Out of Uniform

I couldn’t wait to leave school, to stop wearing a uniform. To my horror, when I started nursing, I had to start wearing one again. (the irony of it all, I am glad that my children wear uniforms to school, saves on clothes!). So, naturally, I gravitate towards a project called Out of Uniform, Building Community Resilience Through Non-traditional Emergency volunteering led by John Handmer, Blythe McClennan and Josh Whittaker at RMIT. This project is important, because it is, like the values project, one that is a bit outside the box,

Mention the word spontaneous volunteers, and you will often see a room full of women and men, often in uniform, shudder noticeably. The sector has always been uneasy about this phenomenon, a nuisance, need to be managed, or as one senior government manager said to me once, in this state they are not in the plan, therefore they do not exist, so we do not need to worry about them.

But you know what, they exist, and if we ascribe to this notion of shared responsibility, then this emergent phenomenon is part and parcel of a response and recovery.

I have managed offers of assistance previously, during Operation Safe Haven back in 1999. It is a challenge, managing people’s expectations. “ I have Tuesday afternoon off, and can help out then” And then getting upset when we don’t call back on Tuesday morning. Why don’t you want my pallets of Blue Flavoured milk

Part of the challenge is how we communicate with the public about the management of the disaster. Research we did with Alison Cottrell from James Cook University showed that the majority of people formed the intention to volunteer or volunteered within the first 24 hours, in response to what they were seeing in the media. Authorities are very clear about how the emergency services are responding to and managing the event. Good, timely authoritative information, delivered by a senior official reassures people that things are under control. But when the human interest story is depicted, we see people with only the clothes they are in, and a blanket around their shoulders, and they tell their story, generally one of heartbreak or despair (this drives news stories). I think part of the messaging needs to be, in parallel to the ones about how the fire is being managed, are how the people are being managed or supported. The same authoritative figure says we have plans in place, there are agencies in the plan, and they are help people as we speak. But this is seen as secondary to the main game. I think this would help a lot.

The project is looking at types of volunteering , and the barriers to emergent and organisations that extend their roles. An excellent paper on the types of volunteering, by Blythe, Josh and John should be required reading for all emergency management planners.

The case studies, focussing upon Be Ready Warrandyte and Community On Ground Assistance are also interesting, in how one an extending organisation, the Warrandyte Community Association moved into a new space, bushfire preparedness, and were able to do things that the Country Fire Authority weren’t able to do. The other was an emergent organisation that came together to meet an unmet need post Black Saturday.

Volunteering Queensland’s CREW (Community Response to Extreme Weather ) has done a fantastic job in not only educating people about emergencies, but also maintaining a strong line, normal processes, abnormal times people, and put in place systems to help register and sort volunteers. This is a system that is increasingly being used nationally.

It has been interesting to watch the journey of the emergency services agencies in this project, from being outright resistant and quizzical at the start (We don’t see how we can use this), to being accepting that there is a need to manage, and indeed draw upon this type of volunteering for community support. They still want packages and SOPs to train their people though!.

With a dramatically changing, interconnected society, we need to be able to respond flexibility and draw upon different resources.

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