Tag Archives: emergency

the challenge of spontaneous volunteers

Last week, on Wednesday, a tornado struck in Mississippi, killing 10 people and destroying or damaging hundreds of homes. It struck at night. While watching live coverage on MSNBC, at a news conference held just hours after the tornado in Mississippi, I heard Kenny Holbrook, Fire Chief in Holly Springs, said this, in response to a question about the biggest problem police and fire staff faced during and after the tornado:

The biggest problem we had was spontaneous responders – if you can use that word, spontaneous responders. They just came. And understand that, you know, in an emergency situation like this, everyone wants to help, but this morning, like I say, as of last night, people that were not a member of the law enforcement, EMS, or fire community, we withheld sending them out doing the emergency work. Now that that is finished, we can utilize a lot of this help in the private sector. We can’t assume the responsibility. We don’t know what training people have. So that’s been the probably the hardest part of managing: hundreds of people that you have never met until that moment. 

What Mr. Holbrook is saying is that spontaneous volunteers – people that neither he nor other emergency responders knew, people had no affiliation with any official government agency – showed up at and called police stations and fire stations in the minutes and hours following the tornadoes, wanting to help, in overwhelming numbers, which meant an enormous amount of time had to be spent explaining to those volunteers why they could NOT be involved yet, why they would have to wait hours, even days, to get to be involved – and even then, they might not be able to be involved ever.

It’s a fascinating problem to have: during and after a crisis, there is a deluge of people wanting to help. It may not really sound like a problem, but it is: dealing with these people can take trained people away from actually responding to disaster, as illustrated above. People who have experienced a disaster are especially vulnerable, and need people interacting with them that are trained in disaster response and have been properly screened. Spontaneous volunteers, with no training, can actually cause MORE problems after a disaster than they help: engaging in inappropriate or unsafe activities, providing inaccurate information to survivors and the press, exploiting victims, stealing from damaged or abandoned homes or vehicles, and more.

If your organization responds to disasters in some way, consider recruiting and training volunteers who, after a disaster, will do nothing but deal with people that want to volunteer or donate items in the hours immediately after a disaster. There are people (like me!) who would be happy to go through training NOW in order to be at, say, a fire station within minutes of a crisis and have one job: dealing with any individuals or groups who call or drop by and say, “We’re ready to volunteer!” or “We’ve got a truck load of clothes for the survivors!” Those volunteers can capture names, phone numbers, and services or items offered, can explain why the individual or groups should NOT come to the area at that time, and can explain where to find updated information online (a web site, a Twitter account, etc.) specifically for volunteers and in-kind donations. Also, I’ve blogged about the many things spontaneous online volunteers can do after disasters – not just nice things for online volunteers to do, but critical services that might not be able to be done otherwise.

Fire stations, police stations, animal shelters, schools, other agencies that deal with disasters: plan now for how you are going to deal with spontaneous volunteers! These FREE resources from a variety of agencies can help:

Managing Spontaneous Volunteers in Times of Disaster: The Synergy of Structure and Good Intentions – a free online publication from the Federal
Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Managing Spontaneous Volunteers in Times of Disaster – the manual from a training for National Service participants and program directors by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Points of Light Foundation & Volunteer Center National Network

Guide to Managing Spontaneous Unaffiliated Volunteers – from the Medical Reserve Corps, for its local affiliates

Spontaneous Volunteer Management Resource Kit – from the Australian Government Department of Social Services

Preventing a Disaster Within a Disaster: The Effective Use and Management of Unaffiliated Volunteers, a free online publication from The Points of Light Foundation & Volunteer Center National Network, UPS and FEMA.

guide to social media emergency management analytics

Need a guide to social media emergency management analyticsHumanity Road just published one.

“Emergency Management is a mature field of study but Social Media Analytics is still in its infancy and navigating this field requires an understanding of the opportunities it presents. We are publishing this guide as a helpful tool for emergency managers and decision makers to help them identify and discuss relevant questions in planning their SMEM response. One example of key lessons to include in your own SMEM plan is establishing a baseline for communications activity in your area of operation.”

“We outline two types of application of social media analytics: one as postdisaster assessment and research which aggregates and analyzes data for statistical trending and strategic planning purposes, and the other conducted at the onset, during disaster response, and during recovery phases for rapid assessment and response focused on tactical execution. In general, this guidebook is meant for the latter, although the principles apply to both.”

I’ve been reviewing this for the last few minutes, and it seems absolutely RIGHT ON. Great stuff here – real-world advice, not just theory.

coyote1Have you read this report? Have a comment about this report or about using social media in community emergencies? Comment below!

Free Manuals on Preparation for Disaster Recovery

In light of recent events in Japan, someone posted information about this publication on one of the many online groups I’m a part of: a free disaster recovery manual, How to Help Your Community Recover from Disaster: A Manual for Planning and Action available free for download.

[ July 2017 update: the aforementioned links to this resource have been corrected. It was originally published in 2010 at http://www.scra27.org/resources/disasterresources/scra_manual_final5810pdf ]

Chapters cover the steps required to understand the potential effects of disaster, organize the community, assess its needs, make an action plan, choose a strategy or strategies for intervention, reach out to various constituencies, track results, and share lessons learned. This is a USA-focused manual, but it’s easily adapted to a variety of settings.

The 104-page text, published in 2010, is grounded in psychological principles closely linked to disaster recovery. It was created by the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) Task Force on Disaster, Community Readiness, and Recovery Department of Psychology, “a diverse group of researchers, evaluators, and community practitioners.”

One of the sections I like best is Part VI on “Types of Communities and Outreach to Diverse Groups,” which talks about non-obvious communities-within-communities – those who may not be reached by the usual community communication channels. Too often, this type of manual never discusses hard-to-reach individuals and communities within a neighborhood, town or city, like immigrants, people with low-literacy, religious minorities, people who have isolated themselves from neighbors and even the government, and others. Some of these groups are more visible than others, and in thinking about how to address community needs after a disaster, you have to know who makes up your “community.” Unlike many other how-to manuals regarding community work, this manual bluntly discusses the necessity to assess and discuss levels of mistrust among various individuals and groups, to recognize and understand differing cultural beliefs and practices, the necessity to “build authentic human relationships” with a variety of community representatives, and disaster planning for people with disabilities.

(I once asked a fellow aid worker in Afghanistan how our agency was working to reach various under-represented groups in our rural organizing and capacity-building governance work, including women. He replied, “It’s not our job to try to reach those groups. We’re only obligated to work with official leadership. To do otherwise is to not be culturally-respectful.” That comment still burns me.)

A criticism of the document: it mentions spontaneous volunteers, but doesn’t talk about what to do with them or how to respond to them. In disaster situations, the last thing you want are unaffiliated, untrained volunteers handling chainsaws, interacting with or transporting children or other vulnerable people affected by disaster, and engaging in other activities that could, at least, lead to misunderstandings and missteps and, at worst, lead to harm. See this blog on dealing with spontaneous online volunteers, who often overwhelm nonprofit and government offices after a disaster.

People in Aid also has a fantastic primer for organizations who want to develop their own emergency resources for sudden on-set disaster response.

[ July 2017 update: People in Aid is no more! And its wonderful disaster management wiki is gone as well. Luckily, you can still find it by cutting and pasting this URL into archive.org: http://www.peopleinaid.org/interactive/Wikis/MPE/Home ]

Ofcourse, the best preparation for disaster is getting people into disaster-response training programs now, such as through the American Red Cross.

Also see Volunteering To Help After Major Disasters – my own resource which has been rather popular recently (this is a monetized page on my site, so I’ll be donating the money I’ve raised beyond my monthly goal for April to a Japan-focused charity).

train now for disasters later

For almost 100 minutes, dozens of people took turns performing CPR and administering other first aid on a man crumpled on a freezing sidewalk in Goodhue, Minnesota, USA – population about 900, a town without a traffic light. It took almost 100 minutes for the May Clinic’s emergency helicopter to get to the fallen man. The first responders were volunteer fire fighters, police, and rescue squads, made up of both volunteers and paid staff, from neighboring towns. Their teamwork kept blood flowing to the man’s brain, making each rescuer a surrogate for his failing heart. And it worked: the man survived, resulting in what may be one of the longest, most successful out-of-hospital resuscitations ever.

The key to responding to a crisis successfully, whether its one person collapsing in front of you or an entire city collapsing around you, is training now for what might happen later. Getting training now in CPR and first aid, as well as disaster response (all available in the USA from your local chapter of the American Red Cross), can help later. What happened in Goodhue, Minnesota or in any disaster zone shows that: the people who are able to help immediately, the people who are able to make a real difference, are the people who made the time to register to volunteer, to get the necessary training, etc.

Whenever a disaster strikes, hundreds — even thousands — of people start contacting various organizations in an effort to try to volunteer onsite at the disaster site. The images and stories motivate these people to help immediately, in-person. But what most of these people don’t realize is that spontaneous volunteers with no training and no affiliation can actually cause more problems than they alleviate in a crisis or disaster situation. The priority in these situations is helping the people affected by the crisis or disaster, NOT giving spontaneous, unaffiliated volunteers an outlet for their desire to help.

During and after disasters, what’s desperately needed is equipment, supplies and expertise in disaster situations — that’s the priority. Disasters are incredibly complicated situations that require people with a very high degree of qualifications and long-term commitment, not just good will, a sense of urgency and short-term availability. Unless you have a formal affiliation with a recognized disaster relief organization, and training with that organization, you are probably going to be turned away if you want to help onsite.

If you have been moved by a disaster to help in some way immediately, please consider donating financially. Money is desperately needed in these situations to purchase food, up-to-date medicine, shelter, transportation for trained staff, and supplies. Disaster relief organizations cannot rely only on donations of these materials, and don’t have the resources in a crisis situation to go through them and make sure they are appropriate, clean, not expired, etc.; having finances means they can buy what they need, often in-country, and move much more quickly — and time is of the essence in these situations.

In addition to giving funds yourself, you can help by making sure friends and associates know how to give (you might be surprised how many people don’t know where or how to). A simple link on your own site or blog, a link at the end of your emails, an update on your status on FaceBook or MySpace or whatever, telling people how to donate financially, can be a huge help.

If you REALLY want to make a difference for developing countries suffering from a disaster, please make a financial donation to MercyCorps or the American Red Cross. For developed countries, like New Zealand or Japan, check the news and the internet for what agencies in those countries are saying they want – and don’t want. Please, no clothing drives or food drives, unless the American Red Cross says that’s what’s needed — it’s CASH that will pay for the things people need right now. Update your online profiles/status pages to encourage your friends to do the same.

If you want to truly help with a crisis situation or disaster, beyond financial donations, start thinking NOW about ways to get the training and affiliations you need to do such effectively for future emergency situations. There are many ways you can put yourself into a position for such in the future. Here’s why you need such training, and ways to get it.

And for agencies: People in Aid has a fantastic primer for organizations who want to develop their own emergency resources for sudden on-set disaster response. It’s something to do now. Good info for a funding proposal!

Knowledge transfer – it’s more than a buzz phrase

Every organization – every nonprofit, charity, non-governmental organization (NGO), civil society organization, government agency, for-profit business – large or small, anywhere in the world, has subject matter experts (SME), each with a deep knowledge and understanding of business-critical information. At nonprofits, some of these SMEs are paid staff, but many are volunteers.

You often find out who these SMEs are when they go on vacation and you suddenly realize you don’t know how to update text on the home page of your web site, or you don’t know how to direct a person who calls who wants to volunteer, or you are going through the list she left of everything to do Monday morning and, at the end of Tuesday, you aren’t even half way through the list.

Most organizations hire paid staff and recruit volunteers specifically because of the paid staff or volunteers’ particular area of expertise, expertise that the staff person has spent years cultivating in university academic studies and/or professional and volunteering experiences. You could never expect such a person to transfer all of his knowledge to a co-worker, a new hire, or a partner organization. However, there are business-critical functions at your organization that various staff members are doing — probably every staff member, including volunteers — that must be documented. Looking at a mission-based organization (a non-profit or an NGO, for instance), these critical functions could include how to:

  • update/change text on the web site
  • use the 5-10 most common functions on your phone system
  • direct phone calls and emails appropriately, for the entire organization or just within one department or program
  • direct inquiries from potential volunteers
  • direct inquiries from the media
  • retrieve data from a computer system backup
  • start a computer system backup, or how to ensure an automated backup took place
  • moderate your online discussion group
  • coordinate the logistics for any kind of meeting your organization has regularly, on site or online

This knowledge often needs to be conveyed to people with a lower level of technical expertise than the person in charge of these tasks – even if the person in charge of a task is an individual contributor with no staff to supervise — like the receptionist — while the person who needs to know is a senior manager.

(I have a firmly-held belief that the receptionist of an organization is often the most knowledgeable about what’s happening at the organization, and he or she is always one of the first persons I talk to if I’m consulting with an organization regarding its communications or volunteer engagement practices – but I digress…)

Content management systems (CMS), like a simple Intranet, that allows staff to upload and read each other’s information, and to share what they are working on, greatly assist in effective knowledge transfer and staff cross-training, but only if everyone has access to such, is encouraged to contribute to such, and is evaluated per their contributions to such. It’s about establishing a culture of internal transparency and rewards for sharing as much as it’s about creating a CMS. By contrast, partitioning information so that only certain people have access to it (knowledge hoarding), limiting it to folders in the file cabinets next to our desks, leads to inefficiency, duplication of effort, confused messages and errors.

This free document by Keith De La Rue details how to build a knowledge transfer toolkit. It’s a highly technical, jargon-filled document, and sometimes you will want to yell “Why don’t you just use plain English?!” Still, you will find it helpful if you want to ensure that business-critical information and practices at your organization are identified and documented. “This toolkit includes a range of individual elements, comprising content management, communications, learning and multimedia elements, coordinated as a managed program. Approaches to maintaining the currency and accuracy of content, dealing with knowledge hoarding and the relevance of social media principles will also be addressed.” Here’s more about Keith De La Rue.