March 2018

March 2018

DEC Bulletin

When disaster strikes a community, specific emergency management and disaster relief organizations respond to a pre-established emergency operations plan. Each of these designated organizations has a specific role to play in ensuring an effective response to and recovery from the disaster’s devastation. One element within the present system continues to pose a challenge: spontaneous, unaffiliated volunteers.

Spontaneous, volunteers walk in, call in, drive or fly from other jurisdictions, and have even come from other countries when high profile disasters occur. But because they are not associated with any part of the existing emergency management response system, their offers to help are often underutilized and even problematic to professional responders. The situation here is clear: people’s willingness to volunteer versus the system’s capacity to utilize them effectively.

The events of September 11, 2001 dramatically illustrated the need for better planning in this area, and the issue of unaffiliated volunteers began to receive increased attention. On September 11, 2001 over 4000 spontaneous volunteers showed up at ground zero ready to assist. There was no plan in place as to how to cope with all these volunteers. In the Mexico City earthquake 800 lives were save by impressed volunteers. The sad story here was that 100 of these volunteers lost their lives needlessly because they were not properly trained to cope with disasters.

Given the limited resources available at the federal, state, and local levels, the successful integration of citizen involvement in an emergency management setting is imperative to prepare for, respond to, recover from, and mitigate the effects of disasters in our communities. While this may be a challenging goal, the priority and long-term value of this work cannot be denied.

Local government is often the first point of contact for volunteers who want to help after an emergency. Volunteers often congregate at city halls, fire stations, incident sites and any other place where they believe there may be opportunities to volunteer. While well intentioned, these volunteers can often hinder the efforts of first responders. Local government typically bears primary responsibility for responding to local citizens seeking volunteer opportunities.

The benefits to having a Spontaneous Volunteer Management Plan are:

   LogisticSpontaneous volunteers will come, whether you have planned for them or not, so planning is to everyone’s advantage. Organizations responding to the disaster need people with skills or experience to help meet their commitments to the community. With an effective intake and referral process in place, people who want to help will have somewhere to go, their skills will become a resource rather than a missed opportunity and agencies will get help in serving the community.

   Public PerceptionWell-managed volunteers contribute to the positive public perception of an agency’s response and recovery efforts. In past disasters, where there was no system for incorporating spontaneous volunteers in relief efforts, disgruntled volunteers and bad press have resulted. Effective planning increases the positive and effective deployment of spontaneous volunteers.

El Paso County ARES (EPCARES) as well as the rest of the Part 97 groups in El Paso County also share this problem. We do not have enough affiliated volunteers in our ranks with the proper training to sustain any kind of long-term operation. Therefore, we must plan to cope with the spontaneous, unaffiliated amateur volunteers that will respond to our Resource Nets.

EPCARES has an annex in its Standing Operating Procedure concerning Spontaneous Volunteer Management. This plan provides an adaptable framework that enables utilization of local resources and partnering with other local groups. To maintain accountability for Emergency Management, EPCARES will establish an Emergency Volunteer Center (EVC) for EMCOMM operators. Volunteers will process in and receive an updated situation briefing while at the EVC. We will have to provide some expedient training for these volunteers to bring them up to standards. Credentialing is an issue. While we cannot resolve this issue in the EVC. Those with credentials will be checked prior to deployment. Individual groups or organizations should take care of their own member’s credentials. That way volunteers being processed for other groups or organizations can pass through quickly. Agencies will not permit anyone without proper credentials on property.

Act now. Pre-registering will solve these problems. Pre-registering with EPCARES takes one out of this spontaneous, unaffiliated category, and helps the group become a well-organized team that can accomplish their mission in a professional manor.

Questions and comments are welcome and encouraged regarding the content of this article. Send an email to the email address shown below.

Lew Maxwell, KB5HPT
DEC, District 6 – Far West Texas