Managing Disaster Volunteer Reliability: A Solution Brief

Best Practice Guide

The volunteer reliability challenge explained

For emergency response agencies reliant on volunteers, ensuring the reliable participation of those volunteers is critical to delivering services effectively. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, as many incident managers will attest.

It’s indisputable that volunteers, especially informal, short-term volunteers (see table below), bring innovation, skills, and enthusiasm, but they also introduce a number of operational risks to the response effort, especially as their excitement wanes throughout the emergency management lifecycle.

For one, these short-term volunteers tend to lack pre- established relationships with emergency managers, which makes it difficult for dispatchers to verify the trainings and credentials of their volunteers. As a result, incident managers are unable to match the skills of their volunteers to the appropriate service area; the mission suffers in consequence.

More alarming still, volunteer reliability itself is a major concern, as scholars note. We read numerous anecdotes from managers lamenting the failure of volunteers to complete explicitly agreed-upon assignments. Often, volunteers just don’t show up.

Volunteer unreliability could be a function of volunteers having competing priorities. After all, volunteers have fulltime jobs (or other pressing commitments). They, therefore, tend to lend their services during rest and recovery periods. In the event of a protracted emergency, for instance, volunteer scheduling conflicts can crop up, and volunteers become unavailable for assignments.

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