Can you ever imagine a situation where authorities refuse you the right to save other people’s lives? Well, maybe not, but then you don’t live in Germany and aren’t a member of the Munich mountain rescue team. My local team prides itself in being the first mountain rescue service ever established, reaching back almost a hundred years. Mountain rescue originated when “crazy” city people took the fifty-mile train ride to the close-by mountain ranges to hike and ski – and some skilled mountaineers felt the inner obligation to rescue the ones that had injured themselves, were lost, or too exhausted to make their way back. They were the early heroes of the mountaineering scene (and of course, all male), and inspired the establishment of more and more mountain rescue teams located more closely to the mountain ranges. By now, Bavarian mountain rescue is part of the Red Cross, has 124 regional chapters and over 4200 volunteers, helping roughly 12.000 people each year.

Rescue TeamMountain rescuers themselves are still all volunteers. They commit their time, energy, and also some personal money, sometimes endangering their own health, to save the lives of others. Still, most of them are male, and remain life-long members of mountain rescue. Even older members can help by servicing the rescue huts, providing auxiliary assistance, or manning the radio. Being a mountain rescuer is an important part of their identity, a badge and dress they wear with pride and honor.

On the other hand, professionalization and rationalization have left their mark on how mountain rescue is organized today: Improved equipment, mandatory training, regular exercises and simulations, as well as alignment with paramedic services in terms of processes and systems. Altogether this ensures that patients get immediate and outstanding care, far before they can be transported by ambulance.

Mountain rescuers accept these changes as necessary evils, having the benefit of the patient in mind, but they are struggling with the ever-increasing requirements put upon them to be declared fit for service. There is also the element of competition between local chapters: Every rescue call-out brings in funding. Teams with frequent call-outs get better funding than teams with few call outs. In practice, this can have some nasty consequences, like arguments in front of the patient on who will take care of them, teams trying to out-race each other in their response, and a very non-collaborative spirit between local chapters, causing conflict in larger rescue calls that necessitate multiple people.

The most recent development in this struggle is the escalation of a fight between two regional chapters (one of them my own) that resulted in authorities deciding that a certain mountain range will be serviced by only one chapter. This decision, while avoiding competition, was detrimental to patient service, as the local chapter is too small to cope with the volume of accidents, especially in winter. The Munich team, having serviced the area for 89 years now, is banned from their own rescue huts and has to stand watching while others help patients (or not). They are not allowed to assist. Imagine – there’s a heavily injured person whom you know how to help, you have all the skills and equipment, but you are not allowed to do so. Quite an emotional experience. Many volunteers have left the service, heavily frustrated.

Appeals with the authority, sponsoring politicians, and the official arbitration tribunal have failed. Instead, our local team leader was formally suspended from office. Now the issue has become a court case, reverberating right up to national media, politics, and institutions in Berlin. How can you professionalize volunteer-based services? What sacrifices can be made, and how can you keep volunteers engaged even if the terms of engagement change drastically? I don’t know the answer, but I hope that this case will be remembered as a warning example for the future. In most companies, getting lost in procedural arguments and losing sight of purpose doesn’t directly harm people’s lives – but the negative impact is there none the less, not only on productivity but also on staff.

Have you experienced your organization fighting over the how and forgetting the why of what you’re doing? Have you ever had to balance identity-giving tradition and productivity-giving efficiency? How did you resolve the situation?

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