Should you use volunteers in your emergency plan?

Volunteers can provide tremendous amounts of help and countless labor hours, but during an emergency volunteers may be viewed as a burden.  Changing your point of view can transform volunteers from a burden to valuable horsepower.

How to transform your volunteers

One of the biggest reasons we turn away volunteers is due to the issue of training.  We typically don’t see volunteers until the disaster occurs.  The stress of the disaster, especially if you are not prepared, can make the task of taking on volunteers seem impossible.  So, what can you do to make sure that when volunteers show up on your doorstep, that you can put their horsepower to effective and efficient use?

  • Revise your plan to include volunteer jobs
  • Prepare volunteer job descriptions
  • Prepare volunteer training
  • Put someone in charge of coordinating volunteer activities
  • Start communicating the need for volunteers during emergencies
  • Pr-register volunteers that want to volunteer during emergencies
  •  Check with your insurance carrier to ensure volunteers are covered
  •  Check with your Disaster Service Council to see if volunteers will be covered under DSW provisions

Revising the Plan

The first step in taking full advantage of volunteers is to make sure that they are included in your Emergency Operations Plan.  Build their duties, responsibilities, capabilities and training into your plan.  Having a written program to deal with volunteers will ensure that everyone knows where your organization stands on the issue of volunteers.

Prepare the Job Descriptions

The biggest problem here is that once you say you are going to welcome volunteers, is that you don’t know what they are supposed to do nor do you know how they are supposed to do it..  Create a job description that you can hand to the volunteer when they show up on the scene.

Prepare the training

Get your training together – the handouts, the content, what you need to show them and what you need to say.  Imagine telling someone they need to buck and limb the fallen trees, handing them a chainsaw and letting them run with it.  You might find that you have bigger problems on your hands after that.

Establish a Coordinator

Nothing looks worse and runs poorer than not having a leader.  Establish the title, establish the leader and give them the authority to do what is necessary.  Make sure to provide a backup coordinator.

Marketing, Marketing, Marketing

Getting the word out prior to the disaster is much better than begging for volunteers after it hits.  Remember, you are going to be competing with hundreds of organizations that need volunteers.  People love dogs and will gladly help out at the local shelter.  Competing against that emotional draw can be daunting – start tugging at the their heart strings well before the event.


Having a list of pre-approved volunteers help you speed up the process.  Imagine what this looks like.  Mass chaos, 25 volunteers show up on your door. Hi John, hi Jake, hi Mary – you know what to do and thanks for being here.  Take the flip-side – can we trust this person with the kids?  Do we know what their capabilities are?

Make sure you are covered

Waiting til after the fact to find out that you are bare on insurance coverage will certainly create bigger headaches than you ever imagined.  Take the time to make that 3 minute phone call to make sure you have coverage.  Get it in writing if you can.  Most JPA’s and insurance carriers will add volunteers to the coverage, and if they don’t then you can make sure that you take other risk management measure to avoid this potentially costly liability.