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Rural Health Information Hub

Community Engagement and Volunteer Management for Emergency Preparedness and Response

In rural communities, it is often necessary to have volunteer support and engage community members to ensure effective emergency planning, response, and recovery. Volunteers can build capacity for first responders and expand the resources available to local communities.


During the planning phase, rural communities should focus on community engagement in personal preparedness and developing plans and procedures for community members who may wish to volunteer in response to an emergency and disaster.

Engage Community Members

It is important to educate community members on how to personally prepare for an emergency. The local health department may run drills and exercises to ensure that community members feel prepared to respond. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers training and resources to help individuals and families prepare for an emergency, including guidance to develop a personal preparedness plan. Emergency preparedness training should be ongoing, and all community members should be aware of training opportunities. Engaging students in training exercises can help young people understand the importance of emergency preparedness and further disseminate preparedness information.

Develop a Plan for Volunteer Management

In addition to personal preparedness, community members may wish to volunteer to support a jurisdictional response to an emergency. Rural communities must develop a plan to organize and manage volunteers. As a first step, communities can identify the types and numbers of volunteers that may be needed to address specific types of public health emergencies. Then, communities can outline expectations for when and how volunteers will be used during an emergency response. Volunteer response plans provide guidance on the following:

  • Processes for identifying and recruiting volunteers
  • Training and credentialing expectations for volunteers
  • Supervising and evaluating volunteers

Recruit and Coordinate Volunteers

Partner organizations and volunteer programs can help identify and recruit volunteers before an emergency or disaster occurs. In rural communities, it is common to recruit volunteers from veteran organizations, school booster clubs, churches, and other community-based organizations.

In rural areas, during an emergency response, community members often serve as trained volunteers for local organizations such as:

  • Emergency Medical Services (EMS)
  • Healthcare and public health providers
  • Volunteer Police Service
  • Medical Reserve Corps
  • Fire Corps

During an emergency, rural communities may limit volunteer requirements to what is truly necessary. This can help ensure that first responders and partners are not overburdened in managing volunteers and that volunteers are not overburdened with requests. It can also help ensure that volunteers do not inadvertently hinder response efforts.

Learn more about local partner agencies and organizations that may offer volunteer opportunities in Partners and Collaborators for Emergency Preparedness and Response.

Train Volunteers

Many volunteer organizations require volunteers to maintain certain credentials and training hours. Communities can screen, verify, and log volunteer credentials in the planning phase.

The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program was created by FEMA in 1998 and now offers education and training to disaster response volunteers across the United States. It is considered a best practice for volunteers to receive the entire nine-unit CERT training curriculum. In addition to the core curriculum, the CERT program offers additional trainings and certifications dependent on the unique needs of the community. Other organizations, including the American Red Cross and the Medical Reserve Corps, offer free public education, outreach, and training for volunteers.

Case Study

Derecho Windstorm in Northeastern Wisconsin
This rural community learned the importance of having trained volunteers to support response to a large-scale disaster. This included volunteer firefighters, who train regularly with certified firefighters, allowing them to engage in certain types of tasks that strengthen disaster response.

Training to promote cultural humility and understanding may be particularly important for volunteers who come from other communities during an emergency response, in order to avoid misunderstanding and to support positive relationships between volunteers and the community they are serving. The Cultural Competency Curriculum for Disaster Preparedness and Crisis Response is a training from the HHS Office of Minority Health on how to deliver culturally and linguistically competent services in disaster situations. Learn more about culturally and linguistically competent emergency training and services for all community members in Module 1.


Organizing and managing volunteers are important during a response to ensure their continued safety and the safety of others affected by the emergency or disaster.

Organize, Assemble, and Deploy Volunteers

Communities can designate an individual to serve as a volunteer manager. A volunteer manager is responsible for organizing and assembling volunteers during an emergency. First, they must identify the number of volunteers and necessary skills for the specific emergency. Then, volunteer managers can engage volunteer organizations and deploy pre-registered volunteers.

FEMA has a standard process for providing volunteer support and coordination during an emergency. Upon receiving a disaster declaration, one of FEMA's Voluntary Agency Liaisons (VALs) will communicate with the state government. The state can also work with their Voluntary Agency Liaison both during the planning and recovery phases to examine gaps and work with local organizations to address unmet needs. For example, a Voluntary Agency Liaison may support a community in building a volunteer long-term recovery group (LTRG) if necessary. An LTRG typically consists of representatives from multiple sectors and includes community members who support recovery efforts within communities. Rural communities have found it important to establish an LTRG in advance of a disaster or emergency. Establishing the LTRG during the planning phase ensures that members are dedicated and recruited, by-laws are established, and agreements and protocols are in place.

Support Volunteer Safety

Before being deployed, volunteers should be informed about how to stay safe during an emergency response. Safety information may address health safety risks, personal protective equipment (PPE), personal security risks, and required immunizations. Rural communities should establish procedures to ensure that volunteer needs are met while they are deployed. Volunteer needs may include food and water, first aid and emergency medical care, and mental health services. Surveillance and technology may also be required to track volunteers, including data on their health and safety.

Work with Spontaneous Volunteers

Individuals who are not registered or affiliated with any volunteer organization may self-deploy to the scene of a disaster. These individuals may not be trained or credentialed. To ensure efficient and safe management of spontaneous volunteers, communities should establish procedures for supporting these volunteers. This may include identifying potential responsibilities during the response, verifying credentials, and registering volunteers for future emergency responses.

Case Study

Bomb Cyclone Flood in Eastern Nebraska
When North Bend, Nebraska, was flooded by the overflowing Platte River in 2019, drone images of the flood went viral, and volunteers came from neighboring states. This influx of spontaneous volunteers can be referred to as the “second storm” because it requires intensive coordination to use their services effectively while keeping volunteers safe.


During the recovery phase, volunteer organizations can continue to support efforts to ensure that the immediate needs of the community are met, for example, by providing shelter or food.

Demobilize Volunteers

After an emergency response, volunteers undergo a formal check-out process to document their physical and mental health status and ensure they are connected to care and support as needed. Volunteer organizations may continue to conduct periodic assessments of volunteer responders to monitor long-term medical and mental health needs. After volunteers are demobilized, evaluating the volunteer management process and identifying areas for improvement should be part of the after-action review process.

Resources to Learn More

Are You Ready? An In-Depth Guide to Citizen Preparedness
Provides comprehensive information for individuals and families to become better prepared for multiple types of disasters. Includes best practices and detailed actions for planning, preparedness, and recovery.
Organization(s): Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Date: 09/2020

Disaster Related Volunteerism: Best Practices Manual Based on Lessons Learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
Provides basic information to prepare organizations on the use of volunteers in disaster relief along with additional information for organizations already using volunteers. Identifies collaborative strategies, defines effective organizational structures, and discusses lessons learned from organizations responding to previous hurricanes.
Organization(s): Volunteers of America Greater New Orleans
Date: 5/2019

Emergency Volunteer Toolkit
Offers tools and resources for education, training, and planning in preparation for deploying volunteers during an emergency response.
Organization(s): Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO)

Make a Plan
Walks through a step-by-step process to help individuals and families develop a personal preparedness plan.
Organization(s): U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS),