Man is a social animal and places society above self.
This becomes more evident during a disaster.
We see spontaneous actions by volunteers who at times even risk their lives to help the distressed population.
They play multiple roles in evacuation, search, rescue, relief activities, shelter management and meeting several needs of the affected population.
During cyclone Fani, in May 2019, Odisha government undertook one great evacuation exercise of more than 1.5 million people to safe shelters within a period of few hours, which is a kind of record in the history of disaster management.
Such a herculean and flawless task was accomplished with the involvement of countless number of volunteers who assisted in planning, transportation, arranging logistics, ensuring safety & security of people and taking care of the vulnerable groups while augmenting the efforts of government functionaries.
Promoting volunteerism is one important goal that Odisha has aimed to achieve after the super cyclone- 1999.
Odisha’sDisaster Management Policy of 2005 envisages to “promote a spirit of volunteerism and develop a cadre of well trained volunteers whose services will be utilized during emergencies”.
It sees distinct roles for the volunteers belonging to Nehru Yuva Kendras, National Social Services, Scouts & Guides, National Cadet Corps and stakeholders within civil society.
Mitigation of risks and consequences of disasters in communities remain the avowed objectives of community volunteers.
The core functions played by the volunteers include management of effects of floods, storms, tsunami, cyclone, drought etc which the communities face from time to time with increased frequency in recent times. The community based volunteers are most suited for immediate response to disasters like tsunami, bush fire, earth quake, landslides, whirl wind, boat tragedy, highway accidents because of the very nature of these calamities.
The disaster managers are using the network of volunteers for various functions like disaster awareness, community resource mapping, preparation of disaster management plans, constitution of disaster response teams, advocacy for risk mitigations, in school safety preparedness programs and involving them in different activities like providing medical first aid including psychological first aid, care of special people, control of communicable disease, information education communication, nutrition management, safe water and sanitation etc.
During the time of disasters, we get spontaneous volunteers who respond to their inner call to help the fellow countrymen and women to alleviate their sufferings.
Many corporate volunteers including universities and business entities offer their staff, skill, resources and incident management support to the government.
Several NGOs, CBOs, Red Cross, NSS, NYK, NCC, Civil Defence mobilize various resources and try to reach out to the distressed people.
However, it is observed that while relief may reach some areas abundantly, some areas remain without assistance.
Proper coordination becomes a difficulty and a challenge to be addressed.
Many countries around the globe have devised methods to utilize the community spirited volunteers in disaster management.
One great example one could cite is about the New South Wales State Emergency Service (SES). A sixty year old emergency and rescue service organization is dedicated to assisting the community.
This organization believes that key to community safety and resilience is trained and equipped community based volunteers.
It provides emergency assistance to the people of New South Wales round the clock.
With 9,000 volunteers across the state, 730 vehicles, 380 boats, 320 staff it operates from 250 locations.
NSW SES Volunteers come from all walks of life, bringing with them many different skills, interests and backgrounds.
They are united by the purpose of supporting their communities in times of need.
Their major responsibilities are for flood and storm emergencies.
They also provide the majority of general rescue effort in the rural parts of the state in road accident rescue, vertical rescue, bush search and rescue, evidence searches and other forms of specialist rescue that may be required due to local threats.
Volunteers in a number of isolated communities have been trained as Community First Responders by the Ambulance Service of NSW. The organizations trained rescuers also support the full-time emergency services during major disasters.
Operating under an Inter-service Incident Management System, SES is organized into five zones, which have further been divided into clusters and then units (base level) with division of responsibilities and functions.
An effective organizational structure led by the commissioner has a proper reporting system from the unit commander to local commander (cluster) level, then to deputy commander and zone commander.
The vision of SES is to be the best volunteer emergency service in Australia.
A dedicated training directorate looks after the streamlined volunteer training. The volunteers are recruited, trained, equipped and retained because of the positive, empowering, fulfilling and rewarding experience they get through their successful community engagement.
The volunteers make the communities safer and resilient due to their continuous engagement, partnership and planning.
By focusing on the core roles, incident management, technology & innovation, flexibility, responding to the capability needs, SES has become a role model in using the energy of volunteers in disaster management.
At the times of disasters, many people feel sad for not being able to help the community because of lack of an opportunity though the disaster management organization would need people with different skill sets and in diverse locations for different functions.
Studies show that volunteering improves the mental health of people due to the social connectedness with community.
Volunteering can also be exciting for youth as they become part of something bigger than themself and they become better citizens.
It remains a challenge for the disaster management organization show they recruit, train; utilize volunteers in their day to day activities like it has been done in case of NSW- SES.
We have different community based organizations doing different roles including disaster management.
Having a dedicated community based emergency response system may be of immense help in a country like India which see multiple disasters over the vast territory.
The community based local units of volunteers are best suited to respond local disasters which often do not get proper attention or get delayed response like whirl wind, drowning, road accident, lightning accident, snake bite, wild life matters.
The case study of SES offers few lessons to us for according due place to the volunteers in disaster management Organizations in a formal manner to mitigate the community risks.
*The author is principal Secretary, the department of Revenue and disaster management, government of Odisha. The opinions expressed are personal.