Managing Spontaneous Volunteers in Times of Disaster

FEMA Guide

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The Synergy of Structure and Good Intentions

When disaster – natural or man-made – strikes a community, specific emergency management and nonprofit organizations automatically respond according to a pre-established 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. Yet one element within the present system continues to pose a challenge: spontaneous, unaffiliated volunteers.

Spontaneous, unaffiliated volunteers – our neighbors and ordinary citizens – often arrive on-site at a disaster ready to help. Yet because they are not associated with any part of the existing emergency management response system, their offers of help are often underutilized and even problematic to professional responders. The paradox is clear: people’s willingness to volunteer versus the system’s capacity to utilize them effectively.

The events of September 11 dramatically illustrated the need for better planning in this arena, and the issue of unaffiliated volunteers began receiving increased attention. In April 2002, UPS, the Points of Light Foundation & Volunteer Center National Network, and FEMA convened a National Leadership Forum on Disaster Volunteerism. The Forum brought together leadership and operations experts from the volunteer and emergency management communities, Volunteer Centers, firefighters, local government emergency management staff, and those with years of hands-on experience. Participants representing over 45 organizations identified challenges and opportunities associated with disaster volunteering; developed preliminary recommendations and action steps for addressing the challenges of spontaneous volunteers; and secured commitment from participating organizations to work toward the recommendations proposed.


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