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Keeping your volunteers safe during disaster response
25 September 2006
by Celeste Sauls-Marks

For disaster volunteer resources managers, the most important aspect of any response operation is the safety of volunteers and staff. The hazards surrounding disaster response vary with the nature of the response operation. This article outlines a few of the issues that disaster response volunteer managers should consider to protect the volunteers they manage.

Monitor Tasks

It is important to constantly monitor the tasks that volunteers are being asked by responders to perform.  Often responders are not familiar with volunteer resources management or the liability involved in asking volunteers to perform certain tasks.  Activities such as transporting victims, volunteers or minors should be avoided for their inherent liability risks. 

Educating responders and volunteers about the volunteers' roles and acceptable volunteer positions can help alleviate these types of requests.  Also, providing information to responders in a non-confrontational manner about the nature of volunteerism can open the conversation about the acceptability of a task.  Most responders understand that certain situations will not be suitable and will appreciate your frankness.  While the desire to help those around you is inherent to the nature of volunteer resources management, it is important to learn to say "no" in some situations.  While this may feel uncomfortable for some volunteer managers, it is important to take a commanding attitude during a chaotic situation.  Your commanding attitude will also make your volunteers more comfortable in the chaotic situation.

Monitor Stress and Fatigue Levels

Perhaps one of the most common conflicts that arise between staff and volunteers during a disaster response is stress and fatigue.  There can be several variations of this situation.  In one instance, the responder or victim may be under a great deal of emotional and physical stress when volunteers come in contact with them.  The volunteer, has most likely seen their family recently, eaten a decent meal and slept in their own bed, may not understand the full ramifications of the current situation or the stress the person is under.  In another scenario, the volunteers themselves may be under a great deal of emotional and physical stress as the grapple to come to terms with what they have seen.

While these are common occurrences in disaster response, there are a few strategies that can lessen any negative effects.  First, monitor stress and fatigue levels of staff and volunteers and be willing to offer the services of critical incident stress counselors if needed.  Educate the volunteers and staff about the necessity of adequate rest, food and hydration.  Be willing to talk with staff and volunteers and give them an outlet to share openly what they have experienced.  If necessary, be willing to send volunteers home to rest.  Assure them that their work is vital and that they will have more impact when they are rested.  If you are uncomfortable sending volunteers or staff home, empower a staff person with the responsibility of performing this task.  Lastly, consider using some of the tools that are currently available such as time badges that expire after a certain time period so that those who have been at the site for too long will be clearly identified. 
 
Develop Communication Strategies

While it is not always possible to communicate with volunteers about the continually changing nature of a disaster response, employ strategies that allow you to communicate with them and vice versa.  One method is to send a spiral bound notebook out with each volunteer team.  This lets them record new information, changing hazards and items that you will need to follow up on.  It also gives you an avenue to provide them with information. 

Food Safety

When a community faces a crisis, volunteers and local businesses will want to help any way that they can.  Often, local restaurants will offer to supply a hot meal to responders and volunteers.  This food can sometimes be made available for hours so be cautious about food that may have been sitting out for too long and unsafe.  One technique is to write the date and time that the food was set out on the paper tablecloth so that all who visit the table will know how long it has been sitting there.

Limit Access

While spontaneous volunteers want to help their community during a crisis, consider limiting their access to sensitive areas and victims.  As it is difficult to fully screen a spontaneous volunteer and conduct a criminal background check, provide them with opportunities that will have a significant impact yet still limit their movement within the disaster environment, victim contact and access to sensitive areas such as the Emergency Operations Center.  Such opportunities may include distribution of food and snacks, sorting donated clothing and food, and distributing information.  These opportunities allow the volunteer to actively contribute but keep them in a public environment with limited victim contact.

Awareness of Population

As in any public situation, it is very important that the VRM be aware of the composition of the population around them.  Disaster response operations, such as an evacuation or sheltering operation, will bring large numbers of the general public into close confines during a period of high emotional tension.  While it is natural to seek the best from individuals, the astute VRM will understand that the population may include some who do not have the best intentions or past histories such as sexual predators, drug dealers or gang populations.  Understanding that these elements may be present in the population being assisted or among the spontaneous volunteers will help the VRM to makes decisions about how to safely involve volunteers in the operation.

Staff/Volunteer Attire

Lastly, monitor staff and volunteer attire.  Long earrings and expensive jewelry can invite unwanted situations.  Educate volunteers and staff to leave these personal items at home or locked in the trunk of their car.  Also encourage everyone to wear appropriate clothing while they are at the disaster site.  This includes long pants, such as jeans, and closed toed shoes.  While these may protect them from cuts, unsafe debris and other hazards, in some situations, such as shelters, they will also provide protection from public health hazards.

These are just a few things that VRMs can proactively do when considering the safety of volunteers engaged in disaster response.   While each response effort will have its own particular hazards, it is important to follow and communicate the directives from the Incident Command and public health authorities to ensure the continued safety of staff and volunteers.  Safety is everyone's concern but developing an educated and informed volunteer is the greatest step that a VRM can take to keeping everyone safe.