Volunteers in Times of Disasters
has existed for many years, tracing back to the 18th century (Warta,
2009). Volunteerism can be defined as anyone who is willing to offer their free
time to take up a task. Volunteers are very important because they offer
benefits to the community, especially during disaster response. During disaster
response, volunteers are viewed as positive because they help in distributing
goods and disseminating information about services offered by emergency responders
(Whittaker, McLennan, & Handmer, 2015, 363). Although
volunteers have been viewed as something positive during disaster response,
there are issues and risks that exist which can prevent emergency managers from
doing their jobs (Fernandez, Barbera, & VanDorp, 2006b). Issues with
volunteers include that they can impede emergency managers from doing their job
in disaster response, are unprepared, and may have limited resources. There are
2 types of volunteers that exist which are affiliated volunteers and
unaffiliated volunteers. Affiliated volunteers are those who are professional,
formally trained, belong to an organization, and can manage disaster situations
(Barsky et al, 2007). Unaffiliated volunteers are those who are untrained, do
not belong to a formal organization, appear spontaneously in disaster
situations, and can disrupt emergency response (Barsky et al, 2007). This paper
will focus on unaffiliated spontaneous volunteers and highlight the challenges
that they may pose for emergency managers.
Importance of Volunteers
Volunteers are very important
because they bring together the community to work together toward completing a
goal during a disaster. But, one type of volunteer that is usually common in
helping during disaster response are known as spontaneous volunteers which is a
type of emergent group. Emergent volunteer groups are usually people in the
community, where a disaster has taken place, that come together spontaneously
to address the needs of individuals that have been affected by a disaster.
Although, they are very helpful and important they can impede emergency
managers from doing their job in disaster response.
about Spontaneous Volunteers
impede emergency managers from doing their job by interfering with emergency
operations. An emergency operation that they interfere with is coordination.
During a disaster response, emergency managers are busy coordinating search and
rescue teams, transportation units, resources, volunteers, medical units and
many other activities. With spontaneous volunteer’s emerging spontaneously
during a disaster, emergency managers may not get to people who are trapped and
dying. Another issue that spontaneous volunteers bring on emergency managers is
distraction. Because emergency managers have so much going on, with many officials
reporting back to them about the disaster situation, spontaneous volunteers can
become a distraction for them. They become a distraction when emergency
managers must stop what they are doing to coordinate them and fill them in on
the situation since they most likely lack situational awareness. They may also
prevent emergency managers from getting to the disaster site on time. On April
2013, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit the city of Yan, Sichuan, China in which
the disaster response was compromised because civilians who wanted to help, by
volunteering, caused a traffic jam that made it difficult for first responders
to get to the affected area (Liu & Robinson, 2013, 595).
volunteers are not the common type of volunteer. Most volunteer groups that
help emergency managers in disaster response are prepared and trained by
organizations. Unlike common volunteers, spontaneous volunteers did not exist
before and do not belong to a specific organized group which makes them
unprepared for disaster response. “Their volunteering is entirely spontaneous,
unlike formal or organized volunteers who are recruited, trained, and given
instructions by government and non-governmental organizations …” (Twigg &
Mosel, 2017, 445). Spontaneous volunteers with no training can become more of a
burden for emergency managers then actually helping because they do not have
the necessary skills sets. For example, volunteers must be trained for the four
phases of disaster which are preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation.
In the preparedness stage, spontaneous volunteers need to be trained in
preparing a plan on how they must respond to a disaster and how to allocate the
resources available to them. For response, spontaneous volunteers need to be
trained with activities that will help them assist victims in a disaster. In
recovery, spontaneous volunteers must be trained to help in short term (such as
helping in search and rescue missions etc.) and long-term recovery (such as
helping to rebuild homes and communities etc.). And mitigation training is
needed with preventing or reducing the harm a disaster can have on a community.
These volunteers who are untrained may also receive more attention from
emergency managers when they should be focusing on disaster victims. “Untrained
volunteers who approach response organizations to offer their capacity may
themselves require more assistance from a strained organization than they
contribute to the resolution of the problem, by requiring transportation,
supervision, and equipment” (Rogstadius, et al., 2013, 879).
lack of training can also create additional problems. An additional problem
that is most likely to occur with untrained spontaneous volunteers is that they
are at risk in hurting themselves and others. Without training, spontaneous
volunteers can create more problems rather them help because they engage in
inappropriate or unsafe activities, providing inaccurate information to
survivors and the press, exploiting victims, stealing from damaged or abandoned
homes or vehicles etc. (Craven, 2015, para. 4). In a worst-case scenario,
volunteers entering collapsed buildings to save trapped individuals can lead to
the death of victims and their selves as well as taking the time away from
emergency managers. These volunteers may also use equipment that they are not
experienced with and may end up killing or hurting themselves, which is what
emergency managers are trying to avoid from happening in a disaster. It can
also lead to health problems as well. Not all disasters are the same and those
without the proper training of all types of disasters can harm their health.
For example, volunteers who decide to help in a disaster with high levels of
toxic chemicals may increase their chances of developing illnesses such as
cancer. “Each disaster is unique in terms of social and economic backgrounds of
their victims and human health hazards. Therefore, the knowledge and skills of
the volunteers is essential for effective commencement of the rescue mission”
(Liu & Robinson, 2013, 595). Another example of a type of disaster is
terrorist attacks. In a terrorist attack, where the area is considered a crime
scene, spontaneous volunteers that emerge to help, with no prior training of what
to do in such a disaster situation, can tamper with evidence. Also, in many
disasters the victims may be overwhelmed and stressed from the situation. Spontaneous
volunteer who come across such victims might not know how to comfort them and
possibly give them incorrect information about where to get the assistance they
require (Craven, n.d.). This can also cause the untrained volunteer to become
overwhelmed and lead them to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Because many of these volunteers choose to start volunteering without the
direction and guidance of an official or emergency manager, they may violate
cultural beliefs of victims or communities. In turn, this can affect the
credibility of volunteer’s, emergency managers, and other officials responding
to the disaster.
volunteers are not well-equipped and have limited resource. During a disaster
response, volunteers may arrive unequipped and require significant logistical
support such as food and shelter (Fernandez, Barbera, & VanDorp, 2006).
These volunteers do not think about how they are going to eat or where they are
going to get food because they are just there to help. During a disaster,
emergency managers have a limited number of food to offer to victims as well as
to the partners they work with including volunteers. But those volunteers that
they feed are volunteers that have been recruited to help in a disaster and
does not include spontaneous volunteers. But because these spontaneous volunteers
emerge and help, emergency managers cannot simply turn food away from them.
Instead they must feed them which puts a strain on the few food resources they
have that are supposed to be for the people in need. Spontaneous volunteers
also do not bring any type of equipment with them and may have the misconception
that they will be provided equipment on the scene. This, again, goes back to
emergency managers not having enough tools to give around. When responding to
disasters, emergency managers have a limited amount of resources for officials
and recruited volunteers to use and when these resources are strained by
spontaneous volunteers they may need to request for more resource materials
that they may or may not get. This can also strain the funds that emergency
Benefits of Spontaneous Volunteers
might object here that spontaneous volunteers bring benefits during disaster
response and recovery efforts. Because a disaster is a serious disruption for
communities, the resources of the affected area becomes overwhelmed and
emergency managers are not capable of handling the situation on their own;
thus, leading to having less effectiveness on disaster response and recovery.
During the emergency disaster response and recovery phase of the September 11th
attack on the World Trade Center, the effectiveness of emergency response and
recovery needs were met and enhanced by the activities of over 15,000
volunteers who showed up to help (Lowe & Fothergill, 2003, 303). Emergency
responders also have limited resources, such as food and water, and volunteers
are great to partner with to bring resources during disaster response.
Volunteers can bring in resources such as food, water, clothing, first aid
kits, blankets, shelter, and medical exams etc.
Saving emergency managers money is something else that
comes along with spontaneous volunteers. Spontaneous volunteers act on their
own and they immediately want to help in recovery efforts. These volunteers
help by rebuilding homes, cleaning up, and removing debris which can save
emergency managers thousands of dollars. Recently, during Hurricane Harvey, the
cost for cleanup reached up to 200 million dollars (Sims, 2017). During the
disaster response of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, New
Zealand, volunteers spent their time providing labor that was estimated to be
$1 million dollars for one week (Whittaker, McLennan, & Handmer, 2015,
volunteers also help during search and rescue missions. In a disaster, many
people can become trapped under debris and collapsed buildings and volunteers
are usually the first ones to show up before emergency managers, to help these
victims. Because Emergency managers cannot be at too many places at once,
victims of the disaster who are trapped can lose their lives and many of those
missing may not be found. But with the help of spontaneous volunteers,
emergency managers can save more lives than lose in a short amount of time.
During the response and recovery phases of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake in
china, over 300,000 people who crawled out from debris went on to form rescue
teams that approximately saved 80 percent of people who were trapped and buried
under debris (Whittaker, McLennan, & Handmer, 2015, 362). With emergency
managers having more help, they can have more time to address other issues.
advantage that spontaneous volunteers can have on emergency managers is being
knowledgeable about the affected community and its people. They are a helpful
resource for emergency managers because of the timely manpower, skill,
abilities, and perception they provide on a community’s needs (Fernandez,
Barbera, & VanDorp, 2006b). Many people who volunteer are people from the
affected community who have the desire to help their people and community.
Emergency managers do not have as much knowledge as do volunteers from the
affected area and do not know the cultures and beliefs of the people.
Spontaneous volunteers can better communicate with their people and help others
cope with their stress and emotions because they are the ones whose community
has been affected by a disaster. Volunteerism has been known to reduce stress,
empower victims, an outlet for rage, and help in the healing process (Fernandez,
Barbera, & VanDorp, 2006b).
volunteers are important because they can enhance disaster response and
recovery tasks such as search and rescue operations, bring resources (like food
and water), have knowledge on affected communities, and help emergency managers
save money. Although these volunteers have good intentions for volunteering,
they are more likely to cause challenges for emergency managers and impede them
from having a successful mission. Some of the concerns that come from
integrating spontaneous volunteers are that they possess no training, disrupt
coordination, are not well-equipped, create safety and health issues, and have
limited resources. If spontaneous volunteers continue to volunteer
spontaneously, then the concerns highlighted in this paper will continue in
future disaster relief response efforts.
better integrate unaffiliated spontaneous volunteers to have a successful and
effective disaster response in the future, emergency managers should create a
plan for spontaneous volunteers. This plan can help emergency managers create
available tasks that spontaneous volunteers can do to help prevent the
disruption of emergency operations. Emergency managers should also send out
public messages ahead of time through radios, television, and other forms of
media. Sending out public messages can help address the public if volunteers
are needed to help in a disaster and where they should go if they want to
volunteer. Emergency managers should also provide training classes to
spontaneous volunteers before sending them out to help in disaster response.
With training classes provided, emergency managers will know where to place
those with advance experience and those with little to no experience. They
should also suggest to volunteers to join volunteer organizations to have
credibility and be known as affiliated volunteers so that emergency managers
can recruit them during times of disasters. Lastly, emergency managers should
appoint someone to supervise spontaneous volunteers so that no safety and
health problems arise.
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