An Approach to Managing Post-Disaster Volunteers

ARTICLE | Jan 24, 2014

In the course of conducting after-action reports following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) noticed a common theme: unprecedented numbers of spontaneous volunteers, most of whom were not affiliated with an established volunteer agency, streamed into disaster-stricken areas.1

The abrupt, often unanticipated, presence of such volunteers caused complex management, control, and logistical challenges for professional emergency responders and public managers. Although a significant number of volunteers who converge on disaster scenes come from outside an area, region, or state, this selection is primarily concerned with volunteers who live in close proximity to a disaster-affected area.

When a local government is operating in normal mode, it’s not unusual for it to experience a shortage of people willing to volunteer their time, even if the local government makes a concerted effort to encourage volunteers. This shortage is not the case, however, once disaster strikes.

A Mixed Blessing

Once disaster strikes, volunteers will most probably appear whether you encourage them or not and in larger numbers than anticipated. Internationally recognized trainer, researcher, and consultant Jayne Cravens recommends that managers should presume that most volunteers who spontaneously appear will be unfamiliar with the concepts of situation assessments, incident management, and chain of command.2

Familiarity with these three fundamental concepts on the part of volunteers is essential in disaster situations to prevent their presence from exacerbating rather than ameliorating the challenges at hand. This is not to suggest that volunteers should be summarily escorted from the scene (although some just may merit eviction) merely because they are unaffiliated with an established relief agency.

In fact, as noted by FEMA, the presence of volunteers has been shown to have a positive impact on the morale of disaster victims by reducing feelings of hopelessness and isolation.3 Further, volunteers who possess knowledge gained by working and living close to a disaster-affected area are invaluable to recovery efforts due to their ability to augment emergency staff by applying basic skills and assisting with support activities. This allows responders to focus their efforts on specialized work.

Author Lauren Fernandez, who recommends the implementation of a “systems-based approach” to planning for spontaneous volunteer management in disasters,” notes that volunteers, especially those who come from the immediate area, possess valuable insight in regard to local needs, and that such volunteers can prove to be an economical source of talented and skilled labor.4 Still, an influx of large numbers of people into a disaster-stricken area can be unnerving for emergency personnel in the throes of attempting to establish some semblance of order.

As noted by authors K. J. Tierney, M. K. Lindell, and R. W. Perry in their comprehensive work Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States,5 a considerable number of public managers, when confronted by large numbers of unanticipated volunteers, quickly found themselves pondering such questions as:

  • “How many will come and when?
  • Will any of them have the skills we really need?
  • What happens if somebody gets hurt?
  • Where will they stay?
  • Who will feed them and how?
  • How will they know where to go and what to do?
  • Will they be self-equipped/supporting?
  • Who will manage and supervise them?”

Janette Nagy, a contributing author to the website “The Community Tool Box,” a public service of the University of Kansas, suggests that these questions can be answered by hiring a volunteer coordinator whose position includes these responsibilities:6

  • Recruiting volunteers
  • Communicating with different departments and program coordinators to find out what needs to be done and how much volunteer time is needed to do it
  • Educating staff on the roles and responsibilities of volunteers
  • Interviewing and screening potential volunteers
  • Taking charge of volunteer orientation and training
  • Conveying volunteer opinions and ideas to local government staff members, and facilitating collaboration between volunteers and paid staff.

A Whole Community Approach

While all of these suggestions have merit, managers operating in disaster mode often do not have the luxury of time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of well-meaning people who enter disaster areas intent on being useful to the professionals in their midst. Such managers often find themselves performing a sort of sidewalk triage in an effort to determine what skills people possess and where those skills can best be put to use within the recovery matrix.

In order to minimize the stress associated with managing volunteers of the type described here, FEMA suggests that managers take a “whole community approach” to emergency management.7 This approach calls on public sector managers to recognize the importance of ensuring that community volunteers are assimilated into recovery plans and operations before disaster strikes.

This can best be accomplished by crafting disaster response plans that:

  • Understand and meet the actual needs of the whole community. Community engagement can lead to a deeper understanding of the unique and diverse needs of a population, including its demographics, values, norms, community structures, networks, and relationships.
  • Engage and empower all parts of the community. Engaging the whole community and empowering local action will better position stakeholders to plan for and meet the actual needs of a community and strengthen the local capacity to deal with the consequences of all threats and hazards. This requires all members of the community to be part of the emergency management team.
  • Incorporate emergency planning discussions into the existing format of community meetings. Multipurpose meetings help increase participation, especially in communities where residents must travel long distances to attend such meetings.
  • Develop recovery plans with full participation by and in partnership with the entire community.
  • Use the power of social media Social media represent a quick and easy way ato disseminate messages, create two-way information exchanges, and understand and follow up on communication that is already happening in the community.

If there is one positive aspect to a disaster, it is that such tragedies have a way of instilling in volunteers a sense of community, as well as identification with and empathy for disaster victims. By providing its residents with meaningful and constructive opportunities to assist professional responders with preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disaster, the local government can go a long way in creating and nurturing the most vital of community partnerships.


1 Federal Emergency Management Agency. Developing and Managing Volunteers (2010). FEMA information. Retrieved from
2 Cravens, Jayne (2010). Volunteering to Help after Major Disasters (earthquake, hurricane, tornado, tropical storm, flood, tsunami, oil spill, zombies, etc.). Jayne Cravens & Coyote Communications. Retrieved from
3 Federal Emergency Management Agency. A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Assistance. (2010). FEMA information. Retrieved from
4 Fernandez, L (2007). Volunteer Management System Design and Analysis for Disaster Response and Recovery (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (Accession Order No. AAT 3297450).
5 Tierney, K. J., Lindell, M. K., and Perry, R. W. (2001). Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press.
6 Nagy, Janette (2013). Developing a Plan for Involving Volunteers, published on behalf of the Community Tool Box, a service of the Work Group for Community Health and Development, University of Kansas. Retrieved from
7 Federal Emergency Management Agency. A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes, and Pathways for Action (2011). FEMA information. Retrieved from


Adapted from Joseph Jarret, “How to Guide Volunteer Chaos,” in the September 2013 issue of PM Magazine, published by ICMA. Mr. Jarret, an attorney, lectures on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program, Department of Political Science, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee (

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