California launches US’s first Disaster Corps

When large-scale disasters strike, people want to help, and that’s good news. But when crowds of well-intentioned folks show up at a disaster site, the situation can become chaotic and counter-productive. No state knows this better than California—which has experienced it share of disasters, from wildfires and floods to oil spills and earthquakes. And now, California has launched a program designed to professionalize, standardize and coordinate all statewide disaster volunteers

On June 25, California has announced the formation a state-funded volunteer Disaster Corps –the first such group in the US. Under the programs, volunteers will be registered by their local government organization and be required to meet training, certification and security guidelines.

The idea for the corps began in 2007, a particularly eventful year for disasters in California. During the summer, southern California was plagued by wildfires. In November, a container ship—the Cosco Busan—crashed into the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The resulting 100-foot gash in the ship’s hull spewed 58,000 gallons of fuel oil into the water, fouling beaches and endangering wildlife in the area.

Thousands of disaster volunteers poured into those areas to assist with evacuations, sheltering, clean-up and a host of other activities supporting response operations. During the Cosco Busan Oil Spill, more than 1,200 volunteers deployed to assist in beach clean-up efforts. During the wildfires, an estimated 10,000 volunteers registered with local volunteer centers in the affected areas; nearly 3,000 spontaneous unaffiliated volunteers were deployed to assist at an information hotline and help at shelters. Additionally, approximately 750 trained, affiliated volunteers were deployed to provide first-responder support in staging areas, base camp, incident command posts and evacuations.

With such an outpouring of volunteers, a clear need evolved to more effectively integrate and coordinate disaster volunteer efforts in all phases of emergency management, from disaster preparedness and extending through disaster response and recovery. Disaster volunteer resources were not integrated into the State Emergency Plan and were spread across a multitude of different organizations and programs, varying in function and mission. CaliforniaVolunteers got the job of developing a framework to help integrate volunteers in to the state’s emergency management system. (CaliforniaVolunteers is the state office that manages programs and initiatives aimed at increasing the number of Californians engaged in service and volunteering.)

The result is the new Disaster Corps, which will have guidelines to help identify volunteers’ strengths and keep their efforts more organized. CaliforniaVolunteers will coordinate the new group’s first major effort. CaliforniaVolunteers has awarded $1.15 million in federal Homeland Security funding to five counties, to provide background checks and first-aid training for the first 1,000 volunteers. Each county also will get an official volunteer coordinator.

As an additional part of the coordination effort, CaliforniaVolunteers is launching the Disaster Volunteer Resource Inventory, an online tool that will coordinate and support volunteer programs statewide. Official Disaster Corps programs and NGOs will be granted free access to the tool. The inventory will also house individual volunteer’s full case history including contact information, training received, availability and past projects, as well as any special skill information.

So far the project has received services and funding from private-sector contributors such as Deloitte LLP, which provided $750,000 in pro-bono consulting and The Home Depot Foundation, which has committed $60,000 for disaster-related supplies.