Ignoring Spontaneous Volunteers - Not an Option

Managing spontaneous volunteers following a disaster can be challenging, but may prove beneficial for a community’s response and recovery efforts. A new project is being conducted throughout 2016 to create an outreach and education strategy for harnessing this valuable resource.

People tend to have a willingness to help in times of crisis. Leveraging this energy and planning for spontaneous volunteers can make an enormous difference in the response and recovery phases. When planning for a disaster, emergency management officials must take all members of the whole community into account. Many local organizations enhance response and recovery efforts, but they need to be invited to the table. It is easy to plan with established groups who have affiliated volunteers, but the challenge comes in planning for the spontaneous, non-affiliated volunteers.

Inclusion of Spontaneous Volunteers

Spontaneous volunteers are neighbors and people from out of town, or other ordinary citizens who arrive at a disaster ready to help. Since these volunteers are not affiliated with an organization, they may be underutilized or seen as the “second wave” of a disaster by emergency management professionals. Richard Serino, the former deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said on 4 January 2016, “Volunteers, especially spontaneous volunteers are an important part of whole community because they can make a difference in the response and recovery phases of a crisis.” When volunteers are utilized to their full potential, impressive things can be accomplished like in Joplin, Missouri. When the city of Joplin was recovering from the devastating tornado that hit in 2011, over 180,000 volunteers showed up to help, which led to over 1.5 million hours of service and $17.7 million from donated resources and time, which offset the disaster cost.

There are, however, legitimate barriers that currently exist to prevent or discourage emergency managers from involving, supporting, or even accepting the emergent actions of spontaneous volunteers during disasters. The International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) has taken on the task of identifying resources, tools, information, or tactics that could be effective in addressing and mitigating these barriers because spontaneous volunteers are an unavoidable and important part of the disaster response and recovery spectrum.

FEMA’s leadership has taken a strong interest in whole community, which is going to be a central topic for the agency’s strategic plan over the next few years. Due to IAEM’s access to such a large scope of emergency management professionals, FEMA awarded IAEM a yearlong contract to look at the role of spontaneous volunteers during disasters, to review IAEM’s Certified Emergency Manager (CEM®) content to identify areas that could incorporate whole community concepts, and to support FEMA’s Individual and Community Preparedness Division outreach and promotion efforts.

Harnessing the Power of the Whole Community

IAEM will research and develop an outreach and education strategy on how to best harness the power of volunteers. The first step will be in the creation and release of two separate surveys to gather data on the current mindset toward spontaneous volunteers and Citizen Corps. IAEM has access to a vast emergency management community that offers accurate insight from a local perspective. The spontaneous volunteers survey is open and will accept participation through 12 February 2016. Anyone that has experience with emergency actions of spontaneous volunteers or will likely have interactions with spontaneous volunteers in the future should participate. The second survey will be distributed in early spring 2016 to look at the effectiveness of Citizen Corps and other grassroots organizations.

After the research phase is complete, IAEM will synthesize the data to develop and implement an education and communication strategy based on the findings to encourage emergency managers to recognize and support the actions of spontaneous volunteers and grassroots organizations through speaking events, articles, webinars, and other avenues. IAEM will further support FEMA Individual and Community Preparedness Division (ICPD) with additional outreach and promotion efforts for the ICPD awards. Finally, IAEM will review its CEM content to identify areas that could better incorporate whole community concepts by adding new questions to the exam and altering the preparatory course content.

On 4 January 2016, when asked about the contract, Robie Robinson, CEM, IAEM-USA president, stated that, “As emergency managers, we have always understood the value of involving the whole community in preparedness. So what could be better than for our association, IAEM-USA, which represents emergency managers in communities across the country to play a vital role in this project?” This project is going to yield interesting results. Any additional ideas or suggestions should be directed to chelsea@iaem.com.

Survey is closed.

Chelsea Firth

Chelsea Firth, MS, is the whole community project manager at the International Association of Emergency Managers. She is the lead for a contract with FEMA to look at the role of spontaneous volunteers during disasters. Before this, she was a volunteer emergency medical technician in Radnor, Pennsylvania. She received her MS in healthcare emergency management from Boston University and her BS in biochemistry from Villanova University.



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