Planning for Emergency Response Volunteers

Disaster and emergency situations can evoke feelings of community, civic obligation, and goodwill that increase the desire of community members to volunteer in response and recovery efforts. Properly managed disaster response volunteers can be an asset in an emergency situation, but can also increase demands on public managers. Flooding barricades are more quickly built when hundreds of volunteers work in concert to erect them, wider perimeters can be searched when more people are available to search, and more homes and businesses can be rebuilt when the hands of many are actively engaged. However, if not properly managed, spontaneous voluntarism in disaster situations can cause danger to unprepared or unskilled volunteers, hamper response efforts, and pose significant risks to victims, other volunteers, and professional disaster response personnel.

Planning for a surge in citizen goodwill is an important component of any comprehensive emergency management plan. Volunteers can be used not only to assist in efforts related to the current emergency, but excess volunteers may also be used to perform tasks that increase government capacity for responding to future disasters.

Public managers can make effective use of the increased capacity generated by disaster response volunteers by considering the following recommendations for emergency response management.

  • Be prepared for an influx of helpers. Citizens respond to emergencies of many kinds and sizes. Emergency situations include major natural disasters and manmade disasters including terrorism, but can also include such events as searches for missing persons and other smaller-scale response efforts. In emergency situations, people volunteer whether or not they are regularly active in the community, and sometimes come from outside the community specifically to serve during an emergency situation. If citizens are hearing about a disaster in local media, you can expect volunteers to start showing up.
  • Have a volunteer recruitment plan. Identify the situations in which volunteers would legitimately improve the response effort and skills, tools, goods or services that would be useful. Consider both immediate increases in capacity and longer-term increases in capacity that could be served by surges in goodwill. Emergency media plans should include scripts for instructing potential volunteers about what they should do, what they should bring or wear, and where they should go. Including potential volunteers in emergency communications can help make public response both more predictable and more useful.
  • Sort volunteers based on skill and ability. Skill sets include not only certifications such as first responder training, medical, psychology, or social work training, and search and rescue training, but also commercial driving licenses, carpentry or contracting skills, and other abilities that are of immediate use in disaster recovery and response. Be prepared with lists of skills that may be useful in each of a variety of emergency situations. Many volunteers self-identify skills they believe will be useful in the response effort and come prepared to share their skill. Still others may have skills they do not recognize as useful and will need to be recruited. Having lists of needed skills before an emergency situation arises saves time in case of an actual emergency.
  • Have work for everyone. Goodwill can quickly turn to anger, frustration, and decreased faith in government capability if volunteers are not set to work. Volunteers who do not have the skill or training necessary for participating in on-site activities can be given tasks to complete at the volunteer center or in their own homes, workplaces, and neighborhoods. Some tasks can encourage citizens to make their homes and neighborhoods more robust to future disasters, such as preparing emergency kits, organizing neighborhood contact systems, holding food, clothing, blood or fund drives, completing child identity kits, or other activities that are related to the disaster but serve primarily to enhance future capacity. Volunteer managers should be transparent about the use of some of these measures for future emergencies; volunteers and donors should be aware of how their resources—including time—are being used by public and nonprofit agencies.
  • Plan a volunteer base in addition to victim centers. Having a central location for volunteers can help keep them out of the way of professional response and recovery efforts, collect volunteers for training, provide space for volunteer activities that can be carried out off-site, and can provide opportunities for mass transit to on-site response and recovery efforts. Schools (particularly high schools), churches, and community centers often have large, adaptable space available such as classrooms and gymnasiums with collapsible tables designed for adults.
  • Have a volunteer training plan. Many of the volunteers who respond in emergency situations are first-time and/or untrained volunteers. Being prepared with a straightforward emergency volunteer training plan for common emergency situations can improve the effectiveness of volunteers. Training plans should include information about the chain of command, instructions about what behaviors to avoid, and simple instructions about the activity they are to carry out.
  • Choose a government or nonprofit agency to assist in volunteer management. Not all volunteer management requires the same skills and capacities. In addition to managing their own volunteer force, nonprofits engaged in disaster response volunteer management must have the skills and training to manage a huge influx of volunteers. Organizations like public schools—particularly high schools—are also good options for spearheading emergency volunteer management because they generally have personnel already trained to handle hundreds or even thousands of people in disaster situations and have regular emergency-related drills. These skills are highly useful in emergency volunteer management situations.
  • Consider mass transportation for volunteers. Another benefit of a centralized volunteer location is the ability to move volunteers from the volunteer center to the disaster site or victim response center in large groups, yielding less congestion on important roads. Schools and school districts often have mass transit available in the form of school buses or vans, which are often more immediately accessible than city buses or other forms of mass transit, and can generally be operated by volunteers with more common drivers’ licenses.
  • Include management of spontaneous volunteers in simulations and emergency management plans. If not properly included in emergency management plans, the resources required for management of spontaneous volunteers can hamper efforts in an actual emergency situation. If volunteer instruction, recruitment and management is included in disaster planning—including simulations—volunteers can become an asset rather than a hindrance.
  • Acknowledge the desire to serve. In some cases, particularly in natural disaster situations, the most helpful thing potential volunteers can do is either stay home or evacuate. This does not stop people from feeling that they “should be doing more” or decrease the desire to help others. This surge in goodwill should be acknowledged and put to use. Draw on the community’s desire to help when giving them instructions, making it clear that by following your directions (for example, by staying off their cell phones or making their way out of the city) they are serving their fellow citizens and helping with the recovery effort.
  • Consider diversity issues in planning for recruitment of volunteers in disaster situations. Language abilities, cultural fluency, and even skin color can affect the responses of disaster victims to the instructions of professional or volunteer disaster response workers. Make a focused effort to connect with civic organizations (churches, community centers, social clubs, nonprofit organizations) that have access to volunteers or participants who can be called upon to improve the diversity and cultural sensitivity of recovery efforts.

The willingness and ability of people to serve one another in times of crisis is one of the great strengths of our communities. Harnessing the enormous goodwill and generosity of our citizens can provide not only temporary increased capacity to government and nonprofit agencies in times of greatest need, but can also provide valuable long-term capacities that would otherwise remain undeveloped.