Has the professionalization of emergency management reduced our use (and appreciation) of volunteers?

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Post by: Kim Stephens

Who’s at the scene of a crisis first?   The answer from a local emergency manager, who did not hesitate, was whichever squad car is closest. But of course I meant the public. People who witness a crisis are always the first responders.  In the keynote address, given by Kurt Jean-Charles of the Noula project, at the International Conference of Crisis Mappers he described his experience after the earthquake in Haiti. He said his first reaction was to run as fast as he could to check on his family. His second reaction, once he knew his family was safe, was to help. He picked up a hammer and chinked away at the rubble to try to save people, anyone. When that proved less-than effective, he turned to what he knew–technology, and built a collaborative platform to link his countrymen’s’ needs to available resources.

But even with that amazing example I still somehow feel disheartened. Volunteers in disasters are as old as man, yet lately I am hearing about resistance to volunteers. This is particularly troublesome as we plan for new ways to involve the general public to help in new, often creative, ways (see “A Virtual Crisis Crowd Coordination Center“).

Examples of this resistance to volunteers:

  • The blog post in Disaster Zone by a person that wants to volunteer. The young man states:
  • I am 26 years old, just graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in Geography with minors in Geospatial technology (think GIS/remote sensing) and Applied Design (think graphics design). I have a programming background and am extremely tech savvy. I also have 9 years of fire/ems experience, 2.5 years of law enforcement experience, and almost two years of emergency management experience. I have tried contacting the the local EM office several times to see if I could volunteer there. They have yet to offer any reply to my attempts. (Emphasis added)

    I have met these guys in the past so it’s not as though I am a stranger. I was offering to do any projects they needed help on. I have experience establishing social media presence for fire and ems and even for businesses. I am very proficient in graphics design and video production software, I currently am working on a national PBS television project and could offer help with all facets of public information material from videos to brochures to whatever.

  • From my own experience talking to a local OEM. I asked if they would entertain the concept of a cyber-CERT team, in other words a group that could be trained in social media to both communicate the agency’s message and to possibly look for information from the public as well, especially during times of crisis. The response I received was hesitance, and many questions:
    • What about liability?
    • Can they gather this information and then put it out under the auspices of the agency? Is that legal?
    • What if they get the information wrong?
    • The other response was a little more troubling: “Well, we don’t really use our CERT team anyway, because there really isn’t anything for them to do.”
  • Another example is the Oil Spill Crisis Map, which used the Ushahidi platform during the BP Oil Spill to document citizens reports of  the spill, including: “oil sightings, affected animals, odors, health effects and human factor impacts made by the eyewitnesses”. The common operating platform Virtual USA was deployed during this crisis for use by the response community. Virtual USA is a data sharing system for States (and even private industry in this instance) developed by the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Virtual USA integrates a set of processes and solutions that complements existing policies, processes, and architectures in each of the respective states. The aim is to establish seamless information exchange among participants, as needed and as authorized.

At a demonstration of this project in Manor, Texas one person asked if Virtual USA could incorporate information gathered and collated from platforms such as Ushahidi. The response was discouraging. Yes, they absolutely could include this information, but no, they didn’t want it. In other words, during the oil spill response they had the ability to include data collected from the public and curated by volunteers in the Oil Spill Crisis Map, and the states asked for that data to be removed.

So where are we regarding using volunteers and accomodating new ideas from them?  I know there are many agencies that use volunteers to great effect.  FEMA has a course called  Developing and Managing Volunteers. But it seems that the course needs to be updated regarding  use of volunteers and new technology.

I welcome your comments and examples.

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6 responses to “Has the professionalization of emergency management reduced our use (and appreciation) of volunteers?

  1. It seems like EM is generally OK using volunteers in well-established and well-defined ways (e.g. ARES/RACES for communications, skywarn, etc) but rather wary of using volunteers in more creative ways. I think this is all about trust, structure and control. For example, there are laws determining the role of RACES and its mode of operation is quite structured. Naively social media seems untrustworthy, chaotic and uncontrollable (although I’m not sure this is really true). In fact I think there is a parallel between amateur radio and social media: both can be used to gather information from volunteers “out in the field” and to disseminate information gathered. One just uses very well established technology, one uses newer technology.

    • I agree, volunteers are fine as long as they participate in familiar ways. However, gathering situational awareness info and providing data analysis are not usual and therefore seen as suspicious. There is more movement in the international community in this regard. The UN might be the first organization to figure out how to incorporate this new community in the response effort, so we should watch what they do closely; the US Federal Government could potentially use whatever model they adopt. Nonetheless, I think local governments are interested in receiving policy guidance in this area.

      • Giovanni Taylor-Peace

        I’d agree – there is a lot that the US EM community can learn from the international community. I noticed this in my brief time on the ground in Haiti following the earthquake but at the same time I will give credit to the federal government for getting some of the FEMA staff involved with the State Department and USAID’s efforts there to get a glimpse of this as well.

        It will take some time for volunteers to gain more formal credibility in these new areas but its encouraging to at least see the EM presence in social media growing daily at a good pace.

  2. I would like to clarify one point on Virtual USA. Its not that the users don’t want to use that information its just that the protocols haven’t been worked out yet. This is the same issue that was discussed at the Crisis Mappers conference last week and is related to the discussion of creating a more structured approach to linking the technology volunteer community, including NGO’s and NFP to the official repsonse community. I’m confident this will all be worked out -hopefully soon

  3. I have no problem continuing to use volunteers in the manner they are currently used in the United States. As far as responding outside our borders? All bets are off. In the U.S.. at least in Florida, counties establish volunteer reception centers (VRC) that can be set up on a moments notice in various locations around the county. They are supposed to register unaffiliated volunteers, track hours (for reimbursement through FEMA) and determine skills for assignment. Affiliated volunteers (ARC, UW, Major church organizations etc…) should be working through the EOC. We have pre-assigned housing for Christian Contractors so they can enter the county an put up blue roofs after a hurricane as an example.
    As far as amateur radio goes, they are also used. They work in shelters and hospitals as well as the EOC. The only stipulation is they must follow the rules of the organization they are supporting, which means back ground checks to work in a shelter, and a stringent check and HIPPA training to work in a hospital. To work in the EOC we require NIMS compliance.

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