On the outskirts of a rural county in middle America sits a narrow, twisting and dangerous road where, unfortunately, a fair number of fatal accidents occur. The sheriff of the county realized that a significant portion of his deputies' time was being spent shutting down both ends of the road during accident investigations, so he wisely, as have so many other law enforcement executives, enlisted the help of the community by forming a volunteer program. The primary purpose of the program was to have a cadre of trained volunteers who would be on call to respond to fatal accidents and assist with road closures and traffic control as the investigations could easily run 12 to 24 hours. The agency chose the name "Fatal Accident Response Team" for their new volunteer unit as it had a sense of urgency and purpose to help recruit new volunteers. All was well and good until the first time the unit was needed and the deputy on scene of the fatal accident called dispatch and requested the "FARTs" to respond. As luck would have it, in this case, many of the volunteers were well-meaning retired senior citizens; and being new to the department, the deputies didn't know their names. As the FARTs began arriving to assist the deputies, they began radioing each other with instructions such as "have that FART move the traffic cones over one lane to turn traffic around, no not that FART, the old FART", referring to one of the more senior (in age) volunteers. As you can imagine, what would normally be a tragic and very sober scene became somewhat jovial for the deputies as they began to realize what they were saying. Others not at the scene but monitoring radio traffic, such as dispatch, were aghast that the deputies would refer to these dedicated senior citizens as "old farts," not realizing they were referring to them by their given acronym. Needless to say, after this first call out, the volunteer team name was changed to MART, Major Accident Response Team, and the volunteers as MARTs.
How could such a simple task as naming a volunteer unit turn into such a disaster, you may ask? With the exception of the military, there are very few, if any, professionals that utilize so many acronyms and slang terms to describe situations and people as those in the law enforcement profession. Just listen to a group of officers at the end of a high speed pursuit of a felony suspect describe the events.
"We had a series of 459 autos in the area and dispatch radioed me that a 459 auto just occurred. The RP saw the perp take off in their car, his 20 was southbound I-5. I tried pitting him but he got away. He finally TC'd and bailed out on foot. The Helo FLIR'd the area until SRT arrived and took him down after tasing him. K-9 came out and searched the area for the mutt's gun that CSI recovered and bagged for the DA's ATU.
It's no wonder we have so many different unique acronyms to describe volunteers and volunteer programs. PIPs, (Police Involvement Partnership), SPOTS, (Seniors Patrolling Our Town), CATs, (Citizen Action Team), NAO, (Neighborhood Assistance Officer), STARS, (Sheriff's Team of Active Retired Seniors), and one that has been around for over 20 years, contrary to what others may tell you, VIPS, (Volunteers In Police Service), and of course the FARTs, (Fatal Accident Response Team), to name just a few of the dozens in use today.
The name says it all--or does it?
Aside from the many different acronyms used to describe various civilian volunteer programs, there are of course the mainstay names used for other more traditional volunteer programs, such as reserve officers, auxiliary officers, search and rescue teams, victim's advocates, chaplains, etc. These names and others in many ways accurately describe the functions performed by the volunteers. There is not much confusion when a person is called a police chaplain, as it pretty much sums up what they do as well is the case of the search and rescue teams most commonly found in sheriff's departments. However another interesting and just as important point is that the names also provide a certain level of credibility to the individuals who are performing the functions, which in turn leads to a certain level of respect, which in turn can help assist in the recognition and retention of the individuals.
Take for example the phrase Specialist Reserve Officer, SRO, used by the Los Angeles Police Department, among others. This particular term is used to describe members of the community who volunteer their time to assist the department in specific and unique ways that the department would otherwise have to pay to have done by outside consultants. In this case, the SROs are not sworn officers and receive no training, as they bring to the table years of training in their own unique areas of expertise. Examples of specific SRO functions would include certified public accountants who act as forensic accountants to assist the department in complex white collar crimes. In this example, it would be cost prohibitive for many departments to have a full time certified public accountant on staff, just waiting for the day when a case comes along needing their assistance. Other examples may include using sales and marketing professionals to assist with the development of recruiting campaigns, graphic artists to help design the recruiting material, etc. These services can cost departments ten of thousands of dollars if procured on the open market. However, by enlisting talented, willing and dedicated members of the community to assist as needed, the department saves money that can be used to hire more officers. It also allows outside professionals to share their talents and likewise, their positive experiences with the community. In this example, by providing community professionals like these with a respected title and acknowledgement of their skills, a true win-win-win situation is created for everyone. The department benefits by saving dollars, the community wins by having their tax dollars being spent in the most effective manner, and the specialist reserve officers aka community professionals win by having the opportunity to be part of a respected organization and the rewards of helping keep the streets safer.
Words are cheap, increased services are not
When considering what names or acronyms you'll use to describe and/or call your volunteers, or for that matter, rename your volunteer program, don't be afraid to give credit where credit is due. One of the more common and long standing names used to describe citizen volunteers who patrol their communities is, as the name accurately describes, Citizens on Patrol, aka, COPs. In many cases, this name describes exactly what the volunteers do. They are citizens who either in their own vehicles or more commonly, in marked patrol cars and distinctive uniforms, patrol their communities acting as extra "eyes and ears" looking for suspicious activity or crimes in progress. Once spotted, they take no action other than to notify dispatch of what and where they see the act occurring so officers can respond. Many of these tremendously popular programs have expanded to include additional functions such as assisting with traffic control and road closures, issuing non-moving citations such as handicap parking enforcement, providing extra patrols for areas with recent crime waves, writing vehicle impound paper work, etc.
When volunteers take of these additional functions, their scope and value increase greatly and as such, the name, Citizens on Patrol no long accurately describes their complete functionality. While there is nothing wrong with keeping the original unit name, I'd like to suggest giving some thought to a "name upgrade" to better reflect their function. In the last example, the term auxiliary police or citizen police assistant, amongst others, may better describe their functions. In addition to providing a more descriptive name, the change will also raise the level of respect and recognition for your volunteers who are now providing more services and value to the department. In situations where not all your volunteers want to perform the additional duties, consider keeping the original name assigned to those who wish to stay at the original service level, and assign the new name to those who wish to take on the added responsibilities. Doing so will provide immediate increased recognition for your volunteers which can lead to greater retention of them with virtually no cost to your agency other than perhaps new patches for their uniforms to reflect their new title.
In the end, your goal should be to provide a name and title that accurately describes the functions of your volunteers while providing them the recognition and respect they deserve for providing this service to your agency and community. Titles and title changes are virtually free, yet the services provided by your volunteers (if you had to pay for them) are not. For agencies with existing volunteer programs, take a moment to review your current titles to see if they still accurately reflect the services provided by your volunteers and if not, consider making a change or adding a new level for some of your volunteers to aspire to, similar to sworn officers wishing to become detectives. For those looking to start a new volunteer program, as seen in the example of the FARTs, it pays to give some thought to how and what the title will look and sound like when used as an acronym. Like the old high school woodshop teacher use to say, "measure twice, cut once."