In this age of increasing emergency threats, informal volunteer emergency workers often provide critical first responder help, usually search and rescue, first aid, damage, and need assessment.
But because they tend to lack pre-established relationships with emergency managers, informal volunteers can also pose operational risks. Dispatchers, for one, can’t verify training or credentials, so they are unable to accurately match volunteer skills with service areas. And that’s not the only management challenge relief organisations face. What are they?
For one, volunteers have competing priorities. And that doesn’t matter if they are anticipated individual volunteers, expected to fulfill general expectations, anticipated organisation volunteers, who regularly associate with a single organisation, or spontaneous volunteers, who place themselves at the service of an organisation only after an emergency or disaster has occurred.
By their very nature, volunteers often have full time jobs (or other pressing commitments). They, therefore, tend to lend their services during rest and recovery periods. In the event of a protracted emergency, like a pandemic or bush fire, volunteer scheduling conflicts are likely to come up. In those cases, volunteers become unavailable for assignments. Meanwhile, agencies have little way of gauging whether volunteers (especially informal and spontaneous volunteers) will be available.
Additionally, many countries are seeing a shift away from long-term patterns of formal volunteering and towards informal volunteers serving shorter stints. For emergency managers, this trend presents all sorts of reliability and availability management challenges, especially for gap planning. The conundrum it presents: while a new crop of volunteers might bring new skills, competencies, and enthusiasm, will they show up when notified?
Then, there’s the fact that resources suffer fatigue. Catastrophic events last for indeterminate lengths of time, forcing volunteers to work for extended periods, with little to no rest, under the worst, possible environmental conditions.
The resulting stress and fatigue have been linked to volunteer attrition. The same thing happens when volunteers have to serve multiple, consecutive shifts in a disaster zone.
Nor is sticking it out always the best idea. Fatigue, which weakens mental performance, impairs decision making, and lowers situational awareness, increases the risk of injury and accident to volunteers.
Another pressing availability challenge is geographical distance. Resources are often geographically dispersed one from the other during a disaster. Resources might not even be near the disaster site when a disaster begins. Remember, a lot of volunteer resources come from all over. Unfortunately, incident managers need to know where their resources are in order to make informed dispatch decisions though.
What does it all add up to? Without the right tools, incident managers and dispatchers will be riding blind, without the requisite visibility into all layers of their organisations they need.
Clearly, then, an emergency management solution has to have a rich feature set in order to overcome the manifold challenges availability management poses to disaster response efforts. What’s more, the system has to be flexible and easy-to-use. What other capabilities should you add to the laundry list, download our guide to availability management to find out.
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