Defining Volunteer Roles in Preparation for Disaster Response


Responding to disasters is increasingly a priority for national service programs, and often these disaster response and relief roles have limited connection (if any) to participants' primary roles; they may even be far from their host community. Before national service participants are expected to handle these new disaster-related responsibilities, they must be prepared for situations that they wouldn't normally encounter in their non-disaster assignments. This practice offers essential tips to fully engage participants in these new roles.


Adequately preparing volunteers for assignments that will take them to disaster settings may require a completely different kind of preparation and training than program managers are accustomed to.


The Points of Light Institute offers the following tips to fully engage volunteers in their roles for disaster relief and response. Members and the community alike benefit as disaster needs are met.  

Clearly define volunteer roles and responsibilities in times of disaster, and ensure participants receive the training they need to be successful. National service participants will be more comfortable with their disaster response and relief assignments if they have been fully informed of the tasks associated with them, with how these positions interact with their regular roles, and under what circumstances they will switch responsibilities. Of course, proper training for these roles is vital for successfully executing them in times of disaster.

Communicate the relevance of the short-term disaster response and relief assignment to volunteer primary assignments. Possible disaster response and relief roles should be written into position descriptions prior to the beginning of service, and any change in position descriptions should be discussed clearly with each participant.

Provide the necessary tools — in advance — for participants to be able to perform their job adequately.This applies to all necessary equipment, including appropriate personal protective gear (gloves, goggles, respirators, and so forth) for the assignment. If it is impossible to secure equipment prior to their service, training should be provided before the disaster response and relief assignment so that each participant has the necessary skills to carry out their part during the disaster response. 

Assure volunteers that they are being taken care of — including safety and liability insurance. Liability laws and worker compensation coverage vary from state to state, so check out what is and is not covered in your particular state before any participants are assigned to disaster response. In particular, worker compensation insurance may not cover participants if they are injured while conducting a duty substantially different from their primary duties, so check on coverage before assigning any volunteers to new assignments.

Provide ongoing training and communication. Regular updates (including when they will return to their primary assignments, general disaster information, and the disaster work of other participants) should be made often so that the participants feel active in the overall disaster response and relief effort. Ongoing training should be provided in a timely manner to allow participants to fulfill their roles effectively. Program managers may need to augment initial training as well as add appropriate training necessary for new assignments.

Debrief after completing disaster assignments, and provide training and support for re-entry to the regular position. Service in disaster areas can be stressful, and the return to a primary assignment rocky. Support and training when making the transition and debriefing about the disaster assistance role should be provided to all disaster assistance workers. Check with local social workers and mental health professionals about resources or formal sessions for your participants. A good resource is the Psychological First Aid Manual from the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

Provide information on potential career development opportunities. During the disaster response and relief assignments, and as close of service nears, remember to include the disaster relief and response assignments when discussing post-service options for participants. Some volunteers may wish to pursue this field in future assignments, so information on possible career development in disaster response, relief, and recovery should be provided.

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