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
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
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
Learn more about local partner agencies and organizations that may offer volunteer opportunities in
Partners and Collaborators for
Emergency Preparedness and Response.
Many volunteer organizations require volunteers to maintain certain credentials and training hours. Communities
can screen, verify, and log volunteer credentials in the planning phase.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Related Volunteerism: Best Practices Manual Based on Lessons Learned from Hurricanes Katrina and
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
Organization(s): Volunteers of America Greater New Orleans
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)