As communities begin to prepare for a surge in COVID-19 cases, state and local governments are beginning to put out a call for volunteers. Emergency situations such as the coronavirus can evoke feelings of community, civic obligation, and goodwill that increase the desire of community members to volunteer in response to recovery efforts. Properly managed emergency response volunteers can be an asset in an emergency situation, but can also increase demands on local government managers. 

Planning for a surge in resident goodwill is an important component of any emergency management plan. Volunteers can be used not only to assist in efforts related to the coronavirus, but excess volunteers may also be used to perform tasks that increase government capacity for responding to future emergencies.

Local government managers can make effective use of the increased capacity generated by disaster response volunteers by considering the following recommendations for emergency response management. 

Launch a volunteer resource hub on your organization’s website.

If your community is in need of volunteers, developing a volunteer hub makes it easy for residents to find volunteer opportunities at local organizations and connect to them directly. Some websites offer the ability to search by date, location, interest, or browse by the latest featured opportunities.

Great examples of volunteer resource hubs include:

Be prepared for an influx of helpers. 

In emergency situations, people volunteer whether or not they are regularly active in the community, and sometimes come from outside the community specifically to serve during an emergency situation. If residents are hearing about a disaster or emergency in local media, you can expect volunteers to start showing up.

Have a volunteer recruitment plan.

Identify the situations in which volunteers would legitimately improve the response effort and skills, tools, goods, or services that would be useful. Consider both immediate increases in capacity and longer-term increases in capacity that would be served by surges in goodwill. Emergency media plans should include scripts for instructing potential volunteers about what they should do, what they should bring or wear, and where they should go. Including potential volunteers in emergency communications can help make public response both more predictable and useful.

If you are in need of a volunteer engagement response plan for COVID-19, download this guide from VQ Volunteer Strategies, who adapted it from a plan they worked on with the city of Fort Collins, Colorado.

Sort volunteers based on skill and ability.

Skill sets include not only certifications such as first responder training; medical, psychology, or social work training; and search and rescue training, but also commercial driving licenses and other abilities that are of immediate use in recovery and response. Be prepared with lists of skills that may be useful in each of a variety of emergency situations. Many volunteers self-identify skills they believe will be useful in the response effort and come prepared to share their skill. Still others may have skills they do not recognize as useful and will need to be recruited.

Accommodate your volunteers with supplies.

Organizations in need of volunteers to provide critical services such as meal delivery, picking up basic needs, etc., for vulnerable residents will need supplies to ensure the safety and well-being of not only the resident in need but also the volunteer.  If possible, provide your volunteers with gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer to decrease the spread of coronavirus as they are on the go.

Have a volunteer training plan.

Many of the volunteers who respond in emergency situations are first-time and/or untrained volunteers. Being prepared with a straightforward emergency volunteer training plan for common emergency situations can improve the effectiveness for volunteers. Training plans should include information about the chain of command, instructions about what behaviors to avoid, and simple instructions about the activity they are to carry out.

Acknowledge the desire to serve.

In some cases, the most helpful thing potential volunteers can do is stay home. This does not stop people from feeling that they “should be doing more” or decrease the desire to help others. This surge in goodwill should be acknowledged and put to use. Draw on the community’s desire to help when giving them instructions, making it clear that by following your directions (i.e., social distancing), they are serving their fellow residents and helping with the recovery effort.

Consider diversity issues in planning for recruitment of volunteers.

Language abilities, cultural fluency, and even skin color can affect the responses of coronavirus victims to the instructions of professional or volunteer emergency response workers. Make a focused effort to connect with civic organizations (churches, community centers, social clubs, nonprofit organizations) that have access to volunteers or participants who can be called upon to improve the diversity and cultural sensitivity of recovery efforts.

The willingness and ability of people to serve one another in times of crisis is one of the great strengths of our communities. Harnessing the enormous goodwill and generosity of our residents can provide not only a temporary increase in capacity to government and nonprofit agencies in times of greatest need, but can also provide valuable long-term capacities that would otherwise remain undeveloped.

If volunteering is not an option, ask for donations instead.

If residents in your community are too high-risk to volunteer, encourage them to donate and to help with fundraising for the community. By fundraising for coronavirus relief efforts, or donating to a coronavirus relief fund, residents can provide much-needed support and aid. Be sure to emphasize in your communications how funding will be dispersed and who will be assisted.

Other volunteerism examples:
  • Beach Cities Health District launched a kindness card initiative for neighbors to share how they can assist one another during COVID-19:

  • A Louisville, Kentucky woman created an online program to match volunteers with city's at-risk residents.

  • With ventinlators and personal protection equipment in high demand, social media sharing and 3D printers are up to the task. A forum of 62,000+ members on Facebook called, Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies, shares pattern files, ideas, feedback, and innovative solutions to combat COVID-19 and to support the healthcare community. 

For additional information, visit ICMA’s Coronavirus Resource page.

Originally published as “Planning for Emergency Response Volunteers,” in PA Times 32, no. 6 (June/July 2009). Published by the American Society for Public Administration, Washington, D.C. Reprinted with permission of the publisher for the ICMA publication: Homeland Security: Best Practices for Local Government, Second Edition.

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