Testing a rota prototype with Emergency Response volunteers

There are over 3000 people who volunteer with British Red Cross to support people affected by emergencies. They respond to everything from individual house fires to the Manchester Area bombing.

Currently the majority of rotas are Google spreadsheets. Local teams of volunteers use them to self-organise who is on-call when an emergency happens. Whilst these work ok for local teams responding to smaller emergencies, they don’t for big ones. In these emergencies, volunteers are needed from multiple areas, to be coordinated over several days and sometimes weeks. This is why we are creating a new rota system.

To understand how this system could work, we have been visiting volunteers across the country to test prototypes with them. From our visits this is some of what we have learnt.

Not designing from scratch

For our rota system prototype we didn’t design from scratch. We copied what product teams in other organisations had proven to work. Namely GOV.UK Design System and Shifts for Co-op Food stores, which Ciarán Greene, was kind enough to talk us through and share insights.

Shifts for Co-op Food store teams

Trip one: London

We met three London ER volunteers who were all fairly tech savvy. They currently use a shared spreadsheet for the rota and access it either via a link in a weekly email they receive, or a shortcut that they have created on their mobile phones.

Reactions in trip one

Two factor Authentication simple and easy to use. The volunteers were all impressed with how quick and simple this process was. The sign in process asks you to enter your ID number and mobile number. After both numbers are entered, a code is texted to your mobile instantly. This code then lets you into the rota.

Two factor authentication without the need for passwords, emails or security apps

Vehicle location details are essential. Volunteers wanted to know information about the British Red Cross van they’d be using. They asked questions like:

‘If I have signed up as a driver, is that vehicle assigned to me?’ and ‘Who is the designated driver for the shift?’

So for the next trip we added vehicle information to shift details. But more work is needed about signing up to drive on a shift.

View shift details including vehicle information

The human element was missing. The London volunteers are used to discussing every incident on the phone with the duty manager or Crisis Response Call Centre when deploying. With the prototype they had no calls with the staff. Only automated text messages. This, they felt, was an important element missing.

“Sometimes we are going into an area where there are bereaved families or very distressing situations. We want to have that discussion with the team before so we know what we are letting ourselves in for.”

Our initial prototype told volunteers to deploy to an emergency via text message. After the feedback, we made it a text, followed by a phone call, to give it a human element.

Deploy text message with follow-up phone call

Trip two: Bristol

In Bristol volunteers share a spreadsheet but once a week the information from that spreadsheet is populated into a PDF and shared. This means if a volunteer needs to change their shift for that week, they need to call their Team Leader. Then all the PDFs need to get updated. The rotas are therefore much more fixed and hard to amend.

Reactions in trip two

Two factor authentication not every time. Volunteers said once they didn’t expect to login in every time they needed to use the rota. They said they would simply give up if accessing the rota system was more than a few touches of a screen.

Needing to “see the gaps”. Volunteers felt restricted only seeing their shifts. They wanted to see what volunteers were signed up, where there were gaps in the rota and to have a general overview. As a result we added a calendar view that shows all the shifts and who is doing them.

Booking other volunteers onto shifts. Currently some volunteers add others to the rota who are are less confident with computers. The new system should be the same, so we added a feature to the prototype to book on behalf of others.

See the gaps in the calendar and book on behalf of others

Some volunteers are duty managers and therefore need the same system permission as staff. In this area, along with many others, volunteers carry our the role of being duty manager. Something that is assumed part of the staffs roles. In reality, years of volunteer experience and close relationship building between themselves and the local fire services have meant that there is nothing stopping volunteers themselves being duty managers. The system therefore needs to allow some volunteers the same permission as staff in order for them to carry out those duties. If it doesn't, we run a real risk of undermining that trust that has been built over many years.

Trip three: Lincoln

Our third testing took us to Lincoln where the volunteers don’t have rotas. Volunteers simply receive a text message asking if they can respond to an emergency and they reply if they are able to go. Therefore Lincolnshire volunteers are in a way, always ‘on-call’.

Reactions in trip three

Some people volunteer in pairs. We met one volunteer who often respond to emergencies with her husband. The two other volunteers we spoke to are used to various rostering and dispatch systems within their jobs in the fire service and ambulance service.

Confirmation texts can help assure and audit. The prototype used GOV.UK Notify to send volunteers text messages when they completed tasks, such as cancelling a shift. Volunteers liked being given closure about their action and the ability to audit to prove they did or didn’t do something. All reassuring them that the system works properly.

Cancel shift confirmation text

Quickly surveying who is available to help when something big happens. In large emergencies many volunteers need to be coordinated for shifts in several locations. Doing this coordination currently is very manual, with BRC staff having to wade through text messages, phone calls and spreadsheets. In the prototype we simplified this process. Volunteers are texted to do a survey, which when completed automatically updates the rota system, so BRC staff quickly see who is available to help and when.

Live emergency survey

“Why don't we have this already?” We knew we had our work cut out for ourselves when speaking to this team since the volunteers were not used to any rota systems so when we hear a volunteer say “Why don't we have something like this already? It is simple and easy to use. It’s all you need” We knew we are not far away from a system that is right for them.


We are still a little way off the end product, but tested different prototypes with a range of volunteers, we are a huge step forward in being able to create a system that fits the needs of the volunteers.

For now, it’s about getting our heads together, realising the common trends among the volunteers feedback and ensuring they are incorporated into the scope before we start to roll out the most valuable parts of the new system.



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