Where did all these volunteers come from?

Ford unpopular by Paul Stainthorp used under CC BY-SA 2.0

Ignore or enable?

Last week I spent a day in Yeovil at a conference on spontaneous volunteering. This is a growing phenomenon in emergencies and (some) people have started to notice.

Of course people have always responded to emergencies by helping each other out. That’s a great thing about humans and something to be celebrated and encouraged. Volunteers bring extra capacity, typically can be very flexible in what they do and, if they are local, access to local networks.

The power of social networking (and conventional media) means that spontaneous volunteers might not be local. They may travel long distances, potentially undertake unsafe activities (like wading through floodwater), might provide cover for illegal action by individuals (such as in a search for missing persons- a kidnapper might join the search to try to cover up or suppress evidence) and might complicate or hamper the work of formal responders.

Ex Watermark (again)

Apparently the issue of spontaneous volunteers was raised in Exercise Watermark back in 2011. It is impressive (to me at least) how many issues which we are still working out how to tackle were raised in that exercise. There have been reports, there is now an ISO standard and impending Cabinet Office guidance.

I was there to talk about the impact of media and social media. You can see my slides on line.

My key message was that this is an aspect of a fundamental change in human society: the change to the connected age. We can only really understand things like spontaneous volunteering thinking of the world as networks of human beings. And this should change the way we think about public services too.

Not a binary choice

Anyway, some academic work has been done at the University of Manchester and they had issued some practical guidance. A key point is: you need to have a plan for dealing with spontaneous volunteers. You have choices as responders: you can try to manage them, co-ordinate with them, engage with them, ignore them or try to stop them. And you might take different approaches in different types of emergencies. This is the sort of framing that emergency planners understand and I think it’s helpful.

There’s also then the question of the risk accepted by volunteers (who will typically be untrained and lack relevant equipment), whether agencies can encourage them


One of the issues that we didn’t explicitly touch on is the issue of multi-agency response and spontaneous volunteering. It seems likely that as LRFs start to think about these issues they’ll task an agency with responsibility for spontaneous volunteers (best guess this will be local authorities). But what will happen in incidents where that agency is not, typically, heavily involved?

Spontaneous volunteering is one of a huge range of new behaviours that are emerging as humans get to grips with these new technologies. It’s great to see work being taken on this one but who’s looking at the others?

Great work by Somerset Local Authorities’ Civil Contingencies Partnership for pulling the whole thing together. More of this sort of thing please.

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