Course teaches officials how to manage volunteers following disaster
by Laura Johnson
Jul 20, 2012 | 3506 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Red Cross volunteers deliver supplies at Oak Grove Baptist Church after the April 27, 2011, tornado. (Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star/File)
Red Cross volunteers deliver supplies at Oak Grove Baptist Church after the April 27, 2011, tornado. (Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star/File)
Calhoun County had just one person to manage the hundreds of volunteers who emerged to aid emergency workers after the April 27, 2011, tornado struck.

On April 28 that person, Denise Rucker, set up shop at Ohatchee’s Town Hall, while the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office did similar work in Webster’s Chapel, leaving no officials to organize volunteers in other areas affected by the twister. Meanwhile, churches took over volunteer efforts in communities like Williams and Oak Grove.

“I think we did an awesome job. We just want to be able to go to the next level with it,” said Jonathan W. Gaddy, director of the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency. “We now know what we need to do.”

The day after the tornado struck, 300 volunteers converged on Ohatchee. The total number of volunteers counted by May was 4,049 and the total number of volunteered hours totaled 35,598, according to the EMA.

The next time disaster erupts in the area, it’s expected a team of volunteer managers will be equipped and ready to manage walk-up volunteers. On Thursday, three representatives from Calhoun County participated in volunteer- and donation-management class at a Red Cross office in Birmingham to better learn how to manage volunteers during disasters. They can now teach others how to do the same.

“When we do have to open that volunteer center we will have people already trained,” said Rucker, director at Calhoun RSVP in Jacksonville. It was “very stressful to be the only person that’s trained in our county,” she said.

Rucker was one of three Calhoun County representatives at the Birmingham training session.

Gaddy said it’s important to have a team of people equipped to do the work Rucker did following last year’s tornado. Their work helps ensure that disaster areas get help and that no area is inundated with volunteers it doesn’t need. After the immediate impact of the disaster passes, the volunteers are still needed, though, to help manage donations.

“We had a good handle on the volunteer management, to a degree, but the donation management we didn’t have a good handle on that at all,” Rucker said.

Sid Nichols, director of missions for Calhoun Baptist Association, has twice had to deal with the large-scale influx of donations to help disaster victims. The first time was when locals began donating items to help Hurricane Katrina victims who sought refuge in Calhoun County. The second was when people began reaching out from across the country and within the county to help the storm victims affected by the tornado.

Both times, he said, donation management was challenging. Those eager to help brought loads of clothes, food and furniture but those in need didn’t have homes to put them in and volunteers didn’t always have a place to store them, Nichols said.

“There were complications, primarily upfront,” Nichols said. “Everybody sent clothes and those folks didn’t want clothes because they didn’t have anywhere they could keep clothes.”

The main thing she learned in Birmingham was how to better communicate their needs to the public, Rucker said.

After the last disaster, volunteer stations were flooded with items, only some of which were needed. Better donation-management services can prevent waste, Rucker said.

In an emergency, the volunteer managers would be equipped to establish a reception center, or more than one if needed. A center might be set up at a public office, a community center or a church. Volunteer managers would register each volunteer and send him or her where needed, Gaddy said. It would be their job, for instance, to send volunteer chain saw operators to roads with downed trees.

The volunteers would be given collapsible desks with computer equipment, pens, registration forms and liability documents, Rucker said.

Star staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.
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