Post by: Kim Stephens
A truism in emergency management is that after a disaster thousands of people want to volunteer–the more high profile the event the more show up, sometimes creating a second disaster. Having a system to organize these altruistic individuals is critical. As one researcher states: “…the effectiveness of volunteerism depends highly upon how well volunteers and voluntary groups and organizations are coordinated. In this sense, having vast numbers of people and supplies frequently pose serious challenges for emergency management.” Coordination, in turn, depends on clear, consistent, and timely communications (FEMA). But how is this done effectively?
Aaron Titus, a member of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, knows the ends and outs of volunteer coordination all too well. The faith-based group he is associated with can mobilize thousands of people–ready, willing, and able to work. In the days after Hurricane Sandy, that is exactly what happened: Aaron faced a veritable army of over 20,000 volunteers who needed to complete thousands of tasks across a large geographic area. How could he provide “clear, consistent, and timely communications” as well as a method to determine, track and record what everyone was doing? And…what about all of the other non-spontaneous organizations that also showed up to help?
Coordinating not only what his own group was doing, but also ensuring that they were not duplicating efforts or leaving out survivors who needed assistance, was a problem that seemed insurmountable. BUT he had a secret weapon. During the southern New Jersey “derecho” storms of July, 2012 he had used the little programming knowledge he had to sort out a simple, yet brilliant, software solution. With a job as big as Sandy, he enlisted the help of other developers, including Jeremy Pack, to create a more robust version of that solution that ended up being utilized by more than 100 organizations.
- Intake: An online intake request/assessment form is made available to 2-1-1. This enables the 2-1-1 operator to input information (as non-personally identifiable, as possible) about where the work needs to be done, who is requesting, and what is being requested. These forms are customizable–for instance, if a disaster hit an area with a large population of non-English speakers, a field for “language spoken” could be added.
- Tracking: A case number is generated for each request and the form syncs to a map–automated fields are included to alleviate confusion, for instance, the county-field is automated. Whether or not the work is on private or public property is also noted–which is VERY important. Communities need to keep track of all public volunteer work in order to count this against FEMA’s public assistance contribution requirements.
- Categorization: The software includes categories and codes for the work order request based on completion and type. Regarding completion, a red icon indicates work is “unassigned,” yellow means “claimed,” green is “completed,” and grey is “out of scope.” There are two categories of work indicated: flood damage or tree/wind damage. This distinction is made because some organizations do not let volunteers operate chain saws.
- Assignments: Affiliated organizations, as well as organizations that can prove they are legitimate, are allowed to access the map in order to claim work and record completed work. By claiming work, the group essentially says, “We can do this one.”
- Stop-Gaps: The system has features that prevent the same request from being recorded more than once. When the 2-1-1 operator starts to enter a name or address a field pops up listing all similar entries.
- Updates: The volunteers doing the work can update the status on the software system, which is seen by the 2-1-1 operator. If someone calls back to 2-1-1 asking about the status, the operator can see if a group (as well as which group) has claimed the work.
- Reporting: 2-1-1 staff can generate summary reports about the work requested and completed to provide to local or state emergency management officials.
*****In response to a few questions on Twitter, there’s one point of clarification. The ability to sign-up for the tool is available to any organization participating in recovery, including 2-1-1.
There are a couple of things about this volunteer-work-order system that are unique. For one, no group is “assigned” tasks or even a geographic area–as is often done using a grid technique. They can choose what, when and where to work on their own. Also, even though the system is online, the privacy of the requestor is protected–only those groups that have been granted access can see all of the detailed information: the public-facing maps on the Crisis Clean Up website do not include homeowners names, addresses or phone numbers–see example below.
I also like that this system is integrated into the existing government partnership with United Way’s 2-1-1. A lot of State and local communities have started to use 2-1-1 to communicate emergency recovery information. For example, officials in New Jersey state “…2-1-1 is a critical communication link between emergency management professionals and the public-at-large. By the very nature of the 2-1-1 system, NJ 2-1-1 is perfectly positioned to respond immediately during times of crisis. It is structured to manage the expected high volume of crisis-related calls and the 2-1-1 staff is trained to direct callers to services most appropriate for their needs.”
So how much does this all costs? Unfortunately, it is free for anyone to use. Why “unfortunately?” Free usually means that the product or the solution is not sustainable–although it is open source. They do have a “donate” button on the website, but I’m guessing their list of contributors is quite small. Aaron and his team work on this software tool as a labor of love–however, I’m sure they would be happy if the Knight Foundation, or another philanthropic organization provided them the necessary cash flow to ensure disaster-impacted communities could have access to this amazing tool. If you are interested in volunteering with them I’m guessing Aaron would be pleased to hear from you–especially if you are a seasoned grant writer! Contact him via Twitter @aarontitus.
Volunteer photo 1. Credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunaparknyc/8179611271/”>Luna Park Coney Island</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>
Volunteer photo 2. Credit: photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/vixwalker/8236682972/”>Vix Walker</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>