Mass Notification Systems for Spontaneous Volunteer Coordination

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We found a really interesting topic in the “Emergency Management Issues” group on Facebook recently: how to manage spontaneous volunteers in an emergency.  So we did some research.

Spontaneous volunteers, aka unaffiliated volunteers, is a term that describes normal people motivated to help in a disaster. Some of them are local to the situation, and some from far away. Often, they just start getting to work, and frequently self-organize their activities. 

Examples abound throughout the world. Here are some in the US: 

  • After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, approximately 650,000 people in the San Francisco area took part in emergency response activities;
  • Post-Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Red Cross attracted 50,000 spontaneous volunteers;
  • The 2015 Oklahoma City bombing motivated 9,600+ people to come help;
  • Immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a fleet of commuter boats, tugboats, tour boats, private yachts and others evacuated hundreds of thousands of people from the disaster area in NYC, while 30–40,000 volunteers came to Ground Zero in the weeks following, and the American Red Cross got 22,000 offers of assistance.

After reading through scores of articles on the topic, we found many more examples from less publicized disasters throughout the US. 

The utilization and management of spontaneous volunteers appears to have been given short-shrift in the emergency management community.  One, admittedly old, study surveyed 50 cities and “found significant discrepancies between what is stated in the disaster plans of cities and what emergency managers claim is covered in their plans. Of the managers surveyed, only a handful mention spontaneous volunteers in their plans at all, and even fewer cities discuss them extensively.” 

More recently, a 2021 PhD dissertation at NC State says, “The current lack of research in this area of disaster management is problematic when one observes the increased frequency and intensity of disasters that are occurring within the United States…”

Regardless of the state of research or interest in the topic, it’s clear that spontaneous volunteers are going to show up in a disaster. And it seems like emergency managers should prepare for their arrival and have a plan for how to deal with them. And FEMA and others agree: “an essential element of every emergency management plan is the clear designation of responsibility for the on-site coordination of unaffiliated volunteers.”

Spontaneous volunteers should be planned for, both because they are a potentially valuable resource, and also because they can cause problems. Below, we list the kinds of things these volunteers can help with. But it’s also important to recognize their risks: they have no formal training in emergency response, their skills and interests and reliability are going to vary a lot, and they may put themselves in harm’s way and pose liability and other issues. 

An essential part of any plan for dealing with volunteers is communication. Which is where we come in. Hyper-Reach has a number of resources that can help you organize volunteers, as well as others, during an emergency.  Specifically, in this article, we’ll talk about (1) our information hotline, (2) EventReach, which lets people sign up for text messages for specific events, (3) Attribute Import for your contact database and (4) 2-way messaging with quota filling.

The Hyper-Reach Information Hotline. Our hotline service lets you easily record a message that anyone can access, 24/7, using just a telephone.  With the Information Hotline, you can record any number of useful messages for volunteers, including how to register as a volunteer, where to go to help with specific activities, what skillsets and jobs you’re looking to fill from potential volunteers, etc.  We can even set up multiple hotlines on short notice if you think you need more than one. 

EventReach, to sign up for topic-specific SMS messages. Let’s say, for example, that you want to create four teams of volunteers, tasked with specific goals and potentially different locations, etc.  With EventReach, you can create four (in this example) keywords that relate to each of those teams and have your volunteers subscribe to SMS messages specific to their team by texting the keyword to your EventReach registration number. Then, when you send a message to that specific group, everyone who’s registered through that keyword will get the SMS message. It’s a simple and easy way to send messages to just the key group of volunteers you need to reach. 

Attribute Import.  Hyper-Reach’s attribute import capability lets you import contact information with key attributes or fields that make it easy to identify and message the people you want. For example, let’s say you’re registering volunteers through a spreadsheet and collecting information about their skills, interests and availability. With attribute import, you can import those contacts directly into Hyper-Reach and use those attributes to identify and reach out to, for example, Spanish speakers who can be interpreters in a temporary shelter.  

2-Way Messaging with Quota Filling. Let’s say you’ve got a job that requires ten people tomorrow morning. You’ve built your contact list, and it’s got 50 people on it, but you only need ten and no more.  With the Hyper-Reach 2-Way message feature, you can send out a message asking for volunteers and set a quota for 10 positive responses. The calls and text messages go out automatically.  When you get 10 positive acknowledgments, the calls and text messages stop. And you’ve got your job filled without having people stepping all over each other, and without having to make dozens of calls yourself. 

There are probably even more ways that we can help you manage spontaneous volunteers. These are the ones we came up with after a few days of research. But there are other things we do – such as providing a phone-based check-in system – that could be helpful in managing volunteer resources. And, as the articles above point out, there is still a lot of research to be done in this field.  

If you’re interested in working with us to develop a comprehensive communication plan for spontaneous volunteers, we’d love to hear from you. Just drop a note to jveilleux@ashergroup.com.  

And if the services we offer today sound promising for this important task, sign up for a demo to see these features and more in action.

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