Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Volunteers in Disasters

The impact of non-profits, or more specifically, VOADs (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) and their role in expediting a community’s recovery by leveraging their proficiency in the response/recovery time frame is undeniable; their depth of experience and breadth of resource can be the difference between weeks and months of recovery time. Oftentimes those resources brought to bear are volunteer-based.

However, not all of the resources brought to bear come in an organized fashion. Overwhelmingly compelled by the desire to do something, individuals and groups show up in droves with no previous response experience and jump in, these individuals are called Spontaneous Unaffiliated Volunteers (SUVs) and they continually challenge those responsible for volunteer coordination and management during response and recovery.

This influx of individuals wanting to help is well documented, so much so that guides have been created to help responding communities deal with the surge: "Managing Spontaneous Volunteers In Times of Disaster: The synergy of Structure and Good Intentions," but even with the historical data foreshadowing the surge, leveraging this pool of energy and desire to help continues to challenge those of us in response.

As someone who got their start and discovered their passion through volunteering, listening / reading to this news story gave me pause: "In the Face of Disaster, Certification Makes The Difference." The longstanding line from the response community to the world at large has been to pre-affiliate, get trained so that you can confidently and productively put that training to use after the next disaster strikes. With the understanding that all volunteers come with needs: food, housing, and productive work in a community, coupled with the shift that's taking place in how volunteers organize following disasters, the pre-affiliate message to me seems stale.

In the report it states: 
"Volunteers are always appreciated, but it's the certified ones that make the real difference."
I guess I'm unclear about what making a real difference means. Don't get me wrong, I believe that as many people who can align themselves with an organization prior to a disaster, the better. But to say that those who don't pre-affiliate but deploy anyway don't make a "real" difference does a disservice to the time, dedication, heart, and often tears that are shed as those SUV's help homeowners cleanup following an event.

The challenges associated with volunteers following a disaster are not black and white, there are liability issues, safety issues, logistical and coordination issues, reporting issues, etc...and because every jurisdiction seems to work from a slightly different playbook trying to address them or create standards to mitigate their impacts becomes exceedingly difficult. 

With the 'whole of community' and 'community resilience' rhetoric being pushed from a federal level, coupled with the local movement that's taking root in communities following disasters, the time is now to have a real conversation about changing views on SUVs and learning from their substantial impacts. Groups like: Occupy Sandy, Staten Island Strong, Respond and Rebuild, Rockaway Help, Southeast Nashville Flood Recovery, opokrelief are great places to start that dialogue.

As someone who began their career in disaster response and recovery as a SUV, the pejorative view that continues to pervade the response community regarding SUVs is something that I believe continues to limit the speed and cohesion of response efforts. There is no doubt that VOAD groups make a considerable impact in mass care activities, but as technology continues to increase connectivity and social platforms make the dissemination of needs easier and faster, a rethinking of how to better incorporate local groups, comprised almost entirely of SUVs, will have to be addressed to ensure that the 'whole of community' is being engaged in response activities.  

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