Volunteer, government agencies come together

Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters works to become one-stop shop

Norma Engelberg
Volunteers from Woodmen Valley Church served attendees at a joint volunteer organization-government agency emergency management workshop on March 6 in Woodland Park.
Norma Engelberg

During and after an emergency, volunteer and nonprofit organizations can provide food, shelter, clothing, behavioral and physical health care and other services but there are often so many of these organizations that it’s becomes difficult for emergency managers to know whom to call.

Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters wants to alleviate the need to call multiple individuals and organizations. Itself a volunteer organization, the group was formed last October in Colorado’s South Central All-Hazards Region, which includes El Paso, Teller, Park, Lake and Chaffee counties, to bring local support organizations together into a one-stop-shop that emergency managers can use during an emergency.

On March 6, VOAD brought together representatives from more than 20 volunteer organizations, including the American Red Cross, Black Forest Together, Discover Goodwill, Global Food Exchange and a variety of faith-based groups, and representatives from almost 20 governmental agencies from the five counties for a workshop designed to build relationships and help agencies and organizations learn how to work together before a disaster hits.

The five-hour workshop, which took place at Woodland Park Community Church, included a table top exercise and a scenario that is becoming all too familiar to Coloradans: a wild-land fire.

“The Waldo Canyon Fire, the Black Forest Fire and subsequent flooding have offered us far too many opportunities to work together,” Teller County’s emergency manager Steve Steed said during opening remarks. “This workshop offers us an exceptional opportunity to maintain the relationships we’ve made during these emergencies.”

Nick DeSutter, South Central Region VOAD chair said the meeting was meant to expose volunteer agencies to the emergency management world and vice versa.

“Emergency managers don’t own anything but they’re in charge of everything in an emergency,” said Andy Cain, a workshop facilitator. “We need to determine how we can help each other, develop strong lines of communications and improve the integration between government agencies and volunteer organizations.”

“Here in the West we `cowboy up,’” he added before sending the various discussion groups to six classrooms for the morning session. “This is one of the few places in the United States where people run toward the shots fired, the accident or the emergency.”

In each classroom, diverse groups discussed the same scenario and learned about the differences between the incident commander and the emergency manager and their various needs.

Agency representatives explained that an incident commander is in charge of tactics used to protect lives and properties and an emergency manager is in charge of evacuees, both human and animals, or as one manager said, incident commanders are in charge of “impact” and emergency managers are in charge of “splash.”

Each group came up with different solutions to similar problems, how to manage donations and spontaneous volunteers, how to make sure volunteers have the needed skills and are who they say they are.

Most people agreed that volunteerism needs to be encouraged but they also agreed that volunteers should be credentialed so that background checks can be made and they can be trained properly. Volunteers are encouraged to take basic Incident Command System, National Incident Management System training and/or Citizen Emergency Response Training. ICS and NIMS training is offered online free of charge at www.fema.gov/training.

Lt. Jason Mikesell, emergency response team commander for the Teller County Sheriff’s Office, said there are usually things he needs quickly at the beginning of an emergency. “In a fire, we might need to evacuate residents within the first 30 minutes or less,” he said. “We need temporary locations to send these people hours before the Red Cross shelter is up and running. Time can become a big concern.”

He added that unsolicited donations can become a storage nightmare but they can also be a big help.

“We have our own stockpiles of socks, dog and cat food, hay and diapers,” he said. “When a highway is closed people could be in need very quickly.”

Halfway through the meeting, the groups broke for lunch that was provided and served by volunteers from Woodmen Valley Church. At the end of the day nearly everyone agreed that the meeting opened some eyes. Most said that a directory of services like the one published in Teller County can be of help. Teller County’s directory not only includes volunteer organizations but also lists schools, churches and businesses.

DeSutter showed the group an information card concept, similar to a baseball card that could make identifying volunteers and volunteer organizations easier. He also unveiled the South Central Region VOAD’s improved website, www.cosrcvoad.org. The site is still under construction but when it’s done it should provide a lot more information and links to various member organizations.

Other websites where people can find out how to help in an emergency include www.helpcoloradonow.org and www.coemergency.com.