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Volunteer Does Not Equal Free

April 21, 2010

Monday night, I fronted up to a meeting of my community’s Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET) volunteer leaders.  (NET is our local implementation of the Community Emergency Response Team concept promoted by FEMA through Citizen Corps). The session was a stark reminder just how far the local emergency management agenda has strayed from the community’s priorities because of federal grant requirements and the expectations of elected officials that we not only seek such grants but use them whenever possible rather than seeking additional support from general fund revenues.

As the senior civil servant in our emergency management agency, I oversee the NET program but sit a couple of levels above the actual program manager. As such, I have relatively little day-to-day contact with our volunteers, who now number more than 1,000 organized into roughly 30 teams spread across the city.

Each volunteer receives standard training consistent with the federal CERT curriculum delivered by a cadre of full-time emergency responders and seasoned volunteers. After that, each one is issued a fluorescent vest, hard hat, and ID card and send on her way.

Over the 15 or so years the program has been running, teams have largely been left to organize and administer themselves. Team leaders receive little additional training and no formal mentoring. Anyone who receives training is welcome to play or not play according to their individual willingness to do so. No one is excluded from training due to age, physical ability, prior criminal history, or other limitations or associations. As such, our volunteer corps, although quite diverse, is not necessarily representative of all segments of our community, nor organized to instill confidence in those who do not participate.

From the outset, program managers and volunteers alike have assumed that in the event of a serious emergency, such as a major earthquake, the teams would deploy themselves without need of instructions or assignments from a central command authority. Their training would dictate the priorities and rules of engagement as situations warranted: Assess damage, identify and isolate hazards, organize bystanders and others, render assistance when able, communicate conditions and resource requirements to the nearest fire station, and follow the instructions of emergency responders when they arrive.

Until recently, the system managed to get along in spite of itself. But recently, as the community responded to the H1N1 pandemic by establishing community vaccination clinics, it became evident that things were not working as well as some of us had assumed or perhaps simply hoped.

For starters, people were reluctant to step forward. This sort of mission was not what they had in mind when they signed up for training. Others expressed concern that they would be exposed to the disease and might become ill themselves or transmit the illness to someone in their household who was otherwise vulnerable. And still others found it difficult to accommodate the commitment in already busy schedules crowded with other obligations.

All of these explanations seemed reasonable enough and were little cause for concern. What we did not expect was a backlash from some quarters that suggested we were taking advantage of our volunteers to provide free labor for something that the government had not adequately prepared for and which they considered could hardly be called an emergency. Others complained that they were being asked to come to the aid of others besides their neighbors since most clinics were organized in poor communities with inadequate access to health care and a high number of uninsured residents. And still others questioned whether we knew what we were doing at all since no one had prepared them for such responsibilities much less organized them to respond to such situations beforehand.

The latter group of responses not only raised some eyebrows, but also, when contrasted with the first group of responses, suggested a very real gap had emerged between preparations and expectations. A lack of consistent communication between the agency and its volunteers as well as among the volunteers themselves had left people to make up their own explanations for what they saw heppening in the community.

Recently, evidence of this problem took on new urgency as rifts among volunteers and groups surfaced over even more mundane issues. Emails began flying back and forth among team leaders questioning one another’s motives and the city’s support for the program. In all of these communications, one thing became clear: People felt they had lost control of something valuable and wanted it back. Moreover, they were willing, if the need arose, to fight for it. Others suggested the fight had already begun, and were prepared to make that clear if anyone was in doubt.

Now, there are far worse positons to find oneself in than this. People who are passionate about something will sometimes express themselves about it in ways that others find unpleasant, antagonistic, or at least irritating. If you can get past that, though, something positive can happen.

When we got together last night about 50 team leaders assembled to tell us what was on their minds. Some had been building up a head of steam for awhile, others wondered what hit them, and still others simply ducked until the fur stopped flying. In the end, the sideshow issues about ID cards, t-shirts, advanced training opportunities, and other administrivia were pushed aside and people agreed that three things were important above all else:

  • The program is about preparedness not volunteerism.
  • Our volunteers play a vital role in communicating with our community about risk, readiness, and resilience.
  • And we need to show our volunteers that we value them by communicating consistently about issues of importance.

It will take a lot more than saying these things to make them happen though.

Our volunteers and staff both recognize that disaster survivors and neighbors are the real first-responders. They know that investments in preparedness pay big dividends when disaster strikes by minimizing demands on emergency services and expediting the transition to recovery. They understand implicitly that what we can do together makes a bigger difference than what we do alone, and they actively engage others in an ever expanding web of relationships that fosters resilience.

But they are also torn by what they must do. Our small agency has 15 full-time staff, but only one works directly with these volunteers. And even that position has responsibilities beyond training and supporting the NET volunteers. Ensuring the effectiveness of this program requires substantial investments in relationships with agencies and community partners who support the training our volunteers receive.

Volunteers too have competing demands on their time and attentions. Some would become full-time volunteers if we asked them. Others only want to get involved when the need is urgent. Most will do what they can when they can, often with a smile. But none of them will do any of this for long unless someone at least acknowledges what they are doing and encourages them to keep it up.

We know our NET program works. We can tell anytime our volunteers get together just by the passion they display and the skills they exhibit. But this program still receives less support than almost any other program we deliver. Aside from the funds allocated to developing the training materials themselves and running a few exercises, the cost of delivering the NET training and managing the teams receives no ongoing grant support. Investments made with grant funds in other projects may help leverage the support of our partners in the fire department and other agencies by freeing their resources to support our needs, but these scarce funds are drying up as the fiscal crisis persists. Besides, their support does translate into assistance with the day-to-day operation of the program.

So, what does this say about our priorities? I can only answer this question by looking at the gap between our assumptions and our expectations. Judging by that, we as a larger community of emergency management and homeland security professionals and policy-makers have assumed for far too long that volunteer means free. This can be taken one or both of two ways: 1) free as in without cost and 2) without responsibility or accountability. As it turns out, neither assumption is correct.

The opportunity cost of ignoring volunteers in exchange for making investments in hardware and software rears its ugly head sooner or later. Eventually, disgruntled if not disorganized volunteers will, as ours did Monday night, remind you that the liveware — the people and relationships that make up a community — are assets to be invested in not just protected or neglected.

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