Wyoming volunteer reception center builds rural first responder workforce and tackles liability issues

In Brief

In Wyoming's rural Natrona County, the local health agency and a volunteer commission partnered to define clear roles and responsibilities during a disaster. The partnership created a center for recruitment, training, liability coverage, and management of disaster volunteers. The county now has a reliable volunteer workforce ready to respond to any regional disaster.

Background

Volunteers who are trained thoroughly and aware of expectations and roles are an important part of disaster response. Especially in rural areas where public services may not have adequate personnel to respond to emergencies, a significant portion of first responders may be volunteers.

ServeWyoming is a governor-appointed commission charged with volunteer management across the state. The commission provides volunteer support services to organizations and individuals, equips agencies with volunteer management training, and maintains a skills-based database that matches volunteers to needs throughout Wyoming. ServeWyoming has partnered informally with the Casper-Natrona County Health Department (CNCHD) to supply help for several large initiatives, including chickenpox vaccination clinics and H1N1 response efforts.

Specific issues
  • Low population density. According to the US Census, Natrona County has a population of 78,600, thus presenting issues with finding enough people to staff a sustained volunteer effort.
  • Legal issues. The multiple organizations for whom ServeWyoming provides volunteer management have varying liability coverage, posing a barrier for some responders.
  • Budget shortfalls. Funding cuts in 2012 lead to a 50% decrease in ServeWyoming's staff, including the individual dedicated to working with the county health department.
The practice

In April 2011, ServeWyoming and the Casper-Natrona County Health Department developed a formal agreement that created a Volunteer Reception Center (VRC) and outlined roles and responsibilities for each organization and a volunteer workforce during a disaster.

The center provides a standardized structure for processing and assigning tasks to just-in-time volunteers. Centralizing volunteer management in this way allows ServeWyoming to quickly assess the qualifications of new volunteers responding to a disaster, assign them to tasks for which they are qualified, turn away people who do not have the required skills, and track volunteers for future reporting to FEMA.

As part of its formal agreement with CNCHD and in support of establishing the center, ServeWyoming developed training for clerical volunteers from the Natrona County Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), who would be responsible for staffing the VRC. ServeWyoming also recruited more than 300 AmeriCorps members to help run the VRC during an emergency, fill outside functions at the county staging area, or assist with Point of Dispensing operations.

Although ServeWyoming and the health agency had been partnering informally for years, the agreement delineated responsibilities between the agencies, thus adding clarity to how each agency would serve an emergency response. The agreement defined roles in the following manner:

ServeWyoming will:

  • Provide one staff person to assist with writing emergency volunteer management plans
  • Coordinate the VRC during a health emergency
  • Recruit volunteers from area organizations during an emergency, if necessary
  • Create and coordinate public service announcements with local print, radio, and television media
  • Participate in VRC exercises and tabletops

CNCHD will:

  • Provide staff to open and operate the center until relief help arrives
  • Support the ServeWyoming staff and associated volunteers with liability protection and worker's compensation
  • Assist with training MRC volunteers for the center's clerical roles
What made this practice possible?
  • Local collaborations. ServeWyoming consists of three full-time employees and relies on strong relationships with local volunteer organizations, especially Americorps/VISTA and the Senior Corps.
  • Funding. ServeWyoming's work is made possible because of funding from the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Results
  • Cohesive response structure. The formal agreement solved the often confusing issue of managing qualified, unqualified, and just-in-time volunteers during a disaster by providing clear plans and trained staff.
  • Liability coverage. As a result of the agreement, all volunteers and ServeWyoming staff could be processed as health agency volunteers, thus covering them for liability and worker's compensation.
  • Assistance with funding cuts. The agreement provided avenues for the health agency to respond with additional staff help when funding cuts decreased the work ServeWyoming could do on VRC planning.

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