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.