Managing Volunteers in an Emergency

Modified on Sat, 17 Sep 2022 at 11:04 AM

Disclaimer: This article is general information only. If you are unsure, always consult with a legal professional regarding your needs.


Volunteers play a critical role in dealing with emergencies and aftermath of disasters.


There are two distinct types of emergency volunteering.


Trained Volunteers: These are volunteers trained with organisations outside emergency situations to perform a specific role role either as a response to an emergency or during the recovery. Such as SES volunteers.


Spontaneous Volunteers: People who volunteer in direct response to an emergency situation. They may have no previous involvement with the organisation they volunteer with and may not have undergone any specific training.


Disaster Management Principles

There are four fundamental disaster management principles in Australia:

  • Prevention - Identification of hazards and actions to reduce the impact of those hazards in an emergency.
  • Preparedness - Ongoing activities that encourage planning, preparing and training for emergency situations.
  • Response - Action to respond to the immediate needs of an emergency situation.
  • Recovery - Restoration, rebuilding and reduction of future risks over long term.


Volunteers are a key resource in all four stages of disaster management, particularly the volunteers
involved in government emergency management agencies and non-government organisations. For
example, trained volunteers with the State Emergency Service assist in pre-emergency mitigation of
storm, water, and fire risks.


Emergency Volunteer Management Principles

In addition to the general volunteer management principles, particular principles apply during emergencies that apply to both trained and spontaneous volunteers.
These principles are:

  • Those affected by the disaster are always the first priority.
  • Everybody has a right to offer assistance and to feel their offer has been valued.
  • Managers/coordinators of volunteers have a right to respectfully decline offers of assistance where they are deemed inappropriate or are not needed.
  • Volunteers have a right to the support, training and direction needed to undertake their duties.
  • Volunteers have a responsibility to work collaboratively with, and follow the direction of, their managers/coordinators.


Previous emergency situations have shown two important facts of volunteer management.

  • That a team structure with team leaders is of proven value, providing for clear lines of responsibility and fostering the sharing of knowledge and skills, sound communication and a sense of belonging.
  • That it is important to have in place a succession planning process to ensure continuity of the knowledge and skills base of trained volunteers.


Organisations should also bear in mind lessons from Australian and International experiences of
disasters that show:

  • There can be unprecedented outpourings of support for the victims of disasters, expressed through spontaneous volunteering. In these circumstances many have never volunteered before and often they have a compelling need to ‘do something’. Management of their expectations and particular awareness of the risks of deploying untrained people into unfamiliar situations are essential aspects of managing volunteers in emergencies.
  • The use of members of the affected local communities as spontaneous volunteers in the response and recovery phases of an emergency can be powerful factors in fostering community resilience and solidarity, promoting personal healing and self-care, and reducing social isolation. These positives arising from otherwise distressing events should be nurtured and celebrated as part of emergency management of volunteers involved in the recovery phase in particular.
  • Occasionally, spontaneous volunteers will come together to form their own innovative groups as a reaction to a unique set of needs or circumstances. Existing volunteer involving organisations should encourage collaboration and, where appropriate, affiliation with such groups in the interests of sharing information and experience of volunteer management principles and standards.
  • Digital volunteering is a specific type of spontaneous volunteering available to be harnessed through social media platforms to supplement the response and recovery effort, transcending geographical barriers and enabling tasks beyond the capacity of volunteers working in the disaster zone. Organisations should consider the use of technology to enhance their communications and their capacities in emergencies, including through digital volunteering.


More information on Emergency Volunteer Management is available in the Be Prepared: Managing Volunteers In Emergencies guide.

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