FEW WANT TO THINK ABOUT DISASTER EFFECTS AND RESPONSE, but a failure to plan for disasters increases loss of life. In the aftermath of disaster, the best of humanity shines. People look beyond race, religion and beliefs, and lending a helping hand provides both satisfaction and relief to those in disaster-affected areas.
When disaster strikes, people want to help, but they may not know how to get started. What areas need the most help, and how do people know if their help is truly needed? Will they be in the way of response professionals, such as emergency medical services (EMS) workers, firefighters or other volunteer organizations?
Every disaster can benefit from the help of volunteers, and when volunteers are needed, it is because those trained to respond to disasters lack the workforce to fulfill all the needs of those affected. Instead of just hoping for the best, people who want to help can make themselves deployable by taking a few steps before disaster strikes.
Know the Facts
Before jumping into disaster response in any part of the world, volunteers must be ready and informed, explains Ready.Gov. Volunteers should be aware of what type of disasters may affect their area, such as wildfires, storms, earthquakes, cyber security threats, bioterrorism and chemical emergencies, landslides, active shooters and more.
Due to the differences in disaster and response plans, a volunteer must not simply jump into action. This compromises the safety of those affected by the disaster, as well as the safety of volunteers and trained response professionals.
Planning ahead is the second step to disaster preparedness. Volunteers should have a plan for their personal response to a disaster, including the creation of an emergency response plan for use individually as well as by their family. After completing the steps necessary in creating a personal emergency preparedness plan, volunteers can begin the work required to become a disaster response volunteer.
Find Groups That Need Volunteers
“It’s important to let people help,” says Dr. Caroline Hackerott, a disaster researcher and Assistant Professor at Arkansas Tech University’s Emergency Management Department. Dr. Hackerott has a keen insight to how disasters can impact a community, having researched social disruption to people’s’ lives and their communities after local disasters. “People in the disaster affected community know what their community needs are the most.” Individuals who want to volunteer for disaster relief should have a rudimentary understanding of how they want to help. Occupational helping volunteers figure out how their help may be best utilized.
For example, individuals with a background in healthcare may be more suited for certain types of disaster relief, and those with experience in supply chain activities, including management of supplies, may help distribute meals and supplies to those. Dr. Hackerott cites the important roles these non-medical volunteers play in a community’s disaster response and recovery. “Other roles like IT and electrical work are really important. You need people to help pass out blankets at shelters. People to help sort through the garbage bag of clothes that are donated after disasters. Chaplains and faith based volunteers. Accountants can help people fill out forms and paperwork, especially those people who have never taken out a loan or may not know how to exactly navigate the financial system. Even volunteers to help walk the streets afterward providing comfort to the families sifting through the rubble that was their home, sifting for the pieces of their lives that were lost.”
If you are unsure about what organization can best benefit from your personal and occupational skills, consider working with one of the following organizations that can help connect volunteers with disaster needs.
Medical Reserve Corps
The Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) is a partner program under the Citizen Corps and uses volunteers who have an occupational history in medical and public health professions, as well as those without any formal medical training. MRC engage volunteers through programs designed to strengthen public health and improve emergency response capabilities, especially among emergencies that adversely affect public health, such as disease outbreaks. MRC is not limited to major disasters either.
The organization helps first responders stay healthy and well-nourished when responding to disasters, adjust the needs of overwhelmed medical facilities, manage logistics of disaster support, help those with heart health needs locate and obtain medications, reduce the impact of obesity and even help our four-legged friends find temporary and permanent homes in disaster-affected regions. More simply, MRC focuses on the health care related to need of anyone or anything affected by a disaster.
The healthcare needs of a community after a disaster are many and require a wide range of clinical support. “Orthopedic doctors, nurses, eye doctors. What about retired physicians?” suggests Dr. Hackerott. “Is there a medical school in the community with students? Pharmacists to help those with medication needs.”
Volunteering at MRC is a simple as searching for an address, landmark or disaster-affected region online. Upon entering the first few letters of the location, a map appears with the location of the appropriate MRC unit, as well as its contact information.
MRC also encourages those seeking volunteer opportunities to attend training programs to help streamline disaster response and teach the skills necessary for better operations. As explained by Stephen Noriega, Orange County Medical Reserve Corps Coordinator, “Disaster volunteers are our neighbors; they’re our friends, our wives, husbands, doctors and bank tellers. Disaster volunteers are everyday people we see all around us every day. When disaster volunteers are called upon, it is because the professionals who respond to events for a living need their help. With that, we must provide our volunteers with the tools necessary to aid those in need. Those tools begin with training. First responders understand that muscle memory and training is what is relied upon when placed in positions of high stress.”
Citizen Corps was created in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the organization was designed to capture the spirit of service and commitment to help your fellow man in the aftermath of that tragic day. The Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coordinates national efforts by the city, and today, more than 1200 County, local and tribal citizen Corps councils exist.
Like the MRC, the citizen Corps connects volunteers from both healthcare and non-healthcare fields with disaster response efforts, but this organization leverages local, regional and nationwide organizations’ resources to manage disaster response more effectively, wherever disaster strikes. However, the citizen Corps focuses primarily on disaster response needs that do not have a medical focus.
Individuals seeking to volunteer with the Citizen Corps should visit the Citizen Corps Ready.Gov webpage, on the link entitled “Find Your Nearest Citizen Corps Council.” Due to the timing of this publication, the search page, as well as the primary Citizen Corps website, is undergoing annual maintenance and updating. However, the updated registry and search site is expected to be complete by the end of January 2018. In the interim, volunteers are encouraged to visit Ready.gov.
Fire Corps is similar to both MRC and the Citizen Corps, but it focuses on addressing the limited resources of fire and rescue departments across the country. Created in 2004, the Fire Corps is managed by the National Volunteer Fire Council and helps volunteers assist with non-emergency tasks. Fire Corps provides extensive training on how individuals can perform non-emergency tasks and roles, including meal preparation for those affected and teaching others about fire safety.
By helping individual volunteers prepare for fire disasters, it alleviates the burden on firefighters and fire rescue teams. Thus, professionals can focus on emergency response, and volunteers can spread community awareness. Volunteers can find a Fire Corps program online as well. Fire Corps also works in tandem with Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), but individuals looking to join a CERT must complete additional training requirements in advance.
Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS)
VIPS publishes a directory of local points of contact for each police department in the U.S. Those interested in volunteering for VIPS should use “Ctrl F” to search for their town or city, and reach out to local officials for more information about local volunteer opportunities for VIPS. VIPS functions in a similar capacity to Fire Corps, focusing on the role volunteers in aiding police departments to help communities prepare and respond to disasters.
The National Neighborhood Watch Program
Previously known as USAonWatch, the National Neighborhood Watch Program operates within the national sheriffs’ Association seeking to reduce crime and improve local communities. This program has expanded since the September 11, 2001 attacks, but it has roots 1972. Like the primary Citizen Corps portal, the National Neighborhood Watch Portal is currently undergoing annual maintenance and updating. While a timeline for completion of maintenance has not been released, it is easiest to check the site for updates. Upon completion of annual maintenance, volunteers will have the ability to “Register a Watch” online.
Before starting a watch, it is best to create an account online, completing the “Register a Watch” process. Registration grants access to publications, meeting guidelines and other free resources a law agency, including local Neighborhood Watches, may use to improve safety and reduce crime.
The Corporation for National and Community Service and Other Local Groups
Those who want to make a difference and help with disaster response should consider contacting the Corporation for National and Community Service. Although technically a division of Citizen Corps, the Corporation for National and Community Service, managed by the Department of Homeland Security, helps spread information and relevant educational materials to various organizations throughout the country. This organization also manages AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and the Volunteer Generation Fund, accessible online.
Although multiple nationwide organizations exist to help volunteers become involved and help in times of disaster, ready.gov is not an exclusive list. Local groups, religious organization, businesses and other organizations may operate volunteer program that may be deployed at a moment’s notice. In addition to considering the aforementioned opportunities, check with local community leaders and social media to review other available volunteer opportunities.
Prepare for Volunteer Opportunities
Selecting an organization for your volunteer goals is only half the battle. To continue the process of making yourself deployable, take the following steps:
- Get Your CPR and First Aid Certification. Obtaining your CPR, AED and first aid certification is a great way to show volunteer organizations that you have taken the time necessary to be prepared for disaster response. In addition, obtaining the certifications is easy and available online, so it can be completed at your convenience.
- Complete Training for Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT). Volunteers looking to join a CERT team will need to complete a series of training programs, the CERT Basic Course, which focuses on Disaster Preparedness, Fire Suppression, Medical Operations Part One, Medical Operations Part Two, Light Search and Rescue Operations, Psychology and Team Organization, and a Course Review and Disaster Simulation. Search trading materials are available online, but those seeking certification must complete classroom training, offered by a local government agency, such as the emergency management agency, police department or fire department.
According to Noriega, the importance of training cannot be overstated: “Training is a fundamental and the building block of a successful outcome. Disaster volunteers are only as useful as what they have been trained to do. By providing adequate training, one can be assured that those who are successfully trained, can successfully respond. Some of this, like CPR & First Aid and National Incident Management System (NIMS) basics, volunteers can do independently and before the disaster strikes. We not only owe it to our volunteers, but we owe it to the community we serve, to provide them the skills and tools to keep our community safe.”
- Prepare a Disaster Safety Kit. Having the right training is key to becoming a deployable volunteer, but you should also have your supplies ready to go. This includes preparing a disaster safety kit, as well as packing clothing that will keep you safe and protected in different environments.
- Tell Your Family and Friends About Your Volunteer Goals and Plans. This final step is the most important; anyone who wants to become a volunteer for disaster response should not keep it a secret. Volunteers should tell friends, family members and others about their plans for disaster preparedness and response. If a disaster strikes, explaining your plans and goals will help put others’ minds at ease, so local resources are not strained looking for a missing person who may be deployed in disaster-affected areas.
The scale of a disaster unfolds once the storm ends, when the ground returns to a state of calm, when the fires are extinguished and when the people realize they have made it away with their very lives. A disaster can last a few, fleeting moments, weeks or even months, much like the ongoing struggle in Puerto Rico. Volunteers have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those affected by disasters by making themselves deployable through preparation and training.
Use the aforementioned resources to find a program in need today, and make your disaster volunteer “resume” stand out with CPR, AED and First Aid certifications. Sign up for an online CPR, AED and First Aid certification course today. Knowing what to do in a disaster can, does and will help you save lives.
I like how you said that disaster volunteers should have a plan for what they’ll be doing so they don’t get in the way of the professionals. I would love to be apart of a disaster volunteer group. I think it is very noble of these people to risk their lives for others but I agree that they should always plan for what they’ll be doing before they actually help out.
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