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Chris Williams                               CERT & Citizen Corps Coordinator       (614) 794-0213

What is the Definition of A Volunteer?

A volunteer is an individual who, beyond the confines of paid employment and normal responsibilities, contributes time and service to assist in the accomplishment of a mission.

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) Defines a volunteer as: any individual accepted to perform services by the lead agency (which has authority to accept volunteer services) when the individual performs services without promise, expectation, or receipt of compensation for services performed. See 16 U.S.C. 742f(c) and 29 CFR 553.101.


The United States has a long history of volunteerism - a history that has gotten stronger since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.  People of all ages and with all types of skills volunteer - and, with the President's emphasis on volunteerism, the current trend can be expected to continue.

The use of volunteers has proven critical to emergency management.  Both individual volunteers and established volunteer groups offer a wealth of skills and resources that can be used prior to, during, and after an emergency.  Mobilizing the volunteers can add significantly to emergency management programs.

Our ability to work with volunteers as emergency management professionals before, during, and after an emergency can literally affect the lives and well-being of the local citizenry.  Volunteers can impact - for better or worse - the ability of response agencies to do their jobs and can make a difference in how quickly the community is able to respond to and recover from a disaster.

Types of Volunteers

The following categories of volunteers are trained and ready for deployment:

Professional: These are volunteers who are licensed or have a special skill.  Professional volunteers include medical service providers such as physicians, nurses, emergency medical technicians; mental health professionals; lawyers; building contractors and inspectors; computer technicians; clergy; accountants, etc.  These people may volunteer individually or as a group.

Affiliated: Those who are attached to a recognized voluntary or nonprofit organization and are trained for specific disaster response activities.  Their relationship with the organization precedes the immediate incident, and they are invited by that organization to become involved in a specific aspect of emergency management.  The organization is responsible for training, deploying, assigning, ensuring safety, evaluating, and demobilizing its volunteers.

The following categories of volunteers are not trained and not immediately ready for deployment:

Unskilled: These volunteers do not already have the skills that could be useful to emergency management programs, but they do offer their time and can be trained.

Spontaneous: These are individuals who offer help or self-deploy to assist in emergency situations without fully coordinating their activities. They are considered "unaffiliated" in that they are not part of a disaster relief organization. Although unaffiliated volunteers can be significant resources, verifying their training or credentials and matching them with the appropriate services can be difficult.

Spontaneous volunteers offer their services in the immediate aftermath of a disaster or an emergency.  They may be skilled or unskilled and may be from the affected area or from outside the area.  Channeling spontaneous volunteers - especially if they present in large numbers as they did in New York City following September 11th - presents special management challenges.

Volunteers and the Emergency Management Cycle

Voluntary agencies are involved in all four phases of emergency management - mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

Mitigation: During mitigation, voluntary agencies educate their constituencies and communities about what they can do to reduce the damage of future disasters.  They also advocate for programs and legislation that mitigate disaster damage and loss of life.

Preparedness: During the preparedness phase, voluntary agencies assist in developing community disaster plans, train disaster responders, and provide community disaster education.

Response: Voluntary agencies provide mass care services and emergency assistance including sheltering, feeding, and clothing of individuals and families during the response phase.

Recovery: Finally, during disaster recovery, voluntary agencies work in partnership with the government and the affected community to identify and meet the remaining long-term recovery needs of disaster victims.

Role of Voluntary Agencies

Voluntary agencies are often among the first responders to offer assistance following a disaster.  Because many agencies are community-based, they are able to mobilize quickly and provide rapid emergency response activities such as feeding, sheltering, and clothing victims.  Voluntary agencies oftentimes have more flexibility in their ability to assist victims and are able to provide their services when a Presidential declaration is not warranted.

There are also a number of voluntary agencies that are involved in long-term recovery activities including rebuilding, clean-up, and mental health assistance.  Some voluntary agencies focus solely on the long-term needs of communities, responding in weeks 6-8 of the disaster.  In some cases, these agencies will continue to work on long-term activities for several years. 

Why Utilize Volunteers During Emergencies and Disasters?

  • Trusted by the public
  • Community-based
  • Flexible, innovative, and resourceful
  • Complement government services

Voluntary agencies are valuable partners in emergency management because of the unique benefits they are able to provide to disaster victims.  Voluntary agencies today are more organized, efficient, and credible than ever before.  They are also extremely committed to the values of open communication and collaboration that allow them to serve the needs of individuals, families, and communities most effectively.


What should I do to become an Emergency Management Volunteer?


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