In the movies, when the town is threatened by natural or other events, somebody rounds up all the able bodied people and gets them to spring into action. If it’s a western, women, men, and children load rifles, make barricades, and fire off a few rounds. They barely hold out until the cavalry arrives — the official responders. Why not? They’re protecting their own town.
The “Why not?” involves expertise and is not an easy question to answer. We all likely know that if you move someone who has a spinal or neck injury, you might make it worse. Most of us only know a little first aid — loosen the tie, elevate the head, keep the victim warm, and so on.
There’s little harm done if help is on its way.
However, in a serious emergency there can be harm done. Memphis notes this in its disaster recovery plan. It notes that in one Mexico City earthquake, volunteers saved 800 people’s lives, but 100 volunteers were killed. That doesn’t sound like a great trade off.
Cities and government agencies, however, are trying to make that trade off more appropriate. Portland and Vancouver may be leaders in harnessing average citizens. It can start with education. In the Portland Science Center they have displays for kids to show the effects of earthquakes and what to do if you’re in one. Parents should benefit too because bolting things down, stiffening buildings, and other easy steps can save lives and money.
Volunteers need training and information. Police, fire, medical, and other responders may be pressed to the limit, injured, or dead. Volunteers may be needed. Volunteers may be first on the scene. Few parents would wait around for official responders while children are calling for help in the rubble of a building.
In Portland and elsewhere, this is recognized. Volunteers are subject to police checks and training. They’re given hard hats, reflective vests, and other gear. They have roles to play in an emergency.
If your town doesn’t have a formal program, or if the programs set up by government agencies such as FEMA haven’t arrived in your town yet, you can still get started. A first step is to ask around your block, apartment building, co-op, or condo. Who has medical training? Who owns equipment and vehicles you might need? Who will run a short seminar on how to use these things or how to administer first aid? Can you afford to stockpile some food, and other supplies?
In public and private sector organizations this is good information to know and capture as part of the Human Resources function. It would be a great role for these departments to lead the collection and maintenance of an employee skills inventory. This is an inventory in which employees keep HR departments in the know about what skills or assets they have.
It’s important to remember that volunteering can start with you and your neighbors. You don’t need a government program to get going.