The True Savings of Reserves and Volunteers

I've often been asked by agencies considering the use of volunteers, both sworn reserves and civilian volunteers, "How much money can we expect to save by using volunteers?"

The reality is the savings measured in the use of volunteers can range from negative zero, i.e., it will cost you money to have volunteers, to hundreds of thousands of dollars saved in additional services delivered. The key words are, "additional services delivered," as compared to what people would normally consider a cost savings by having volunteers fulfill the role of paid workers. Just to further clarify, the Federal Fair Labor Standards laws do not allow a paid worker's position to be eliminated and replaced by a person volunteering his time.

Measuring savings, in dollars and lives: Search and Rescue:

As the nation and for that matter, the world witnessed during the months of November 2006 through February 2007, close to a dozen individuals lost their lives in the mountain regions of Oregon state. TV and cable viewers watched with great admiration the actions of the searchers who braved the brutally cold and harsh mountain conditions, risking their own lives to save others. What very few viewers knew was these brave searchers were almost all volunteers, working under the direction, and in concert with, sworn sheriff's deputies. Search and rescue teams have been a staple of the wilderness for as long as people can remember. While not all sheriff's departments are mandated to provide a search and rescue team, most of the areas of our nation that have the need do. The cost to the individual SAR volunteer can easily run into the thousands of dollars for the necessary equipment, which many purchase on their own. On the sheriff's side of the equation, there is a fair to large amount required for vehicles and other high-end equipment. While some agencies charge back the cost of the search to the rescued individuals or the county where they come from, others do not and must absorb those costs. In this case, there is clearly a financial burden to sponsoring a SAR team, however in the end, when the rescued individuals are reunited with their families with tears of joy flowing and hugs that would put a bear to shame, the cost is clearly worth it.

Sworn Reserve Officers

The best comparison to this class of volunteers within the world of public safety is volunteer firefighters, as both perform the same function as their respective full time paid counterparts. Over 75% of the nation's firefighters are volunteers, a fact not well known to folks who've grown up in major cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dallas, etc. In the case of volunteer firefighters, the decision to use them is almost purely economic. The communities who host them do so because they either do not have enough money in the budget to hire full time firefighters, and/or there are not enough calls for service to justify a paid fire department. In comparison, even the smallest of towns across our nation have at least one or two paid full-time police officers. In most cases, sworn reserve officers are utilized to supplement full-time officers as an "added bonus" to the community they serve, versus a group they rely on, as in the case of volunteer firefighters. Simply put, you'd be hard pressed to find a chief of police or sheriff who develops his or her patrol schedule relying on the use of reserves, because as volunteers, their personal schedules can change as life evolves.

So where is the savings in this example? In a mid-sized county located in California, a full time deputy sheriff was on road patrol, accompanied by a reserve deputy. A traffic stop was initiated on a vehicle for a minor traffic violation. Upon stopping the vehicle, the driver and passenger of the subject vehicle both exited with high powered handguns and opened fire on the patrol unit. Both deputies exited and returned fire. The full-time deputy's own handgun was hit by gunfire and shot out of his hand. The reserve deputy continued returning fire on the two suspects, allowing his partner time to regroup and engage back into the firefight with his backup weapon. In the end, one suspect was killed, the other wounded, and later captured nearby hiding in a field. No one can say for sure what the outcome of this situation would have been had there only been one deputy. But most would agree, in this case it's highly likely that because there were two deputies against two suspects, the good guys won this battle. The outcome may have been different if it were two against one. For this example, the savings of having reserve officers could be measured in a life saved, versus dollars and cents.

Citizens on Patrol

Although not sworn officers and with no powers of arrest, Citizens on Patrol, aka COPs, can provide a sense of safety which is difficult, at best, on which to place a dollar value. While patrolling their communities in marked patrol vehicles, COPs act as the eyes and ears of law enforcement, looking for suspicious activity and/or crimes in progress, reporting it when seen. Some agencies will allow their COPs to assist with non-enforcement actions such as traffic control at accident scenes, large events and/or road closures during natural disasters, parking enforcement details, low priority report taking, etc. In the latter case, there is certainly a cost savings to be associated with the use of COPs as they are performing the function of what may otherwise be done by the officers on duty at that time. However caution should be used when trying to attach dollar figures to these efforts as the flip side is, unless the agency was going to hold over officers from another shift to provide these services or call in those off duty, one could argue there is no cost savings, which would be correct. However once again, the savings that needs to be examined is the public safety aspect. Regardless of how many officers are on duty at any given time, it would be a very rare case to find a shift that is "fat" with officers, where there are more officers on duty than needed. In today's world of tight budgets, lower staffing, etc., many agencies are running short and in some cases, mandating overtime of officers to maintain minimum shift personnel levels. As in the above case of the reserve officer being "second gun" during the shoot out, given the choice, would an agency want their officers directing traffic at an accident scene, or being a second car to back up their fellow officers on a hot call? I think the answer in this case is obvious. If well-trained and qualified civilian staff volunteers are available to supplement the patrol roster to assist with non-enforcement actions, a short-staffed agency would be allowed to maximize its force where it's most needed.

Clerical and administrative roles

This area of civilian volunteer use could in itself be an entire article; however, recognizing the limit on space for this column, I'll focus on just one of many great examples. Each Monday and Thursday, inside a police station of a mid sized city in Southern California, sits a woman whose career involved working for several high paid business executives. As such, our friendly volunteer acquired the unique skill of taking shorthand for the executives. Now retired, she uses this skill to help keep officers on the streets patrolling. In the past, when an officer was dispatched to a call requiring a report, they took their notes and at some point in time, returned to the station to type them out, which could take them off the streets for up to an hour, or more, at a time. Now the officers in this one particular city simply dictate their reports into a microcassette recorder and leave the tapes in Mrs. Friendly Volunteer's inbox. Each Monday and Thursday, she retrieves the tapes, listens to them and transcribes the officers' reports to paper. Once done, she places the complete report in the officer's mail box for review, along with a notation of where the file is on the computer, should they wish to make any changes. The city could not afford to hire someone to do this for the officers, so it's hard to say she is saving them money. But clearly, the fact that officers are spending more time on the streets versus in the station typing reports, is a great savings which again could be measured in overall reduction of crime versus dollars and cents.

It is what it is

While this article just barely touched on the some of the roles and savings both sworn and civilian volunteers provide to law enforcement, the message should be clear. Trying to justify the use of them within an agency based on pure dollars and cents savings can be difficult or impossible. What agencies really need to focus on is the savings in lives, increased safety, and perception of the community of how able your agency is protecting them. Having said that, when it comes to dollars and cents, it does make sense to also calculate the amount of services donated and/or value-added services provided by your existing or future volunteers. For agencies who are lacking the technology they someday want to have, such as mobile data computers for officers to write reports in the field, a low-to-no-cost alternative may be available in the meantime through the use of volunteers. These costs need to be considered as a savings to the community and the agency, as they are real and measurable.