by Alan S. Brown

Charles Hargrove was getting a Snapple and donut from a coffee cart outside his Manhattan office when the guy next to him took off his radio headphones and said a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

Hargrove remembers looking up at the cloudless blue sky and dismissing the possibility. But when he arrived in his office and flipped on the television, most channels were off the air. The last time that happened was 1993, when a bomb knocked out the World Trade Center's antennas. He found a working station just in time to see the second jet plunge into the building.

While his office mates stood transfixed by the disaster, Hargrove took out his two portable radios and began calling members of RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service), an organization of ham radio volunteers who provide communications assistance in emergencies. Most of RACES' 30 New York City members carry at least one radio with them at all times.

The collapse of the Towers overwhelmed the city's communications capabilities. It destroyed cell phone antennas, phone lines and power cables. First responders and other public agencies jammed NYC's 15 assigned frequencies. High traffic congealed the cellular phone system. Critical messages were slipping through the cracks.

RACES and its sister organization ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) stepped into the breach. With radios that can access thousands of frequencies, they quickly established backup communications networks.

When fires drove NYC's Office of Emergency Management from its headquarters, Hargrove worked with the phone company to find a location near working phone lines. Other hams helped the Red Cross set up shelters, track down keys to closed facilities, order supplies and food, and direct volunteers across the city.

RACES and ARES volunteers shadowed city officials, linked police and fire departments using incompatible equipment, and provided a backup channel for city hospitals. When the nation flooded the Salvation Army with emergency supplies, ham operators used shortwave and citizen band radios to direct incoming trucks to warehouses in and around the city.

An Army

RACES and ARES members were just a small platoon in the army of volunteers that mobilized to help after 9/11. The numbers are staggering.

Over the following months, the Red Cross alone fielded 57,000 staff and volunteers, opened 60 shelters and served 14 million meals. It provided more than 133,000 health and 240,000 mental health sessions and opened more than 55,000 cases for financial assistance. The Salvation Army's 7,149 staff and 32,275 volunteers served an additional 3 million meals while warehousing and distributing vital supplies.

Many less known organizations also played vital roles in the response and recovery. Southern Baptists fielded 3,800 volunteers who prepared more than 1 million meals. Experts in mopping up after hurricanes, they cleaned and sanitized 643 apartments. America's Second Harvest volunteers helped collect, sort, store and distribute the influx of donated food and supplies.

The Church of the Brethren provided emergency childcare while families applied for aid. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and Humane Society rescued pets left behind. Church World Service found 600 undocumented workers too scared to ask anyone for help. Other volunteer groups manned warehouses, provided counseling, replaced lost eyeglasses and medications, helped victims apply for aid and even paid the rent.

Unknown Responders

The response to 9/11 drew a dizzying number of volunteers to a city that had never previously doubted its ability to cope with a crisis. Some worked in the background, moving food and supplies and finding aid for survivors. Others stood shoulder-to-shoulder with responders as they searched for survivors amid the wreckage.

While NYC had long worked with the Red Cross and Salvation Army, it knew little or nothing about the many other organizations that came to its aid. Yet many of these organizations have been carrying out similar missions for decades.

In regions of the country where hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and severe winter weather are common, their names are well known by the responder community. There, they have become a vital part of community and regional emergency plans, playing essential roles in response, recovery and mitigation.

Where disasters are less commonplace, many of these volunteer groups and their services remain unknown and underutilized at the local and county level – until an emergency occurs. Only then do volunteers rush into action.

Surprisingly, the result is not usually pandemonium. While some small organizations may act independently, many others partner with the Red Cross and Salvation Army. In a large incident, they become part of an integrated chain of command.

Filling the Gaps

Responders can maximize the capabilities of volunteer organizations in their communities by making them part of the preparedness planning process. There are lots of good reasons to do so.

This starts with specialized training. Many volunteer organizations have highly trained, full-time emergency management staffs. They also train their volunteers. Because they have done this before, they often provide much-needed experience when events at a disaster begin to accelerate.

Volunteer groups also bring a very broad range of skills to an incident. "Most organizations that are serious about disaster response have developed a specialized mission," says John Gavin, executive secretary of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD), an association of volunteer response groups.

While the Red Cross and Salvation Army are big enough to do almost everything, other groups pick a niche where they can make a difference. Southern Baptists are know for feeding victims and responders. The National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) and Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors offer counseling. Adventist Community Services and Second Harvest collect and distribute food and supplies. The International Association of Jewish Vocational Services helps find new jobs.

These services fill the gaps between the first response – putting out a fire, stemming a flood, rescuing tornado survivors – and government relief. Their response is immediate and flexible as opposed to more bureaucratic government agencies. This reduces the confusion and panic that often follows disaster. Equally important, voluntary groups expand the resources available to any single community or region.

Role Call

Red Cross services showcase how many roles volunteers can play in a disaster. The organization is best known for mass care for stricken communities. One reason Red Cross moves so fast is that it has prenegotiated agreements with local businesses and organizations for food, shelter and supplies. It also operates a fleet of 290 emergency response vehicles.

Red Cross also provides disaster health and mental health services. These may range from basic first aid or initial interviews with licensed counselors to replacement of lost eyeglasses, hearing aids, prosthetics and medications. As events unfold, Red Cross workers help families contact loved ones. Afterwards, they may provide financial aid or help survivors tap into recovery services.

Southern Baptists also provide a wide range of services, says Mickey Caison, who heads up relief efforts for the North American Mission Board (NAMB). Southern Baptists operate a fleet of 90 field kitchens capable of cooking more than 25,000 meals per day. They often provide meals through the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

NAMB can also call on a fleet of 250 recovery units, trucks loaded with chain saws, shovels and temporary repair equipment. Most were built and outfitted by the sect's 45,000 churches. After hurricanes, floods or ice storms, they will cut trees off homes, open driveways and streets, shovel muck out of homes, and close up doors, windows and roofs to prevent further damage. Responders will certainly appreciate NAMB's fleet of 17 shower units, as well as its laundry vans for cleanup of volunteers who may stay for days or weeks.

Like other proactive organizations, Southern Baptists prestage vehicles and teams so they're on the scene as soon as needed. "As Hurricane Floyd moved up the northern coast of North Carolina, we came in under it, setting up as soon as it was safe," Caison recalls. "We had kitchens cooking the same day Floyd went out. Sometimes, our chainsaw units cut their way in."

Planning

That kind of dedication is worth tapping into. But responders first need to get past some considerations of their own. Many worry that volunteers will make their life miserable and complicated, says Gavin. "Unfortunately, help doesn't come in a nice, neat package," he says. "The key is to work out procedures beforehand. A lot of smaller organizations are not used to the incident command system. They're used to consensus decision making. They may take all afternoon to hammer out an agreement that would take an incident staff a few seconds."

Yet many volunteer organizations have grown savvier at working large incidents. NVOAD, Gavin explains, began after the response to Hurricane Camille in 1969. "We had organizations tripping over one another, duplicating services in some areas and providing no services in other areas," he recalls. NVOAD was created so organizations could share information, refine their missions, and figure out how to work together."

That has helped volunteer groups find ways to integrate with one another and incident command, says Gavin. But even more importantly, first responders must make volunteer organizations part of the emergency planning process so they understand one another's unique capabilities, limitations and goals.

"Once their mission is defined," says Gavin, "these people know how to do their jobs."

Sidebar: Tapping into Volunteer Disaster Organizations

Disaster organizations vary greatly and so do the methods of tapping into them. The Red Cross and Salvation Army are known in virtually every community. Both have trained professionals who coordinate disaster relief in hundreds of communities across the country. They should be included in any local or regional planning process.

Many smaller response groups are activated by local representatives. For faith-based organizations, they may include priests, ministers and rabbis. Secular groups may have local or regional offices. Responders should spend time understanding their diverse capabilities so they can decide where they fit into the emergency plan.

Training together is also important. FEMA's hazmat exercises, for example, regularly include Red Cross. Localities may want to include other organizations as well. When it comes to working together in a disaster, nothing replaces practice.

There are several excellent resources for responders seeking to bring volunteer organizations into their planning process. These include:

NVOAD Web site. The first step in tracking down voluntary disaster relief organizations should be a trip to NVOAD's Web site, http://www.nvoad.orgwww.nvoad.org. The organization has links to its 35 national members, as well as links to state coordinators that can help you find local resources. NVOAD's "Links" page is an eye-opener for disaster information.

FEMA. FEMA offers two training programs in working with volunteers. These are:

  • The Role of Voluntary Agencies in Emergency Management (IS-288). This publication describes many of the largest volunteer groups and their capabilities. It can be found at training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/IS/is288.asp.
  • Developing & Managing Volunteers (IS-244), explains how responders can set up their own programs to recruit and train volunteers. It is found at training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/IS/is244.asp.