At the 2018 annual Clean Pacific conference in Portland, OR, we attended a session on volunteer planning in oil spill response. The presentation focused on the different types of volunteers that can emerge during an oil spill (affiliated, spontaneous and micro), and how they can be integrated into response planning. The Clean Pacific conference is focused on oil spill response and prevention, but volunteers can be engaged in any type of emergency response—floods, wildfires, earthquakes and acts of terror included.

Of all the volunteers, it’s been our experience that the inclusion of spontaneous volunteers necessitates the most robust planning process. This is because spontaneous volunteers often converge at the scene of the incident, eager and ready to help, regardless of whether their support has been requested. Typically, they haven’t been previously affiliated, prepared or trained by the specific organizations or entities they are supporting, which adds another layer of complexity to integrating their skills and services into an operation.

Affiliated volunteers are different— they’re community members who are already trained and associated with a relevant volunteer organization participating in an emergency response, and can be more seamlessly engaged in the response. They’re also different than micro-volunteers—individuals volunteering to perform tasks in small, unpaid increments of time. Micro-volunteers are often not required to go through an application process, screening process or a training period, which makes their inclusion even more straightforward.

Clearly, each volunteer type will require a different management approach, and all can be equally important in a response. So, how do you go about preparing your organization for a surge of volunteer activism, should a disaster strike your business or community?

1. Familiarize yourself with the volunteer standards and regulations in your area and/or country. These standards exist to keep both your volunteers and your business safe and are a great resource when creating the framework of your plan.

2. Make a plan. Yup, this is the hard part. Some questions to consider include:

  • Which types of volunteers will you need, which positions will they fill and how many can you manage at one time? Do you have the resources to manage them or would you need to hire outside consultants? Where and how would you train them?
  • Does the local government have any volunteer programs, and could you work with them? Does your insurance cover volunteer inclusion in your operations?
  • What types of equipment would you need to provide to ensure volunteers can fulfil their roles? This could include technology, office supplies and equipment, safety gear, as well as vehicles or other operational equipment.
  • Will volunteers require housing, accommodation, transportation, food and water?

3. Get ahead of the emergency. By developing and testing your plan before an emergency occurs, you’ll equip your team with the knowledge and confidence to efficiently manage volunteers during a response. Preparations could include:

  • Assigning and training volunteer roles within your organization
  • Creating forms and other onboarding materials
  • Identifying and contracting suppliers
  • Testing and updating your volunteer plan in exercises or drills

Time and again, we have seen volunteers emerge to support response and recovery operations during a disaster. This was true in the 2011 Fukushima earthquake in Japan, the 2013 Calgary floods, and the 2016 marine spill in Bella Bella, BC. Every emergency is different, but planning for effective and meaningful volunteer participation in your response operations is essential. Concerned citizens will show up at your door—or worse, your emergency site. Be prepared to welcome them and make use of their skills and willingness to help.