Organizing Volunteers for Orderly Response to Disaster

In March, a session was held on the management of
In March, a session was held on the management of "spontaneous volunteers," those with no training who arrive on the scene of an emergency. Volunteer Fairfax, with five other organizations, has started a volunteer training effort. (By Cori Bassett)
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006

An effort to organize volunteers to respond to county emergencies -- including hurricanes, terrorist attacks and major fires -- has been launched by Volunteer Fairfax and five other volunteer programs.

It aims to eliminate chaotic incidents that can occur after an attack, such as those after Sept. 11, 2001, when volunteers showed up at the Pentagon.

Instead of helping, the residents often added to the confusion. Some also overwhelmed charities with offers of assistance and donations of materials and clothing that were not needed.

"It made us realize that there were some decent lessons and some good lessons for communities. . . . For instance, we need to be prepared regardless" of what the disaster is, said Jeanne Sanders, executive director of Volunteer Fairfax.

Volunteer Fairfax, a private nonprofit organization, and five county-run programs -- the Community Emergency Response Team, Neighborhood Watch, Volunteers in Police Service, the Fire Corps and the Medical Reserve Corps -- are recruiting residents for emergency training. Volunteers will learn to provide first aid, fight fires, staff phone banks and run volunteer mobilization centers.

The program is part of a local and national effort to better organize grass-roots responses to emergencies and to better prepare nonprofit organizations.

Last month, the Points of Light Foundation and the Volunteer Center National Network launched, a Web site that allows volunteers to sign up and indicate their skills and availability. The American Red Cross has also begun a vigorous recruitment drive to sign up and train thousands of volunteers for the hurricane season.

Although those efforts are focused on "pre-affiliating" potential volunteers -- training them for specific tasks before disaster strikes -- efforts are also being made to find ways to handle "spontaneous" volunteers, those with no training who arrive on the scene of an emergency.

Spontaneous volunteers are often needed in the days and weeks after an attack, emergency managers say, but they can clog responses in the immediate aftermath. After the Pentagon attack, officers and firefighters were diverted from rescue work to deal with spontaneous arrivals, Sanders said.

In March, the Greater Washington Metro Coalition of Volunteer Centers sponsored a conference on how to organize such people. Nonprofit agencies and emergency management officials were urged to set up registration tables at emergency sites to sign up volunteers and direct them. Web sites maintained by volunteer centers are being set up to register those who want to help and to refer them to the nonprofit groups that need the most assistance.

"Who knows what is going to happen?" Sanders said. "Our message is to prepare your family . . . and then think about how to assist your community."

Volunteer Fairfax also offers a workshop for nonprofit organizations on how to operate after a major disaster, such as a hurricane or terrorist attack, or a smaller emergency, such as a burst water pipe, Sanders said.

"They can't afford to shut down for days on end," she said. "They have clients they have to serve. They have to be prepared to get [back] up and going."

For more information, go tohttp://VolunteerFairfax.organd click on the "emergency response" tab, or call Volunteer Fairfax at 703-243-3460.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company