In the West, first responders are being overwhelmed with the scale of unprecedented and ongoing wildfires. In the Southeast, first responders are coping with one of the most active hurricane seasons on record. Across the United States, health departments are struggling to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. All this has created significant gaps in response needs and capabilities. Community volunteers have stepped up to fill those gaps where possible. They may need more support and resources.
Three examples illustrate the importance of community volunteers as responders. In Louisiana, an ad hoc group of volunteers known as the Cajun Navy supplemented search and rescue in the aftermath of Katrina and, more recently, for 2017 hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The group has hundreds of testimonials of its effectiveness. In Oregon, a similar group of volunteers, the “Hillbilly Brigade,” joined the fight against the 2020 wildfires. Among other accomplishments, the Brigade’s twelve hundred members are credited for saving the town of Molalla, Oregon. And in New Orleans, the organization Imagine Water Works is supporting household-to-household mutual aid for the coronavirus and hurricanes. The group has thousands of members who have provided for each other everything from food to housing and diapers.
While these volunteers bring valuable resources, they still need support to be effective and safe. Emergency response can be dangerous. Volunteers are exposed to wildfires, floods, disease and other hazards. As response progresses, they are often also exposed to secondary hazards, such as chemical spills, debris, etc. Professional first responders have required training, personal protective equipment (PPE), and defined techniques, all supported by organizations that can also provide situational awareness of an evolving disaster. Like the households they rescue, community volunteers largely do not have access to these resources. For example, the Hillbilly Brigade didn’t have appropriate PPE nor complete situational awareness about the fire it was helping to contain.
Additionally, there is a need to provide financial and economic support for community response. Disaster responses cost hard dollars: gas for a boat to rescue people from a flood, running a bulldozer for digging lines, food and other aid distributed by these groups to survivors cost money. While many volunteers pay for assistance out of their own pockets, they might be more effective if they had greater financial support.
Also lacking is coordination with other responders. This can affect the total response effort. Groups like Imagine Water Works, which have coronavirus and hurricane mutual aid response teams, can tap into networks to secure resources and direct them to others in need. Other responders could use these networks to secure resources they need—like masks for the coronavirus—and also to help distribute them. Because they often come from the communities where they respond, volunteer groups can also provide informed perspectives into where priority areas are for response: where rescues are needed, where houses and critical infrastructure need to be protected, and where suitable shelter might be available, among other insights.
Responding organizations of all types strive to provide an equitable response—a difficult task that requires knowledge of the target community. Volunteer groups know the communities they are rescuing and can direct the official response agencies to, for example, marginalized and more vulnerable populations. Some—like the coronavirus mutual aid group—have an explicit focus on equity and are structured to provide these populations with the support they need. Explicit or inherent biases also may exist among target populations. This can limit resources to specific populations ( e.g. flying a confederate flag might turn off some populations from using Cajun navy boats). Volunteer groups can act as cultural resources for official disaster response, but they sometimes need oversight and guidance in order to enhance equity.
To be sure, enhancing community engagement in response is not a new objective from a policy perspective. In fact, the whole community approach of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recognizes households and communities as central partners in disaster management. Yet in many cases, resources are inadequate to provide a comprehensive community response, as evidenced by the ongoing challenges in fighting the wildland fires of 2020. There are many lessons to be learned from the 2020 experience, where volunteers are folded into an official response. It’s an opportunity for relationships to be maintained and nurtured to improve future coordination and resourcing.
Gary Cecchine is director of the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute and a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. His research focuses on emergency preparedness and response, environmental and health policy, and military-civilian support. Aaron Clark-Ginsberg is an associate social scientist at RAND. His research focuses on disaster risk management, including issues related to disaster risk reduction, response, and recovery.