Disaster relief volunteers and the role they play in emergency management

Take a look at the role of disaster relief volunteers in emergency management and how organizations can plan and manage effectively.

Everyone is moved when they hear the news that a disaster has struck a community and many want to rush to help. Bushfires, floods, hurricanes, other natural disasters, pandemics and even wars are all significant disasters that can suddenly cause chaos and harm to a community. And to help these communities in need, disaster relief organizations often deploy teams of disaster relief volunteers or a community emergency response team to help.

The scale of the disaster will determine how long volunteers and organizations stay to help, and exactly what is needed. But one thing is for sure, disaster relief volunteers are essential to the recovery efforts. However, it is important that offers of assistance are organized and coordinated to ensure they actually are a help, not a hindrance.

In this article, we’ll look at the role disaster relief volunteers play in emergency management and how organizations can plan and manage effectively.


What do disaster relief volunteers do?

There are many tasks to do after a disaster – cleaning up and rebuilding are two of the biggest. But other tasks volunteers might be asked to get involved with include: 

  • Conducting needs assessment
  • Cooking meals 
  • Providing mass sheltering
  • First aid
  • Counseling
  • Pastoral care
  • Child care
  • Pet care
  • Home repair
  • Driving and deliveries
  • Sorting donations 
  • Respond to media inquiries

In the longer term, volunteers may help: 

  • Connect people with relevant government services and payments.
  • Prepare and lodge insurance claims.
  • Help the community with rebuilding.
  • Provide mental health support.
  • Help the community with future planning and education.

And of course, providing a financial contribution should not be overlooked, as this is often the most sensible and efficient way of getting help to those who need it. If you are unable to volunteer your time, donating funds to a voluntary organization involved in disaster relief will be greatly appreciated. 


How can I become involved in disaster response?

First things first - never self-deploy to disaster areas. This will only hinder rescue efforts. Instead, register with a trusted organization operating in the area and let them direct you where your services can be of most use. This will also ensure the proper safety, training and respect are observed. Volunteers in disaster response are needed long after the media attention has died down, so your help might be even more useful long after a disaster. To get involved, start here:

  • You can Google search ‘disaster relief volunteer opportunities near me’
  • Check out volunteer job listings and search in the category of ‘disaster relief’
  • Register with the Red Cross
  • Keep an eye on the news when a disaster occurs
  • Follow disaster recovery non profit organizations such as NVOAD in the US


Roles and responsibilities

Affiliated volunteers

Highly qualified affiliated volunteers (HQAV’s) are essential in disaster relief, as they are often highly skilled and have experience volunteering for disaster relief, having received specific disaster relief volunteer training as part of an organization. They are the people who can take on key roles such as search and rescue, medical help, emergency operations and volunteer emergency management.


Spontaneous volunteers

From a neighbor offering shelter to another neighbor, or a citizen arriving with a box of supplies, spontaneous unaffiliated volunteers (SUV’s) converge on a disaster site in many ways. These volunteers may, or may not, have any specialized skills, but they have a drive and determination to help. By identifying some tasks they could perform and ensuring you have a way to capture their data and deploy them quickly, you will be able to leverage their passion and turn it into action. This handbook has great tips on how to manage spontaneous volunteers.


Types of activities

By understanding the types of activities you need to undertake, you will be able to allocate your disaster relief volunteers to the most suitable roles based on their skills and experience.


  • Assist with planning, communication and resource allocation.
  • Volunteers should be comfortable with technology, communicate clearly, and remain calm and patient.

Health and recovery

  • Assist with the distribution of meals, goods, and emergency supplies.
  • Set up and manage temporary housing and shelters.
  • Offer counseling, emotional support and help to reunite families.
  • Volunteers should have First Aid training or counseling experience, kindness, calmness under pressure and initiative.


  • Drive vehicles (cars, trucks or boats) to affected areas to deliver supplies or rescue people.
  • Volunteers should be confident drivers and have the ability to assess the safety of transport routes and communicate clearly.


  • Safety roles are often allocated to volunteers with experience in search and rescue, first aid, firefighting, and risk assessments.
  • Volunteers should be calm under pressure, physically fit and strong and properly trained.


Volunteer management

Utilizing volunteer management software is essential in disaster relief management. You simply won’t have the time or effort to manually respond to everyone individually, so take advantage of software that can automate recruitment, volunteer scheduling and communication via SMS and email.


Use a digital form to recruit new emergency volunteers, or ask your existing pool of non-relief volunteers if they’d like to get involved with relief work. Collect basic information such as name, contact information and location, but it’s also imperative to collect extra information such as skills, qualifications, licenses or training. 

With this information, you can easily create reports to ensure volunteers can be allocated to the most suitable role.

Onboarding and training

Automate onboarding by creating online training modules that volunteers can complete in their own time at home. This will ensure that when disaster strikes, volunteers feel prepared and have some basic disaster training.

You can also create volunteer roles in your volunteer management software such as those listed above: Administration, health and recovery, transportation, and safety.


Handling the communication is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of coordinating a volunteer disaster relief effort. Let your software handle everything from sending out mass SMS and emails, allocating shifts and dealing with shift changes, and last-minute updates. Not only will this reduce some stress, but it will also reduce misinformation and panic which can occur during disaster relief.


Drafting an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) for your organization

You never know when disaster will strike. So it’s important to have an EOP document in place well in advance so you can provide clear guidance to those involved in the disaster response.

There may be multiple community organizations involved in the relief efforts, and they will likely each be given a jurisdiction to manage. To ensure your organization is involved in the disaster response, it’s important to communicate with emergency management departments at the federal, state or local level. That way, you can be part of your jurisdiction's planning process and have a clear idea about which essential service you could take on.

When drafting your EOP, it should focus on the roles and volunteer responsibilities within your organization and the process for managing volunteers during a disaster.


What to include in your EOP?

Plan Activation

Activation procedures need to be clear and concise so anyone reading them knows exactly what to do. You should cover who to speak to, when and how to communicate with volunteers, and what information needs to be provided.

Crisis Communications

Decide who will be your spokesperson and public information officer responsible for liaising with the media and other organizations.

Draft some approved communications templates that can be rolled out immediately. At the same time, consider how you will use technology to communicate with volunteers, and ensure that multiple people are trained to use it. 


Create an incident command structure and assign capable volunteers or staff to fill each position. Additionally, assign roles and responsibilities to other staff members. If you have gaps, identify the ideal volunteers needed to fill those gaps.

Consider the types of roles Spontaneous Untrained Volunteers (SUV’s) can perform, vs the gaps that can only be filled by staff or Highly Qualified Affiliated Volunteers (HQAV’s) so that highly-trained volunteers aren’t being underutilized. Be sure to utilize your volunteer registration form to capture as much information as possible on your volunteers to help you allocate roles accordingly.

Training plan

Devise a training plan that includes:

  • The type of training modules that can be completed online ahead of time
  • The type of training that can only be completed in person
  • How often this training should take place
  • How often you will gather to exercise the EOP
  • Who will need to be involved in the drill


Prepare a survey or feedback grid that can be used at the conclusion of any event, whether it’s a drill or the real thing, to gather feedback for improvement.

You want to capture what worked, what didn’t, how things can be improved, and any major gaps in the response plan.

The responses should be used to improve the EOP.

In this section, you could also include a plan to thank volunteers for their involvement through a reward and recognition program.

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

As part of your EOP, you could include a set of documents that provide detailed instructions for each disaster relief volunteer role or task. These are known as SOPs and they should clarify job descriptions and the volunteers responsibilities in taking on that task. This will save you a lot of time during the initial days of disaster relief.



Research and experience have found that disaster prevention, preparedness, response and recovery are more effective when volunteer responses form part of an emergency management plan. 

Creating a management plan for disaster relief volunteers, both spontaneous and affiliated, will ensure the disaster recovery effort is as well-managed as possible from the start.

While you can never be fully prepared for a disaster, any work that is done in advance will help in the long run.

Read more about managing volunteers on our blog:

At Rosterfy, we understand that recruiting and managing a successful army of engaged and reliable volunteers is challenging. 

Take some of the stress out of volunteer management and let Rosterfy’s industry-leading software handle the time-consuming admin tasks so you can focus on what’s really important --leading the disaster recovery efforts.

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