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Pre-Planning in the World of Volunteer Management

On Wednesday, April 27, 2011, just before midnight, an EF-3 tornado ripped a path of destruction 20 miles long right through the middle of Spalding County, Georgia. Rescue crews and emergency management personnel were immediately in response mode, but it was not until Thursday morning that college students, nurses, plumbers, gas station attendants, teachers and other ‘ordinary’ citizens realized their community, or neighboring community, had suffered such destruction.

Countless volunteers – some affiliated with disaster relief organizations, others with simply a heart of gold and a chainsaw – left their daily routines to help their fellow citizens in any capacity they could. Others called local fire departments, community centers and government offices seeking information on ways in which they could aid the victims of this devastating storm. The most common answer to questions: “I don’t know.” By the following Wednesday, it was clear that a volunteer coordinator or volunteer management system was desperately needed. Six days into the response, Spalding County had established an operational volunteer coordination center.

The first task facing a new volunteer coordinator was to determine how to utilize all of the spontaneous, unaffiliated volunteers – those volunteers who were not associated with a disaster relief organization. Some of these volunteers possessed extensive training and specialized skills, while others did not. Some came prepared with personal protective equipment while others planned to help in open-toed sandals and without gloves. Some desired to give their money, time and hard work; others were coerced by their parents; some arrived alone; and others arrived with a van full of 10-year olds needing a community service badge. Each of these volunteers, in his or her own way, was critical to the recovery of the damaged community. However, collaborative planning and prior volunteer management planning would have enabled a more efficient and effective use of these valuable volunteer resources.

Volunteer management has become a hot topic over the last several years. The emergency management community is recognizing both the significant benefit and the debilitating hindrances of spontaneous volunteers descending on disaster areas. To maximize the benefits, minimize the hindrances and prepare for the inevitable, developing a volunteer management pre-plan has become essential to local government disaster response. Addressing the needs of disaster victims in a timely manner, integrating volunteers into the emergency management structure, reducing the duplication of efforts, and ensuring the safety of volunteers and emergency personnel are key goals of this preparedness document. The pre-plans may include roles and responsibilities of the volunteer coordinators, means of accountability and demobilization, protocols for establishing volunteer reception centers (which would serve as a registration and coordination center for spontaneous volunteers), use of technology and social media to relay information on volunteering, volunteer credentialing and identification, and other preparedness considerations.

Disaster relief organizations like the Red Cross and Salvation Army prepare, plan and train with local emergency management agencies to ensure a coordinated and cohesive response. Many volunteers, who are affiliated with these disaster organizations, have been trained to perform specific duties within their organization. In contrast, smaller local organizations including churches, community clubs and civic organizations respond to assist victims and to help them create a new normal following the disaster. These well-intentioned volunteers are part of groups which may, or may not, participate in disaster response and recovery operations on a regular basis. As a result, they may lack the proper training to protect themselves and others in hazardous areas; to cope with traumatic experiences of a disaster area; or to complete the assigned tasks in an efficient and effective manner. The results of smaller organizations interjecting themselves into the response and recovery processes are similar to that of spontaneous, unaffiliated volunteers, but on a broader scale.

Much like random, individual volunteers, the spontaneous organizations can be a significant benefit or a debilitating hindrance. Organizational leaders and volunteers desire to give back to their community and to assist those in need, however, if they are willing to integrate themselves into the emergency management structure, they will be more effective. If the organization’s volunteers are ill-equipped and improperly trained for the tasks at hand, the health, safety and security of the volunteers, emergency responders and overwhelmed victims could be compromised. Freelancing by these organizations, churches and clubs, especially those with a large number of participating members, may interfere with essential tasks such as search and rescue, debris removal and damage assessment activities. Even something as simple as a group’s designated parking location, the resulting road congestion could delay emergency response vehicles from responding to an urgent crisis. Unless there is an overarching coordination effort among the various volunteer organizations, including those managing the mobilization and placement of spontaneous volunteers, duplication of efforts is unavoidable.

An issue that arose at the Volunteer Coordination Center in Spalding County involved churches, civic organizations and community clubs that wanted to operate independently of the established volunteer management system. Perhaps, they were fiercely independent because they wanted to remain free from any perceived governmental constraints and not have to be accountable to any other organizations. Perhaps, they wanted to garner any potential credit to prop up their own organization’s achievements. Regardless of the motive, this complication created multiple cases of duplication of efforts. Citizens who reached out to the volunteer center for help were not cared for since there were not enough volunteers operating in the system and misinformation about available resources spread like wildfire throughout several sections of the disaster area.

Local emergency management agencies would be wise to consider this dilemma when creating volunteer management plans and preparedness activities. This is a problem that still required the creation of solutions to address the issue. Instead of attempting to direct or manage the volunteer contributions of a spontaneous organization or suggest avenues of aid, it may be prudent to have one division of the volunteer coordination center established to receive phone calls and electronic communication regarding the status of the efforts of these organizations. This simple process of information sharing would at least allow for a reduction of duplication of efforts. Another solution could be to have organizations, who are at least interested in possible relief work, to receive no cost local training and volunteer integration information through the local emergency management agencies. Trying to engage organizations outside the heat of battle may prove to be more effective in encouraging organizations to be involved in all four phases of emergency management – preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery.

Volunteer management will continue to be a key aspect of disaster response activities in the future. The benefits and workload volunteers bring to the table cannot be replaced by any government agency. However, the local emergency management’s responsibility is to strategically harness the capabilities of volunteers – spontaneous and affiliated. Planning for volunteers should include known disaster relief organizations as well as local representatives from religious institutions, civic organizations and community clubs who have an interest in responding to future disasters. By participating in these planning and preparedness activities, all parties will be better prepared to serve the citizens in need when the time arises.


To read more articles on emergency management, check out the most recent edition of PA TIMES in print.  


Author: Katy Westbrook is the founder and CEO of Lux Mitigation and Planning Corp. and is a graduate student in the Department of Emergency Management at Jacksonville State University. She can be reached at: [email protected]


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