Volunteers emerge after a disaster, they do their part and they disappear, usually until the next disaster strikes. Serious and in-depth insights into volunteerism in disasters are rare, a rare exception being Managing Spontaneous Community Volunteers in Disasters – A Field Manual by Lisa Orloff. This piece of work provides a serious discussion on managing spontaneous community volunteers in disasters from the history to future.
The first chapter provides an overview of spontaneous volunteerism in a global perspective. This chapter took me back to my experience during 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. I remember with gratitude the efforts of spontaneous volunteers, both local and international, treating those who were alive, pulling out dead bodies, making children laugh and play, clearing rubble, rebuilding houses: in their own ways, just because they wanted to help. In the meantime, I regret about the numerous windows of opportunity that we would have capitalized on if we had a proper system of spontaneous volunteer management as prescribed by Ms. Orloff in the above field manual.
I was excited to learn the comparison of cost and time saved by the use of volunteers in disaster recovery versus traditional means in Florida in Osceola County: 83% cost saved and 39% time saved: a fact that is not often highlighted probably because volunteers are thought to be for free!
An interesting concept presented in the book is the role of spontaneous volunteers in an “ecosystem” of supportive partners in disaster response. The ecosystem view examines the usefulness and challenges of volunteers among the multiple stakeholders involved. Building on the idea of volunteers not being a liability, but a resource, the book examines three types of challenges faced by emergency managers with regards to spontaneous volunteers: public challenges, internal challenges and typology of disasters. The interesting thing about the book is that it provides “ready to use” yet “ready to adjust” templates that each agency could use to assess its own challenges with regards to the spontaneous volunteers.
It is interesting to learn that the Incident Command System which is a well-known tool used by disaster managers has been adopted for spontaneous volunteer management. This is indeed a creative approach where an effort has been made to use the Incident Command System which is a top down approach for effective management of spontaneous volunteers who are ironically not a part of a hierarchical system. Such a system is essential in the inborn chaotic nature disasters or else the valuable “energy” within the volunteers will not be channeled to its best.
In this field manual, the ramification of terms with regards to disaster volunteers is clarified highlighting Spontaneous Unaffiliated Community Volunteers or just-in-time volunteers, the category of interest of this manual. There is a stimulating discussion on the pros and cons of having volunteers in disaster response setting. It has a handy checklist to assess the liability concerns of having volunteers.
I am of the opinion that the book is in its peak being a “manual” towards its fifth chapter, which I enjoyed reading most. I would recommend this chapter alone as a quick reference for a busy disaster manager who has only one hour left before his volunteer recruitment interview. It provides elaborate and step by step advice on volunteer recruitment and management featuring agency responsibilities and developing protocols for volunteers to follow. If you read this chapter carefully, you will get a clear idea of how to get the best out of volunteers who turn up for help and how to avoid potentially unsuitable volunteers politely!
If somebody asks the abilities of a good disaster volunteer, I learnt to summarize it by three characteristics, after reading this book. He or she will stay grounded, is a good listener and has ability show empathy. It looks simple, but the author brings in first hand deep evidence from her involvement in 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and Haiti earthquake to prove her case.
Volunteer Reception and Point-of-Distribution Model is a versatile yet simple tool proposed for volunteer management. The length and detail of the prescription that the author has for managing a volunteer management center is commendable: team composition, roles of each team member, what each one of them should be provided with and even carefully drawn floor plans of volunteer management areas! I thought it was normal to run volunteer receptions areas in not so effective areas because that is normal for a disaster, but I learnt I was wrong after reading this field manual.
Necessary tools and techniques for spot screening, assessment and selection are provided in this Manual. The five types of questions and the decision making tool presented in the book are practical, simple and innovative. I am going to use them in my next volunteer recruitment interview!
A number of proactive management approaches have been introduced in the field manual. Promotion of understanding between the managers and the volunteers is described. Orientation of the volunteers with the strategic objectives of the organization and team building methods suitable for disaster settings are elaborated in the manual. It is interesting to learn that a whole chapter has been dedicated to assessing and promotion of wellbeing of volunteers. I have observed in many occasions volunteers breaking down, including myself, simply because they have not been looked after!
The technology should not be a barrier for volunteerism but a blessing. The final chapter of the book looks at how disaster volunteerism could flourish in the era of Wikis, Twitter and Flickr! The author generously shares her own experiences with the Ready Responders Network – an initiative by the World Cares Center, which is a free, web-based platform that could bring different stakeholders together using new technologies.
“Managing Spontaneous Community Volunteers in Disasters – A Field Manual” by Lisa Orloff describes how the asset of volunteerism that emerges out of humility could be utilized to for the benefit of humanity! It is a necessary reference that every disaster manager should have!
Dr. Novil Wijesekara
Disaster Preparedness and Response Division – Ministry of Health Sri Lanka
M.B.B.S, M. Sc. (Disaster Management), M.Sc. (Community Medicine)
Diploma in Human Rights and Peace Education,
Diploma in Diplomatic Studies and Foreign Relations