Kiridena from Engineering and Information Sciences.

The project germinated with funding from the Global Challenges Program, UOW’s strategic interdisciplinary research initiative, and was expanded through additional funding from a Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre grant.

Feedback from leaders who have taken the IRE program has been overwhelmingly positive, with 84 per cent saying they “would recommend the program be rolled out to other leaders at their organisation”.

The initial feedback from volunteers has also been good with 47 per cent saying they noticed improvements in their leaders’ interactions with them.

On Thursday, December 8, a delegation of senior leaders from the ACT SES will visit the UOW campus to receive a presentation on the IRE program and associated research.

To date, the Victorian SES has committed to adopting IRE, while South Australia and Western Australia will be implementing elements of it, and the Queensland, NSW and ACT services have expressed an interest in adopting it.

About Inspire Retain Engage

IRE is a leadership training program developed specifically for volunteer-based organisations by a team of researchers from UOW’s School of Management, Operations and Marketing. It complements a newly designed course developed by the team, which will be launched in 2017. The course, the Graduate Certificate in Emergency Management Leadership, will be offered to volunteers and paid staff in emergency services across the world.

Effective leadership is essential for a positive volunteer experience and ongoing participation in volunteering activities. Drawing on the latest developments in organisational psychology and motivation, IRE offers agencies an evidence-based leadership development program to address volunteer retention and engagement in the emergency services.

The nine-week program explores the interpersonal leadership skills necessary to create optimally motivating and supportive work environments for volunteers.

Drawing on Self-Determination Theory, leaders are given tools and strategies for meeting the needs of volunteers and are supported in applying these approaches back in their units and brigades.

Leaders are taught key strategies for meeting the needs of volunteers and are supported in applying these approaches back on-the-job.

Photo: Staff of the ACT Emergency Services Agency visited the University of Wollongong to discuss the findings of the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC (BNHCRC) sponsored research into volunteer retention. Credit: Paul Jones