There’s a fundamental fact about disasters and disaster recovery that I try to explain every chance I get.
Here it is again:
The roles that can be filled by untrained volunteers during and after a disaster are very limited. Walk-up volunteers are generally limited to performing manual labor type tasks, and unable to do any real work until days after the disaster. There can be a need for this sort of spontaneous volunteer, but often there is not. After the recent tornadoes here it took thousands of volunteers to begin clearing trees and covering damaged houses.
Other efforts to help are often ineffective, or even counter-productive. Collecting old clothes, shoes, etc is easy for people to do, but the tasks of collecting, sorting, transporting, and matching these items to recipients are often impossible to complete in an effective and timely manner.
But – there are ways to contribute your specific skills to disaster recovery, no matter what they are. After a disaster, there is an almost immediate need for volunteers trained in specific areas important to recovery. These volunteers aren’t first responders, and often don’t even enter the areas of greatest damage (following a natural disaster). They’re critical to the efforts to get food, clothing, medical care and shelter to affected people. You can be one of those volunteers, but you have to be trained first. Right now is a good time to get started.
There are many agencies who participate in disaster recovery. My perspective is as a Red Cross volunteer and as an amateur radio operator in the United States, but there are equivalent agencies in many countries.
Some U.S. organizations I am familiar with are Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, the Salvation Army, and The American Red Cross. Each of these organizations needs people with all sorts of skills. Feeding, Sheltering, and caring for people involves cooking, bookkeeping, inventory control, logistics, communications, computer administration, damage assessment, public speaking, counseling, child care, pet care, and more.
If you are interested, sign up today so you can be ready next time. You can call your local Red Cross office about signing up to help with Disaster Services (or in other areas), or see whether your church or other group has an affiliation with disaster relief. Most agencies are understanding about the demands of family and work, so assignments are always voluntary and you generally don’t have to make a firm commitment to be “on call” unless you have a leadership role in the organization. Additionally, a lot of employers are generous about allowing their employees to help with disaster recovery. My employer, Canonical Inc, was very supportive after the tornado disaster here.
But there are other things you can do to prepare – not just to help on a large scale but also to help your family.
Here are some:
Get an amateur radio license and a radio
Getting your entry level license is not hard, and it can save your life or that of someone near you. During our recent five-day power outage, cell phones were not working for many people, and amateur radio provided a lifeline in at least two cases. In the first, a ham operator with a history of heart problems experienced symptoms of a heart attack, and was able to summon help for himself. In the second, a ham operator witnessed a neighbor who collapsed on his front porch. Although the area they were in had no cell or conventional phone service, he was able to call for emergency medical services and obtain treatment for the serious stroke that his neighbor was having. An added advantage in our area is the ability to follow storm spotter reports live, instead of sometimes waiting critical seconds or minutes for them to make it through the pipeline to Radio and TV (to the great credit of the National Weather Service and the media, it really is usually only tens of seconds before a report of a tornado results in an official warning)
There are a lot of resources available to help you get your license. This web page is a decent starting place. There are books available to help, including ones published by the ARRL and ones by Gordon West, and many amateur radio clubs offer classes. I recommend checking out the local club. You may find a really nice group of mentors.
The test for the entry-level (Technician) license is 35 multiple-choice questions, randomly selected from a pool of almost 400 questions. Many of these questions are similar, and the entire pool is publicly available, so you will never see a question on the exam that you have not had a chance to study.
In the U.S., license exams are administered by other hams, Volunteer Examiners. In most places, the fee to take the exam is about $15.
If you want to contribute to emergency communications and disaster recovery as an amateur radio operator, there are a lot more opportunities to train and participate, which I’ll cover in more depth in another post.
Get free SKYWARN training
The National Weather Service offers free SKYWARN training, and it’s several hours very well spent. You’ve probably heard terms like “wall cloud” “storm inflow”, and “mesocyclone” from weather forecasters. This training explains those terms, but even better, you learn the differences between a “plain” thunderstorm and one which may spawn tornadoes.
Take CERT training
Train to be a Community Emergency Response Team member. The training is free, and covers a lot of very useful information from how to use a fire extinguisher to how to prepare for participation in disaster recovery.
See whether your church or organization has a disaster relief team
If you are already a member of an organization, see whether they participate in disaster recovery. Many organizations such as the Southern Baptist Relief organization and others are members of VOAD – Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters, and coordinate disaster response through that organization.
Take free FEMA courses
FEMA offers free online training in NIMS, the National Incident Management System, used in disaster response. These generally aren’t required in order to participate in disaster recovery at a local level, but these courses can help you understand the hierarchy and methods used by FEMA during a disaster response. I recommend starting with these courses: ICS-100.b, ICS-200.b, ICS-700.a, and ICS-700.b.
Talk to people who have been active in disasters
You can learn a lot by talking with other volunteers who have been active after disasters. When you get involved in organizations, you can learn a lot by asking questions and listening.