In a 2016 survey, young CFA members said they were frustrated by the lack of opportunities in brigades. A common belief among the respondents was that they had no voice in CFA.
Shortly after, it was estimated that almost half of CFA members would be over the age of 55 by 2020.
As a response, the North West Region (NWR) Volunteer Sustainability Team (VST) carried out the Youth Voices research project in 2019 to hear from CFA members aged 18 to 25 about their experiences in CFA.
The team also contacted older members to find out about the opportunities and challenges presented by having young brigade members.
The project was the first of its kind for CFA, with VST successfully piloting the Participatory Action Research approach, where the young adults were empowered to be active participants driving the research that will be used to make concrete improvements to their experience with CFA.
The young volunteers in the research team were initially joined by VST staff in Bendigo in May 2019 for a weekend of intensive training designed to equip them with the skills needed to effectively conduct the research and also to build relationships within the team. There were several workshops over the weekend, including:
- Introduction to Engaging Youth and Young Adults as Volunteers, a three-hour workshop delivered by VST in conjunction with Canadian-based organisation Heartwood Centre for Community Youth Development
- a one-day communication skills workshop by world-class facilitator Peter Dhu
- Practising Leadership without Position workshop delivered by Polykala, a Melbourne-based experiential leadership development consultancy, where the team was provided with skills to influence and lead across all situations.
A subsequent weekend session was facilitated by Dr Tamika Heiden from the Research Impact Academy. The young research team was encouraged to define a vision, a mission and guiding principles that would inform the research going forward.
The team focused on the question of how CFA could better engage with young people to attract, retain, support and train them. The research included two online surveys of CFA members (one for volunteers aged 18 to 25 and one for those over 25), a focus group with 18 to 25-year-old members, and four interviews with brigade management team members to capture the views of six volunteers.
The team also analysed CFA membership data, exit surveys, and other CFA-authorised research. An extensive literature review and environmental scan provided valuable data to complement the research.
Three case studies of external agencies were also explored: Victoria SES; Macedon Ranges Shire Council; and the Australian Defence Force.
The team used thematic analysis to analyse the qualitative data obtained and closely examined the data to identify topics, ideas and patterns of meaning that appeared repeatedly.
In total, 130 volunteer members were consulted between September and November 2019.
Eleven key recommendations were outlined in the final research report and the Regional Leadership Team endorsed the NWR Youth Engagement Action Plan 2020-24 in March 2020. The expected outcomes will be measured across eight key performance indicators over the next five years, and include:
- improved age diversity within brigades
- improved satisfaction of young people involved in CFA
- sustainable brigades and improved service delivery.