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Spontaneous volunteers the new face of helping out in times of emergency

By Sarina Locke, Thursday September 7, 2017 - 17:13 EST
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The Helping Hands group of volunteers at Lismore in the 2017 floods - ABC

Volunteering is undergoing a change as emergency agencies notice a decline in committed volunteers, but a rise in spontaneous, event-driven volunteering.

But emergency agencies, who are losing volunteers to retirement or busy life commitments, are now faced with the challenge of harnessing this new breed of spontaneous volunteers.

The Emergency Management Conference in Sydney has heard the volunteers who arrive on the day of an emergency are often seen as a problem not a resource.

But that is shifting, as agencies like the State Emergency Service of NSW starting a new program to harness spontaneous volunteers, who may come with exceptional skills.

"We realise that corporate volunteers bring skills and experience to use in the SES," said Andrew McCullough Volunteering Strategist with the NSW State Emergency Service.

"In the past we've had a hackathon, people with IT skills come and volunteer with us, so they bring a lot of different skills, whether a media or finance background, or whatever they do in their day job.

"In a lot of cases they don't need a uniform, they don't need to fill sand bags.

"Accountants for example are required in the SES to do finance, or you could use your similar skills to do something else."

Mr McCullough said the new form of volunteering was the key for communities to develop resilience.

"This certainly will be a challenge for the SES, but the community wants to volunteer differently," he said.

"So we're making sure they can."

It was inspired, in part, by the work of locals in Lismore who set up the Helping Hands Hub during the floods in March from ex-Tropical Cyclone Debbie.

At 71, Hugh Nicholson was too old to volunteer with the SES, but found a role in the Lismore Helping Hands Hub.

He found a niche role taking sleeping bags, used very briefly by the volunteers, for the community on Cabbage Tree Island who were badly hit by the storm.

He said it was chaotic fun at the hub.

"One guy had a tool belt and helped people with small jobs," he said.

"There were a couple of teenage girls on school holidays who volunteered every day, and went out cleaning. They were extraordinary.

"The hub was just incredible chaos, a happy chaos, people would arrive perhaps desperately in need of help and they could get a cup of tea, get a feed and go and talk to someone who would listen to them."

Spontaneous volunteers

Blythe McLennan from RMIT University told the Emergency Management Conference that similar to the trend with paid work, there was now a widespread shift to short-term volunteerism.

She said many people were now simply turning up on the day a disaster strikes.

"If you ask 'Who wants to help?' the answer is 'Absolutely everybody!'" she laughed.

"Everybody wants to help out when there's a disaster or an emergency, and we often call them spontaneous volunteers — the ones who are not trained with emergency management agencies."

But Dr McLennan said it was difficult for the agencies to cope with the untrained crew.

'The emergency services are trying to keep tabs with what is a really dynamic situation, and they've got people turning up," she said.

"They don't know what their capacities are, it's unpredictable, but it's also a valuable surge capacity and community resilience is being mobilised."


© ABC 2017

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