Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 21, 2010

Volunteer Does Not Equal Free

Monday night, I fronted up to a meeting of my community’s Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET) volunteer leaders.  (NET is our local implementation of the Community Emergency Response Team concept promoted by FEMA through Citizen Corps). The session was a stark reminder just how far the local emergency management agenda has strayed from the community’s priorities because of federal grant requirements and the expectations of elected officials that we not only seek such grants but use them whenever possible rather than seeking additional support from general fund revenues.

As the senior civil servant in our emergency management agency, I oversee the NET program but sit a couple of levels above the actual program manager. As such, I have relatively little day-to-day contact with our volunteers, who now number more than 1,000 organized into roughly 30 teams spread across the city.

Each volunteer receives standard training consistent with the federal CERT curriculum delivered by a cadre of full-time emergency responders and seasoned volunteers. After that, each one is issued a fluorescent vest, hard hat, and ID card and send on her way.

Over the 15 or so years the program has been running, teams have largely been left to organize and administer themselves. Team leaders receive little additional training and no formal mentoring. Anyone who receives training is welcome to play or not play according to their individual willingness to do so. No one is excluded from training due to age, physical ability, prior criminal history, or other limitations or associations. As such, our volunteer corps, although quite diverse, is not necessarily representative of all segments of our community, nor organized to instill confidence in those who do not participate.

From the outset, program managers and volunteers alike have assumed that in the event of a serious emergency, such as a major earthquake, the teams would deploy themselves without need of instructions or assignments from a central command authority. Their training would dictate the priorities and rules of engagement as situations warranted: Assess damage, identify and isolate hazards, organize bystanders and others, render assistance when able, communicate conditions and resource requirements to the nearest fire station, and follow the instructions of emergency responders when they arrive.

Until recently, the system managed to get along in spite of itself. But recently, as the community responded to the H1N1 pandemic by establishing community vaccination clinics, it became evident that things were not working as well as some of us had assumed or perhaps simply hoped.

For starters, people were reluctant to step forward. This sort of mission was not what they had in mind when they signed up for training. Others expressed concern that they would be exposed to the disease and might become ill themselves or transmit the illness to someone in their household who was otherwise vulnerable. And still others found it difficult to accommodate the commitment in already busy schedules crowded with other obligations.

All of these explanations seemed reasonable enough and were little cause for concern. What we did not expect was a backlash from some quarters that suggested we were taking advantage of our volunteers to provide free labor for something that the government had not adequately prepared for and which they considered could hardly be called an emergency. Others complained that they were being asked to come to the aid of others besides their neighbors since most clinics were organized in poor communities with inadequate access to health care and a high number of uninsured residents. And still others questioned whether we knew what we were doing at all since no one had prepared them for such responsibilities much less organized them to respond to such situations beforehand.

The latter group of responses not only raised some eyebrows, but also, when contrasted with the first group of responses, suggested a very real gap had emerged between preparations and expectations. A lack of consistent communication between the agency and its volunteers as well as among the volunteers themselves had left people to make up their own explanations for what they saw heppening in the community.

Recently, evidence of this problem took on new urgency as rifts among volunteers and groups surfaced over even more mundane issues. Emails began flying back and forth among team leaders questioning one another’s motives and the city’s support for the program. In all of these communications, one thing became clear: People felt they had lost control of something valuable and wanted it back. Moreover, they were willing, if the need arose, to fight for it. Others suggested the fight had already begun, and were prepared to make that clear if anyone was in doubt.

Now, there are far worse positons to find oneself in than this. People who are passionate about something will sometimes express themselves about it in ways that others find unpleasant, antagonistic, or at least irritating. If you can get past that, though, something positive can happen.

When we got together last night about 50 team leaders assembled to tell us what was on their minds. Some had been building up a head of steam for awhile, others wondered what hit them, and still others simply ducked until the fur stopped flying. In the end, the sideshow issues about ID cards, t-shirts, advanced training opportunities, and other administrivia were pushed aside and people agreed that three things were important above all else:

  • The program is about preparedness not volunteerism.
  • Our volunteers play a vital role in communicating with our community about risk, readiness, and resilience.
  • And we need to show our volunteers that we value them by communicating consistently about issues of importance.

It will take a lot more than saying these things to make them happen though.

Our volunteers and staff both recognize that disaster survivors and neighbors are the real first-responders. They know that investments in preparedness pay big dividends when disaster strikes by minimizing demands on emergency services and expediting the transition to recovery. They understand implicitly that what we can do together makes a bigger difference than what we do alone, and they actively engage others in an ever expanding web of relationships that fosters resilience.

But they are also torn by what they must do. Our small agency has 15 full-time staff, but only one works directly with these volunteers. And even that position has responsibilities beyond training and supporting the NET volunteers. Ensuring the effectiveness of this program requires substantial investments in relationships with agencies and community partners who support the training our volunteers receive.

Volunteers too have competing demands on their time and attentions. Some would become full-time volunteers if we asked them. Others only want to get involved when the need is urgent. Most will do what they can when they can, often with a smile. But none of them will do any of this for long unless someone at least acknowledges what they are doing and encourages them to keep it up.

We know our NET program works. We can tell anytime our volunteers get together just by the passion they display and the skills they exhibit. But this program still receives less support than almost any other program we deliver. Aside from the funds allocated to developing the training materials themselves and running a few exercises, the cost of delivering the NET training and managing the teams receives no ongoing grant support. Investments made with grant funds in other projects may help leverage the support of our partners in the fire department and other agencies by freeing their resources to support our needs, but these scarce funds are drying up as the fiscal crisis persists. Besides, their support does translate into assistance with the day-to-day operation of the program.

So, what does this say about our priorities? I can only answer this question by looking at the gap between our assumptions and our expectations. Judging by that, we as a larger community of emergency management and homeland security professionals and policy-makers have assumed for far too long that volunteer means free. This can be taken one or both of two ways: 1) free as in without cost and 2) without responsibility or accountability. As it turns out, neither assumption is correct.

The opportunity cost of ignoring volunteers in exchange for making investments in hardware and software rears its ugly head sooner or later. Eventually, disgruntled if not disorganized volunteers will, as ours did Monday night, remind you that the liveware — the people and relationships that make up a community — are assets to be invested in not just protected or neglected.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

April 21, 2010 @ 1:57 am

This is another wonderful inciteful post so thanks Mark. Engagement and leverage of volunteer efforts is always a challenge but one that needs to be met if the US is going to be the resilient nation it needs to be. In my twenty years in FEMA there was a great deal of hostility towards volunteers and in a way their mere existence was often masked in rhetoric about worries of “self-deployers” and other things. Just to point out by the way that the ARC (American Red Cross) now in rapid decline for many other reasons was and is largely a volunteer organization despite its cadre of paid professionals. I myself as an unpaid volunteer for ARC taught many First Aid, Water Safety, and Life Saving courses. Also the US Fire Service is still over 80% volunteer. President George W. Bush issued several key Executive Orders post 9/11 concerning citizen involvement in preparedness activities. But the system does owe the volunteers some things in return for their contributions of time and effort and skills. One of the things I suggested several times over my FEMA career, which by the way supported ably but with limited staffing and funding, the family preparedness activity while I was there, was to develop a survey instrument that would allow the professional public safety and EM types to learn exactly who was living in their community and what skills they had that could be accessed in disasters and emergencies. This was never done so that most communities don’t have a clue as to whether the exact skills that might save lives or properties might be in residence full or part time in the community. One example is retired medical personnel. Another is retired public safety personnel. The list goes on.

But a word of warning! The US tort system can be complicated with it five step process of determining liability. Also it is an OSHA violation, not just a civil statute violation, but a criminal violation to have employers put an untrained, unequipped, unprepared employee in harms way. That law is enforced by the Department of Justice Criminal Division and respective US attorneys. While some states have adopted so-called “Good Samaritan” Laws to protect volunteers some have not. And Federal efforts to do so are very very limited and poorly understood.

Still a great post and brings up another question of why volunteers, the current usage, their training and preparation, and their actual employment in crisis and disasters is so little studied. I believe the DHS/FEMA Citizen Corps funding has hovered for several years around the $12M mark but could be wrong. I also believe the Obama Adminsitration submission of proposed FY 2011 budget cut that amount subtantially.
Great topic and post.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 21, 2010 @ 6:03 am

I am involved in a FEMA program that requires a substantial “match” for any federal funds committed. Included in the match can be a fair-market valuing of private-sector time that is volunteered.

The record-keeping can be a bit of a hassle – and needs to be monitored for abuse – but it can also be motivating of private-sector involvement. Even more important it begins to clearly communicate to public sector decision-makers the dollar value of what the volunteers contribute.

Measurement is typically a big part of what establishes value. Measurement of financial value – at least in our culture – is especially esteemed. Quantitative measurement of some factors can also be taken too far, but assigning an explicit financial value to volunteerism may be part of a solution to the problem Mark outlines.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 21, 2010 @ 7:54 am

Note that IRS does allow for travel expenses when serving tax-exempt non profits such as 501(c)(3) but not salary equivalent.

The gas mileage allowance is not in alignment with current pricing.

Comment by Mark Chubb

April 21, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

William really hit on two of the points that give me the most pause: 1) We invest a paltry sum nationally in volunteerism as a means of promoting community preparedness compared with other homeland security investments and 2) We really don’t provide adequate protection for those who step up to help.

The process of affording legal protections to volunteers is very complicated, and scares off many good volunteers. When local managers do take steps to manage these risks, their actions are often mistaken for bureaucratic red tape or organizational inertia rather than best practice.

Phil’s point about measuring the value of volunteers’ commitments is worth noting. I fear, though, that efforts to monetize volunteers’ investments can also marginalize the importance of their connections and commitment. It can also have the perverse effect of encouraging the kind of thinking that leads people to over-leverage volunteers.

The best volunteer programs acknowledge what people expect and are already willing to do for themselves and extends support by building the capacity of government and other sectors on that base. Much of what I see when I look out over the volunteer landscape these days works just the opposite of this, and asks how we can extend the limited capacity of government and its private sector partners by engaging citizens on the basis of their own self-interest.

The disaster sociology literature tells us self-interest plays a surprisingly small role in determining what people will do after disaster strikes. In most cases, people seek out and share information with one another to make sense of the situation and extend assistance to others when they come upon evidence of need. They frame these opportunities and their reactions to them in terms of their familiar routines, habits and norms of behavior.

It is by engaging the familiar that we expedite the transition from response to recovery. The sooner people can make sense of what’s happened and do things to help themselves, the sooner they will see their new situation as normal.

Comment by BK

April 22, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

“No one is excluded from training due to…prior criminal history…”

As someone who made some bad choices in friends 25+ years ago and picked up three felony class B burglary convictions, I can attest that there are C.E.R.T. groups who want NOTHING to do with me (even if it’s providing training without credentials).

This is very discouraging for someone who now understand the need to be prepared, only to be rejected by the county group leaders. I am a part of the COMMUNITY (first part of the C.E.R.T. name) and would like to be a positive part of my COMMUNITY. This is not asking to have access to an EOC or any other potentially sensitive area, but still wanting to be a part of helping my COMMUNITY be prepared. This is an area which needs to be addressed from the national level on down…

Comment by Jeff

April 27, 2010 @ 1:44 am

If I may, this whole affair sounds horrifically wasteful. Fifteen full time paid personnel to administer a volunteer program of only 1000 souls? Only one person interfaces with the volunteers? The training material is developed elsewhere in the larger organization I assume. How about if we keep the one trainer that actually interacts with the volunteers and let the rest of you go? Perhaps we could reduce the national debt by a few bucks. I suggest that a quality person from private industry could run this program just as well for 10% of the current cost. I also bet that there is absolutely no way to cost justify 15 jobs to run this program.

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