Volunteering in Emergencies
The panel was led by Andrés Morales, IFRC's Volunteering & Youth Development Regional Coordinator and included insights from Félix Castañeda, Member of the Guatemalan Red Cross since 2000, Fernando Rivera, National Volunteering Coordinator, Mexican Red Cross and Ignacio Larrondo, IFRC's Volunteering in Emergency Office.
A key requirement of national societies is the capacity to mobilize volunteers to provide services where necessary. This means ensuring that volunteers have the required resources and support to effectively carry out voluntary services.
In the context of working in risk prevention amidst COVID-19, the Red Cross must unlearn and relearn several processes and how we operate. Volunteers also have to adapt, especially to technological advances to be able to effectively carry out their duties, e.g. hosting training sessions online.
Vulnerabilities are enhanced due to COVID-19, so the Red Cross has to increases its preparedness activities, ensuring volunteers are trained before being deployed in emergencies. Adequately organizing and training volunteers will enable us to respond in a coherent manner when a disaster or emergency occurs. In Guatemala for example, the Guatemalan Red Cross mobilized and assigned youth volunteers to lead face to face activities instead of older volunteers, since older volunteers were more at risk due to COVID-19.
Before emergencies, it is critical to assign specific roles to volunteers, so they know how to respond before, during and after emergencies. Volunteers should be informed upon recruitment, of the nature of the operations of the Red Cross, and what is expected of them. Where we have spontaneous volunteers signing up to respond to emergencies, these should be trained and integrated into the response, ensuring they are aware of the Red Cross code of conduct and principles.
COVID-19 has modified everything and has forced us to look at how we mobilize volunteers, taking into consideration the restrictions imposed by the state. We also have to ensure the care and welfare of volunteers by putting systems in place such as volunteer insurance, distribution of PPE, operational security and training before deployment, so that volunteers have everything they need to carry out their tasks as safely as possible.
During emergencies, it important to bear in mind that volunteers can also be impacted and so they need to be included in the assessment and the response. For e.g. in the COVID plan, volunteer support had to be included in the budget for volunteers working in the response who needed to live away from their family members for a sustained period to avoid infecting them. Water, food, health and security are critical components which need to be secured for volunteers during emergencies.
After emergencies, the Red Cross supports not just volunteers but also family members of volunteers who may have passed away during emergency response. Psychologists are hired to provide support not just to responders but also their affected loved ones. It’s important to help people that help others. Volunteers have to be protected so they can feel safe in order to help other people. If volunteers don’t feel safe, it will be difficult for them to effectively help communities.
Lastly, it is important to put in place retention and recognition programmes for volunteers. Satisfaction surveys are important in assessing how volunteers feel about their role and how they are being treated. Showing recognition to volunteers after emergency response helps them feel appreciated and more willing to continue volunteering in other emergencies. It is also critical to maintain the care and welfare of volunteers even after the emergency, including monitoring volunteers from a psychosocial perspective and offering mental health resources which they can access.