Sunday, April 13, 2014

Volunteering in an Emergency: What to Expect

When disaster befalls your community (or one near you; or one you care about), helping others in distress may seem intuitively obvious to you.  However, like much else in modern society, government agencies and institutional organizations regulate, control, and manage spontaneous volunteering.  Like traffic lanes and traffic lights, or standard time zones, the processes usually work out well for everyone when participants keep to the program.  

About half of the Texas Conservation Corps members
who attended training in
"Managing Spontaneous Volunteers".
They get paid $12,000 per year to build trails
and otherwise manage public lands
and respond to disasters such as
Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey.
After a year, they get $5500 toward college.
Generally, any community has some kind of emergency response coordinator.  Large towns have several agencies that assume known roles, such as a CERT (Community Emergency Response Team). The Red Cross and Salvation Army are the two most visible private entities. They act because they have legally-recognized authority from a government agency with competent jurisdiction.  Your county sheriff or township police may have signed a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) granting those powers in case of an emergency.  These are all necessary (and proper) because a disaster will overwhelm and deplete the usual first responders: police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians.
Terms to know:·  
  •  VOAD – Volunteer Organizations Active in a Disaster·
  • VRC – Volunteer Resource Center
  • Affiliated Volunteers are members of recognized organizations such as the Youth Corps, the Senior Corps, Americorps. They may actually be paid in some way. They have formal training and are credentialed in their special skills, such as interviewing and intervention or machine operations, from chainsaws to Bobcat “Skid-Steers”. Their organizations assume some liability for them.
  • Spontaneous Volunteers reflect two meanings. On the deeper level, the volunteer is spontaneous, personally motivated by the news events to come to aid.  Once on the scene, the spontaneous volunteer can be counted on for enthusiasm and energy. They are free of cost to the agency that engages them.  Spontaneous volunteers bring a range of skills.  They provide additional resources that can be marshaled. 

 However, spontaneous volunteers are known to come with a wide range of problems, from lack of training to sociopathic predatory behaviors. 

“In a report published online on March 25 in advance of the print edition of Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, Lauren Sauer, M.S., surveyed 24 nongovernment volunteer organizations (NVOs) that had responded to disasters in the past and found that 19 of them — or 79 percent — had spontaneous volunteers show up to help. While a majority of those organizations said they found such volunteers useful, 42 percent reported that volunteers had been injured in the response, and there were two reported deaths among them. Organizations were allowed to respond anonymously as a way to encourage survey participation.”  (Read here.)

If the town next to yours suffers a tornado or a flood and you feel motivated to help out, your experience will go better if you know what to expect and what is expected of you.
  •  Report to the VRC, the Volunteer Resource Center.
  • Provide full identification with any validated credentials such as Adult First Aid or Commercial Vehicle Operations.
  • Be prepared to take care of yourself. Bring 72 hours of food, water, and sleeping gear.  Do not expect that the VRC will be able to bivouac you.
  •  Know what is needed. Know what you can do. Ask for a list of tasks and pick the ones that suit your skills.  You might arrive as an electrician and find yourself pumping water from homes – and that might be fine for you, if you expect that possibility.
  • Take direction.  The volunteer center has been lawfully empowered by a memorandum of understanding. If you go off on your own, you might find yourself dismissed or (ultimately) arrested and jailed; that is embarrassing all the way around for everyone.
 The best way to help out is to prepare in advance by joining a recognized voluntary relief agency.  Some faith-based organizations prepare a million sandwiches and deliver them to the Red Cross; others distribute ten thousand Visa Debit Cards.  What you do is up to you.  You will be more effective if you understand the Management of Spontaneous Volunteers. 

(This was written from some of the notes taken during an eight-hour training session in "Managing Spontaneous Volunteers" April 11, 2014, sponsored by the Texas Department of Public Safety and the One-Star Foundation.)


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