Working with Local Emergency Management Organizations to Coordinate Disaster-Related Activities


Emergency management requires skills and knowledge that many volunteers may not have. During times of disaster, well-intentioned but untrained and unmanaged volunteers can become a liability by (a) distracting emergency manager attention and resources away from disaster victims; (b) becoming injured in the disaster area; (c) requiring assistance themselves; (d) damaging disaster-stricken structures or unintentionally injuring individuals. There are, however, many ways in which volunteers can be effectively engaged in disaster preparedness and response efforts. By gaining buy-in from the emergency management community ahead of time, a place for volunteers in disaster preparedness and response can be developed that will benefit the community.


Managing volunteers in times of disaster can be challenging, especially given that emergency management professionals often see volunteers as a burden and not an asset.


By engaging the existing emergency management community and developing relationships with them before a disaster event occurs, you can better develop volunteer services that coordinate with government efforts and provide meaningful and effective service in disaster preparedness and response. The better the emergency community understands who you are and what you have to offer, the more likely it is that your services will complement theirs, ultimately benefitting the community during disaster response efforts.

According to the Points of Light Institute, gaining buy-in from the emergency management community can be achieved in a number of ways. 

Learn the lingo. Learning the language of disaster management shows that volunteers are serious about being involved and that you understand the issues. A familiarity with your community's hazards, with the National Response Plan (NRP), and with the National Incident Management System (NIMS) are important because they shape how emergencies are managed. Your local emergency management agency may have materials available. FEMA offers independent study courses online at IS-700 covers NIMS, and IS-800 covers NRP. Additional courses of interest include IS-7: A Citizen's Guide to Disaster Assistance and IS-288: The Role of Voluntary Agencies in Emergency Management.

Get to know the local emergency professionals. Don't wait until a disaster happens to try and develop relationships and plans. Make an effort to know the local emergency manager and the disaster directors for other voluntary organizations such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army. Knowing these individuals means that in the event of an emergency you know who to talk to, what their plans are, and how you and your volunteers can complement their activities.

Demonstrate how your activities can make the jobs of emergency management easier. The best way to gain buy-in from emergency management professionals is to show that you can make their jobs easier by being a valuable partner and resource rather than a liability. Publicize your capacity and offer to relieve emergency managers of responsibility for volunteer management. This is a task that emergency managers view as a burden, while many voluntary organizations have strengths in volunteer leveraging and management. Invite local emergency managers to a Volunteer Reception Center training so that they can see a demonstration of how you can help them by working together.

Disseminate a consistent message at the federal, state, and local levels. It is important that the public receives a consistent message from the government and nonprofit organizations. This allows for coordination between the different disaster responders and also limits confusion for the general public. Talk with your local emergency management about the appropriate message before or after a disaster; this includes information on donating goods and volunteering. Messaging on public safety issues (such as evacuation orders) should be left to emergency management officials.

Explore local roles; augment and support the roles of existing agencies. Organizations in your community are already involved in disaster preparedness and response. You can be most effective by tapping into these groups and offering to fill in existing gaps rather than simply declaring what you want to do. Contact your local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) organization or Citizen Corps Council to find a niche that your organization can fill within the tapestry of disaster response organizations. Respect the work that is being done by established disaster stakeholders and focus on how your organization's strengths can add to this work.

For more information:

WebsitePoints of Light Institute

Related Resources: 

National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD)


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