Managing Spontaneous Volunteers
Presented by Nathan Wolstein
Groups That Converge
Convergence is described as the tendency of disaster scenes to draw together large groups of people.
Researchers have identified six primary groups of people that tend to converge upon the scene of a disaster event:
- Helpers are people who have come to help victims or responders in some way.
- Returnees are those who lived in the disaster-impacted area but were evacuated.
- The Anxious are people from outside the impacted area who are attempting to obtain information about family and friends.
- The Curious are those who are motivated to come to the impacted site primarily to view the destruction left in the wake of the disaster.
- Fans or Supporters are those who gather to display flags and banners encouraging and expressing gratitude to emergency workers.
- Exploiters are people who try to use the disaster for personal gain or profit.
These groups differ most notably in the motivating factor for their convergence.
Spontaneous volunteers — also called convergent, unaffiliated, or walk-in volunteers — are those who appear at the scene of a disaster or call a response center eager to offer assistance, but who are not associated with any recognized disaster response agency.
As a resource for disaster services, these volunteers possess a wide range of training, skills, and experience that cannot be overlooked by those managing response efforts. It is difficult to characterize the spontaneous volunteer. He or she:
- May or may not be a resident of the affected community;
- May or may not have disaster management experience or training;
- Can be of any age or background; and
- May arrive on foot, by car, or fly in from outside jurisdictions, or even other countries.
The only common trait among spontaneous volunteers is that they arrive unsolicited at the disaster scene.
The Challenge of Spontaneous Volunteers
Oftentimes, the contributions of spontaneous volunteers may be refused purely because volunteer organizations on the scene are unprepared to utilize their assistance; and sometimes the volunteers’ lack of disaster-specific training is seen as a liability to the overall response operation.
These concerns are not completely unfounded. In past disaster response efforts, it has been noted that poor management of spontaneous volunteers led to confusion, interference, and situations termed ‘disaster within the disaster.’ Volunteer organizations understandably do not want well-intentioned, but inexperienced, volunteers to hinder rather than help response and recovery operations on the scene.
Fortunately, the past shortcomings of spontaneous volunteer management have been drastically reduced through the acknowledgement of its unique challenges; subsequently, negative attitudes toward spontaneous volunteers are improving within the emergency management field, and with due cause.
Successfully Engaging Spontaneous Volunteers in Disaster Services
Almost without exception, spontaneous volunteers appear on the scene of a major disaster event. Media coverage and its graphic images of destruction often inspires people in neighboring counties and states to take action. Even those directly impacted by the event who are less-severely affected by the disaster than others will want to volunteer for the response effort in some capacity.
Hundreds, even thousands, find themselves drawn to the disaster site out of compassion for the impacted community, wanting to offer assistance. It is the responsibility of volunteer management organizations at the site to effectively catalog, coordinate, utilize, manage, and document the resources of spontaneous volunteers to fully address disaster services needs.
Why Use the Help of Spontaneous Volunteers?
Spontaneous volunteers have become a vital part of response and recovery efforts. The work they do brings economic, logistical, and psychological benefits to the impacted community.
- Donated Time – Spontaneous volunteer contributions carry a tangible monetary value that offsets the cost to the community for matching federal disaster recovery funds. In other words, volunteers contribute not just their time, but also donate the monetary value of their time to the community impacted by a disaster event.
- Faster Recovery – Volunteer contributions speed up the overall recovery process, and therefore further alleviate the overall cost of recovery to the impacted community. The faster a community is able to recover, the sooner residents can begin earning an income, businesses can return to full operation, and community resources can be replenished.
- Cost Savings – The work accomplished by volunteers would otherwise be a cost incurred by the community, or by individuals in the community, to fund response and recovery activities.
By its very definition, a disaster is an event where additional resources are desperately needed. Emergency events become disasters because the local community is unable to manage the consequences on its own. A response and recovery effort that is prepared to harness the contributions of spontaneous volunteers, rather than resist them, enjoys a more efficient and effective operation.
Positive Public Perception
- When spontaneous volunteers are received well, managed properly, and treated fairly, they become an effective and happy workforce. Volunteers’ efforts, and their words, can greatly contribute to a positive perception by the general public of the overall response and recovery operation.
- It has been said that professional responders in the emergency management field, and trained affiliated volunteers, must maintain a “big picture” perspective of disaster services by remaining focused on their individual missions in order to effectively do their jobs. Unaffiliated or spontaneous volunteers, on the other hand, are better able to meet the needs of individual disaster survivors, to hold a hand or offer personal comfort and encouragement.
- These small interpersonal encounters spur the kind of human interest anecdotes the media will latch on to. What better public relations piece for a disaster response and recovery operation than that of selfless volunteers who have eased the difficult experience of impacted individuals through the charitable donation of their time, talent, and compassion?
Tapping Into What Spontaneous Volunteers Offer
Spontaneous volunteers bring with them a broad range of skills, talents, and interests. They may:
- have performed jobs or tasks that uniquely prepare them for response or recovery tasks;
- be certified in specific skills helpful to official responders; or
- be individuals willing to help in any way they can.
Because of the diverse needs of response and recovery disaster services, spontaneous volunteers are often engaged in any of the following general areas of work:
- Community outreach
- Damage assessment
- Needs assessment
- Services to impacted individuals
- Training and education
- Debris removal
- Many others
It is contingent upon volunteer coordinators to identify volunteer assets and allocate them in the best way possible to the overall disaster operation. The range of activities that can be assumed by spontaneous volunteers is only limited by the ability of the volunteer coordinator to effectively match ordinary knowledge, skills, and experience with the extraordinary needs of disaster services.
NOTE: Original article published by the National Service Knowledge Network Online Learning Center