Maximising the Local Volunteer Response to Disasters

Richard Jackson summarises how agencies and volunteers can better work together to respond to disasters and what additional support may be required.

Boxing Day Flood

The willingness of people to respond to local disasters is exceptional, equally important is ensuring that it is supported and encouraged by local agencies (private, public and voluntary/community) and works alongside established statutory/funded provision. However it is also essential that local support infrastructure helps maximise the impact of volunteer energy in a safe and appropriate manner whilst not overwhelming it with ‘red tape’ or formal processes.

Existing Response

There is a response by statutory agencies to any disaster, this focuses on protecting people, property and key infrastructure. There are roles that volunteers can play in supporting this. There are also third sector agencies who carry out particular roles which involve large numbers of volunteers e.g. The Red Cross and Rural Action Yorkshire.

Potentially affected communities/families are also encouraged to plan for emergencies and there is a significant amount of online/downloadable advice available to support this including:

Gaps in existing provision

There are a number of areas where volunteers have stepped forward and had a very positive impact, these are:
  • Communication – mainly through social media – keeping people up to date with current events and providing information on how they could help.
  • Receiving and distributing public donations (both items and money) – provision of donations centre and a means of ensuring donations reach people most in need.
  • Provision of a volunteer workforce to help clean up houses, public areas and uninsured businesses.
  • Provision of volunteers to provide personal support to those effected but not relocated.

What should be provided to support future volunteering activity?

The impact of the above volunteering in key areas has been significant; however there are some areas where advice and support would have helped. Below is a list of areas which I feel would help maximise any future volunteering response:

  • Clear, well publicised, information and contact numbers from statutory and funded third sector agencies on how volunteers can help and in what roles.

    NOTE: some agencies may need assistance regarding implementing effective volunteer management.

  • Provision of a city disaster HQ/coordination point to help direct volunteers to:
    • provide timely advice to local volunteer managers/coordinators/centres
    • support local responses
    • help take requests for support
    • support the movement of donations to where they are most needed
  • Clear advice on how to manage and store personal data in line with relevant legislation (e.g. lists of volunteer names and contact info) or provision of a mechanism for managing this data.
  • Clear advice on the health and safety implications of volunteering roles and the use of Personal Protective Equipment including:
    • Lifting and handling
    • Working with potentially contaminated materials (e.g. materials forced from sewers by floodwater)
    • Working near hazards (e.g. fast flowing water containing debris, electricity)
    • Working in low light conditions (e.g. cellars, at night)
  • Clear advice on Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults and Children (e.g. child volunteers, vulnerable adults requesting personal support).

How should it be offered?

As I've outlined above, it’s essential that the above assistance is provided in a way that doesn’t compromise volunteer energy and willingness to help. Consequently I feel the best way of addressing this is to provide a Disaster Response Toolkit for Volunteers (or source, and customise, one that already exists) outlining the above challenges and how they should be tackled. This should then be backed up with ongoing training and advice where appropriate.

Next Steps

I'm working with a range of agencies on the production of the above toolkit (and looking at what else should be done) - if you'd like to have some input or you think something is missing/wrong please let me know - either in the comments section below or via

Richard Jackson, Chief Officer — Voluntary Action Leeds

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