Lessons in Emergency Volunteer Management from the Wildfires in California

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By Mary Lynn Perry, Volunteer Engagement Specialist, City of Sacramento, California

In the United States there is a system of mutual aid that allows for cities and counties affected by disasters to request assistance from others in the same state and region. In many cases the call-out will be for first responders such as fire fighters and police officers. But mutual assistance can be requested in other areas as well. I have trained to support an Emergency Volunteer Center (EVC) in times of disaster and so was requested to come to Chico and support the agency tasked with recruiting, interviewing, vetting and placing volunteers for a variety of needs during the recent Camp Fire incident in Paradise, California.

The wildfire, as you likely know, consumed an entire town along with portions of several others. As the fire raged and sky blackened the staff at the Emergency Volunteer Center struggled to deal with the volunteer needs requested by the county’s Office of Emergency Services, the onslaught of media attention directing even more people through their doors, and their own personal loss of homes, property and lives.

The fire is only recently contained and there are over 13,000 homes burned with more than 50,000 people evacuated. The need to re-house the population along with their pets and farm animals will take time – most likely years. In reality, almost no town or city can truly be ready for such a fast-moving scenario, but I think there are a variety of take-aways from this experience that could help for planning purposes.

First, there was no viable volunteer center in Paradise or the nearby cities, so there was no obvious central point of contact for volunteers. Caring Choices was the agency selected by the County’s Office of Emergency Services to serve as the EVC and that made sense assuming, I believe, that the primary need would be for medical personnel. Caring Choices is not a volunteer center but is in the business normally of providing home health care workers in 23 counties. They have the expertise and systems set up to vet medical personnel at the granular level and verify not only their credentials/licenses, but to background them as to fitness for duty. That process is laborious and while effective, it is also slow. They are used to having a few people at a time to vet for their normal operations. In this case they had hundreds of people clamoring to help now. And by day 10 of the incident, they had over 6,000 applications.

Second, the lack of technology to manage and communicate with volunteers added to the chaos at the Emergency Volunteer Center (EVC). They had no volunteer management system that could be deployed online. Therefore, they had to rely on a PDF form posted on the web page that had to be printed out. On day 1 of the incident, the County officially sent out a message that interested volunteers needed to come to the Emergency Volunteer Center/Caring Choices or call their main line to help. This quickly overwhelmed all their systems and in one day they had over 500 phone calls that had rolled to their voicemail system. The EVC managed to get a fillable form up on the web page with additional documents needed by Sunday, (day 4 of the incident), but it still needed to be printed out as there was no database system that it could feed into. This resulted in over 1,500 paper volunteer applications sorted into stacks on a conference table as of Monday – day 5. There was no effective way to search for applicants with specific qualifications. For instance, if you needed a doctor who spoke Russian, you’d have to go through the pile of applications from doctors to try and find one. Since there was no online volunteer database that people could feed their applications into, there was also no way to sort or search the applicants or to communicate with them as a group electronically. There was no system in place to send out a blast email to everyone who applied giving them instructions for instance. It all had to be done individually. On my second tour of duty at the Emergency Volunteer Center, staff had managed to get a fillable form up on their web page which linked to a Google spreadsheet and allowed for some types of searches of the information.

Part of my task working with them during the second week of the incident was helping them to move their scheduling system online. Once they had cleared a volunteer to work, the scheduling was being done by volunteers who called each person to set up their placement. We helped create a process for cleared volunteers to schedule themselves online. One hiccup in that process we learned about as we were leaving was that the emails of the volunteers had not been set up to transfer to the Google spreadsheets, so a mass email wasn’t possible. A volunteer was assigned the task of entering thousands of those so the EVC staff could contact the cleared volunteers and give instructions on how to use the online scheduling system. In a meeting when I was explaining the capability of the system from a users’ point of view, the lightbulb finally went on in the director’s mind and I realized she had not been using this type of technology and couldn’t grasp how it would simplify their process. My colleague and I had offered to set up the whole recruitment and scheduling online system on day 3 of the incident, but the director couldn’t get past the way she had always done things. Which was on paper. And that process was too slow and inadequate to the task at hand.

Third, messaging and communications were not strong from the County Office of Emergency Services or from the County in general. The initial public message to have everyone just show up or call who wanted to volunteer was difficult to countermand as the mainstream media also picked it up and amplified it. The Sacramento Bee, the newspaper of record in the region, on Friday night (day 2 of the incident) posted that message in their social media and on Saturday (day 3 of the incident) they published it in their print version of the newspaper telling everyone to descend on the Emergency Volunteer Center/Caring Choices’s tiny office. Part of my and my colleague’s efforts over the first few days of the incident was working with the EVC/Caring Choices public information officer to alter that messaging and figuring out ways that people could complete their application without having to physically come to the office. The Sacramento Bee newspaper revised their volunteer message as of Tuesday morning (day 5 of the incident) in their printed publication. By then thousands of people had come in, applied and called to volunteer.

Fourth, connections with the County Office of Emergency Services seemed tenuous at best. One of my questions to the Emergency Volunteer Center/Caring Choices Public Information Officer was whether or not they were aware in the Logistics branch at the County’s Emergency Operations Center that the Emergency Volunteer Center/Caring Choices had volunteers who could be deployed where needed and had resource lists of donations and services and equipment that people were offering (such as horse trailers, heavy equipment operators, trucks and truck drivers). There appeared to be little to no communication or awareness of resources being gathered in one place and the needs in another. The EVC/Caring Choices Public Information Officer then contacted her counterpart at the County Office of Emergency Services, but they were unable to have a discussion as both were in transition at the end of the day. I suggested getting the email of the Logistics branch chief and/or their designee and emailing once a day any resources that had been added to the list so the staff in the County Office of Emergency Services could contact them if needed.

Fifth, staff at the EVC/Caring Choices were dealing with their own problems. Six staff members had lost their homes in the fire and everyone there was tired and stressed. Add to that the fact that they had all been living with air quality that was at the “hazardous level” and many were fighting headaches and fatigue. Their ability to continue at that pace was difficult.

Sixth, one of my tasks in my second tour of duty on days 11 and 12 of the incident was to visit some of the locations where volunteers were being sent, provide forms, information and check to see what was happening on the ground. In every case, we noted that there was no consistency with staffing. Volunteers were being handed jobs to do with little or no direction and constantly changing instructions. Plus the volunteers who were in charge, changed multiple times a day. This created a chaotic environment where communication was very difficult. Plus in most cases sites were being set up for evacuees and their pets at locations that didn’t have basic office infrastructure in place for the agency running things. You had to rely on reaching the volunteer in charge at that point on their cell phones.

From this experience I gave the follow recommendations to our leadership staff:

  • Have messaging ready to go for media, social media and web site providing direction to those wanting to help.
  • Decide early to use an online volunteer management system – and have it prepped with appropriate volunteer application materials and position descriptions. More can be added as the event evolves. There are some standard ones available.
  • Maintain close contact with the Emergency Operations Center in command over the incident as the volunteer resources are developed and needs are identified. Communication needs to be 2-way.
  • Open a physical location (Emergency Volunteer Center) as needed to interview and process those volunteers you will need to place, but don’t completely process everyone who shows up. Rely on registering volunteers online to give staff space to determine the actual needs.”

Mary Lynn Perry visited us here in Edinburgh (2018) and has since: contributed an article on Social Media and Recruitment for VolunteerWiki, and facilitated a special Evolve Session entitled 'Reflections from the US' in January 2019.

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