Helper Triage: Volunteer Management in Emergencies

By Susan J. Ellis

A few weeks ago I got a phone call from Ben Arnoldy, a reporter with the Christian Science Monitor.  He was writing a story about the aftermath of the recent tanker accident and major oil spill in San Francisco Bay.  He had attended several emergency meetings between concerned citizens and the various government authorities charged with action in this sort of scenario and was very dismayed at the seeming lack of interest in accepting the many offers of volunteer help. 

You can read his article in the November 13th edition of the Monitor, “Oil-spill Helpers Galore, but Limits on Their Use.”   It opens like this:

When a shipping accident last week dumped 58,000 gallons of oil in San Francisco Bay, it washed onto shores that are home to a great concentration of America's environmentalists.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that volunteers poured forth to help – yet officials still seemed flummoxed when it happened.

In a nutshell, here’s what happened:

  • An emergency with lots of precedence in other locations and involving the jurisdictions of many authorities.
  • Immediate media coverage, alerting millions of people about the problem.
  • Many people were not only concerned, they also wanted to help (we, of course, know these folks as “spontaneous volunteers”).
  • No one coordinating the emergency response for the government was charged specifically with considering the question of volunteers – and no one understood the issues. (The one exception being the nonprofit organizations focused on birds and their habitats who did have a plan and did put volunteers to work.)
  • Lots of people offered to help.  They were turned down brusquely, largely with the reason: “It takes training to clean up dangerous chemicals and so we can’t let you do it.”  More specifically, they were told “you must have 24 hours of training.”
  • There was a form for people to complete that asked only for their name and contact information. The staff admitted they had “whipped this up” that same morning.
  • The would-be volunteers (taxpaying citizens) got angry, especially as they watched miles of beaches go unmonitored and uncleaned for days.
  • The government spent money to bring in more paid, trained help.

OK. The red herring in this situation is the “it’s dangerous” response.  The real issue – and focus of this Hot Topic – is that emergency planning that does not include strategies for dealing with spontaneous volunteers is simply bad planning! The Red Cross and some local response coordinators have actually learned much of this from 9/11, Katrina, and other natural disasters.  But, as the oil spill proved, there are still many types of crises in which the volunteer wheel is re-invented, often badly.

Health care has created the concept of emergency triage, in which a skilled medical practitioner assesses each patient and determines who needs immediate attention, who can wait, and even who can’t be helped. We simply have to teach civil emergency response organizers the need for “Helper Triage,” too. Turning every potential volunteer away without assessing what s/he is offering to do is a mistake on many levels.

Danger and Risk:  Truth vs. Assumptions

Let me state clearly and strongly that I do NOT want anyone who is unqualified to be put to work at anything that poses any health hazard to him or herself personally or to the community. I’m sure that the majority of the people who offered to help in San Francisco should not have been handed a yellow suit and told, “go for it.” 

But here are some things to consider:

  • The authorities had no system in place for identifying whether any of the applicants were actually trained and experienced in working with toxic substances. The assumption was:  if you’re volunteering, you’re an amateur.  Given the population of the Bay area, the odds were very much in favor of finding at least some qualified volunteers who would have been immediately capable of doing the risky (and other) stuff.
  • Where did the rule of “24 hours of training” come from?  Might some of the prospective volunteers be partially qualified (for example, firefighters) and therefore have only needed, say, 10 more hours of training in some of the specialty issues?  The oil clean-up was obviously going to take at least several weeks of work. Was there no way to offer a crash training course (again to pre-qualified volunteers)?  Was any of the training already on video?  Should it be, so that other emergencies have a way to prepare extra workers?
  • Does every single task in the clean-up need every single minute of the 24 hours of training?  Are there not some activities that could be delegated to slightly-less-trained helpers while the fully-trained workers did the most critical tasks?

The Volunteer Management Skill of Task Analysis

The last bulleted item is a function of linear thinking. Administrators who always work with full-time employees think of jobs as a cluster of activities all done by people with similar qualifications.  We in the volunteer field, on the other hand, are skilled in putting diverse people to work in short bursts of energy, a few hours at a time.

The offers to volunteer may have included a willingness to clean up the oil itself, but that really wasn’t what people were saying. They were offering to help. There seemed to be no one in charge who could envision what that might mean. Here’s a list of just some possibilities that the reporter and I brainstormed together in only a few minutes:

  • Help to cordon off affected beach access points and explain to people why they couldn’t go to those spots.
  • Work in the supply unit handing out protective gear and tools to those who would then touch the oil. 
  • Provide a respite area with refreshments for the workers.
  • Take digital photographs of assigned sections of beach (with instructions to stay at a safe distance from any oil), sending these in electronically to other volunteers cataloguing them for a before/during/after record.
  • Complete paperwork as dictated by the frontline workers.
  • Call area hotels for vacancies for workers brought in from distant areas.
  • Distribute instructions to special populations potentially affected by the spill, such as small boat owners, life guards, etc.
  • Staff a hotline for people reporting affected shoreline.
  • Compile a list of organizations rescuing wildlife.

I’ll bet that someone who actually knows what’s needed in this sort of emergency could develop a much longer list! 

The Solution for the Future

It’s imperative that citizen volunteers be a subject for consideration in any emergency plan and that at least one authorized person be designated solely to be in charge of volunteer mobilization when a crisis occurs. At a minimum, this person should start with triage:

  • Expect to hear from people who want to volunteer. Have a phone line, Web area, and/or physical location to deal with these questions.  Assign the first volunteers to staffing this center!
  • Expect to hear from the media (possibly within minutes of the crisis) and have a prepared statement to address what civilians should do if they want to help. Hurried responses of “stay away” or “we don’t want volunteers right now” – without explanation or alternative actions –damage public image. 
  • Have an application form that specifically asks whether a prospective volunteer has certain skills, training or experience relevant to the emergency.  Anyone who answers affirmatively should be immediately moved to a different spot and interviewed further.
  • Have access to those in charge to identify non-skilled or differently-skilled needs (see list of ideas in the previous sections) and find applicants with potential to fill those roles.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate (all with the help of volunteers, of course):
    • Send out clear lists of what specific skills are needed.
    • Explain why not everyone will be seen on the spot, but assure that their names will be kept on file for possible new needs over the next days or weeks.
    • Provide alternative volunteer information for those who want to do anything to help, even somewhere else.
    • Keep all of this current on a Web site (these days there are all sorts of great tools for emergencies – start with

No one expects the civil engineers or transportation officials or healthcare authorities to stop their efforts to remedy the crisis in order to deal with citizen offers of help.  But it IS legitimate to expect these people to predict the outpouring of volunteers and to care enough to assign someone to manage them properly, with the right preparation, concern, tone, and sincere thanks.

Once the triage pace and volume of the first days of an emergency have subsided, the volunteer manager can then apply all the principles of effective support and recognition to those who gave their time and those who could not be deployed. Not to mention planning ahead for the next emergency, which will happen.

How can our profession advocate to include volunteer management as an emergency need?

Are Volunteer Centers and Hands On Network affiliates prepared to step in as natural coordinators in these sorts of situations?

Could professional associations of volunteer program managers work with disaster response officials – when there is not a crisis – to help them designate an emergency volunteer coordination plan (possibly with help from the professional VPMs)?

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