Emergency management agencies throughout the United States are digging deep into their planning toolboxes in a search for innovative ways to effectively respond, with limited resources, to major disasters. The recovery costs for major incidents such as the tornadoes that devastated Joplin, Missouri, and a number of other communities in 2011 made it a particularly catastrophic year in the annals of major U.S. natural disasters. Nonetheless, recent and anticipated future cuts in the funds available for disaster preparedness may force local governments to place a much greater focus on the role of volunteers within their communities. However, the volunteer management of the past is not necessarily going to be the volunteer management of the future as well.
In the past, volunteer management focused primarily on the human services element. The new approach uses the Incident Command System (ICS) principles of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) both to gather and to manage the resources available. By using the ICS guidelines – “a standardized, on-scene, all-hazards incident management approach,” as described in FEMA publications – an Incident Management Team (IMT) usually can manage the overall volunteer resources component of a response, while allowing nonprofit agencies to remain in charge of their own resources.
In addition to managing the overall resources, the volunteer IMT can also organize spontaneous unaffiliated volunteers (SUVs) – i.e., everyday citizens, either local-area residents or those from other areas, who offer to help during disasters, but are not specifically affiliated with an organized volunteer group. Because the management of SUVs is not only unique to each political jurisdiction involved but also based on the specific requirements that develop during times of no-notice disasters, the IMT would in almost all circumstances follow the planning standards specifically appropriate for the response location.
By having one IMT manage the influx and output of the volunteers reporting to various locations, emergency operations teams would gain the benefit of having a single point of contact for volunteer management during an incident. To be successful, the IMT must focus on and be able to produce such intangible benefits as accountability and organizational effectiveness, particularly as applicable to the emergency management culture. The provision of “human services” – another difficult-to-define benefit – will still be important, of course, but the ICS management model for volunteers brings the command-and-control function to the forefront, coordinates the efforts of several volunteer organizations involved in the same incident, and provides overall accountability.
In Texas, the HELP Foundation (Healing. Engaging. Learning. Preparing), a not-for-profit disaster management agency, works with local governments to develop a broad spectrum of volunteer management plans. By focusing special attention on eight core capabilities, the Foundation also builds relationships with volunteer organizations able and willing to help provide additional disaster-response services and capabilities to local jurisdictions in such areas of special expertise as: (a) Planning; (b) Community Preparedness and Participation; (c) Intelligence and Information Sharing and Dissemination; (d) On-Site Incident Management; (e) Volunteer Management and Donations; (f) Emergency Public Information and Warnings; (g) Restorations of Lifelines; and (h) Economic and Community Recovery.
As plans continue to be drawn, developed, promulgated, and implemented for the volunteer management function, it is important to remember that American volunteerism, now and for the foreseeable future, must go well beyond the “giving back” of volunteer hours during times of disasters. When managed efficiently, the fiscal value of those hours will help reduce overall recovery costs. In short, the management, design, and exercising of volunteer resources will and should be key components of most if not quite all emergency management plans designed and developed for future response and recovery operations. By continuing to build close working relationships and using the latest and most effective technologies available, current and future volunteer IMTs can help organize and disperse valuable resources that might otherwise be ineffective, underused, or – even worse – an actual hindrance to response and recovery efforts.
Tony Lamberth is President of the HELP Foundation, a not-for-profit disaster management agency he founded in 2001 to help local governments develop volunteer management plans. He previously served as the MMRS/UASI (Metropolitan Medical Response System/Urban Areas Security Initiative) Coordinator for the city of Jacksonville, Florida, where he gained grassroots experience within an EMAP (Emergency Management Accreditation Program). He previously served as a planner with the State of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, and has provided service and support for a number of incident management teams, such as the Plans Chief for the State of Florida’s Nuclear IMT. In addition to his HELP duties, he also currently serves on the San Jacinto IMT in South East Texas.