The assumption that says when help is needed, someone will show up isn’t necessarily accurate. At least it’s not when it comes to disaster volunteers who show up to help people after a tornado has struck or a flood has ravaged the community. The work of this situation is definitely needed, but we can’t be sure anyone will show up to do it anymore.
We all shop at a big box store that has workers because selling things to customers is work. They build a store, hire people to handle the merchandise before, during, and after sale, and open their doors for business. Workers stock the shelves, check people out, supervise employees, and run the office. They train and manage the workers who show up because they get paid to show up and work.
It’s really different how we handle disaster work. To start with, we only pay less than half of the workers. Generally, we pay most of the police officers, firemen, and EMTs who respond in the emergent phase of a disaster. We provide trucks, squads, and ambulances and the supplies they need to help save lives and property. We provide benefits and pay because this work is their job. But we don’t pay a great majority of what follows them, in other words, the disaster volunteers.
What happens in a disaster when the first responders all go back to their station, when the injured have all been cared for and the fires are out, and we’re just left with piles of debris that used to be homes? What happens when the power is still out, and the floodwaters have left germs and filth behind in kitchens and family rooms? Without livable homes, it’s impossible to cook, eat, sleep, pay the bills, play with the kids, entertain the dog, and go to work. What happens when you can’t go to work because work isn’t there anymore? Life hasn’t returned to any sort of normal, and lots of help is still necessary in spite of the fact that first response work is done. What about second response?
That’s when the disaster volunteers come in because the work is all but done. What waits is difficult, painful, and exhausting. It’s helping people who’ve lost everything through a traumatic and uncontrollable situation. Circumstances can be austere, and volunteers work without electricity, air conditioning, and light. The hours are long, and workers go without food or bathroom breaks. No one gives them uniforms or protective gear. They come in early and stay late, and they take the emotional burden of work home with them.
Disaster volunteers do critical work. How do we know for sure these volunteers will be there when we need them? We don’t. We have faith that they will be, partly because they always have been. If we don’t keep them engaged, train and re-train, practice and exercise, and motivate them to come back again, they won’t be there when we need them. Our dependency upon disaster volunteers may have to change unless we pay attention to sustaining this resource. If we fail to sustain them, they won’t be there.
Look closely at what is really happening with disaster volunteer organizations today. One national disaster organization has made sweeping changes to centralize their operations. That means they don’t have offices and staff in individual communities anymore; maybe they don’t even have local connections anymore. Other federal groups have nationalized supply caches, given up local facilities, increased volunteer requirements and eliminated local leadership. Some organizations are just holding their breath, hoping all will be well even though grant funding has disappeared and local checkbooks are not filling the gap. Others are still frantically doing more with less, and working harder every day to survive, living with the fear of elimination.
We’re not doing a very good job providing for our disaster volunteer resources. We’re letting them starve to death. As environmentalists tell us climate change will make storms bigger and more ferocious, we’re strangling the local resources we’ll have to depend upon when those storms hit. As terrorists drop bombs and backpacks explode at marathons, we’re allowing the volunteers who help to bleed out and die. We need to get back to supporting volunteers with money, resources, equipment, respect, and appreciation. Yesterday wouldn’t have been soon enough.
Just remember – volunteers don’t just show up because you need them.