Untrained volunteers may do harm as well as good during disasters, study finds

by Mark Guidera

In the immediate aftermath of hurricanes, floods and other disasters, it's not uncommon for people to turn out in large numbers to assist victims, clear debris and chip in on dozens of other tasks to get a community back on its feet.

Their altruism is inspiring, but results of a study by a Johns Hopkins expert suggest these unsolicited or "spontaneous" volunteers may be putting themselves and others at risk for injury and, in rare cases, death as a result of their lack of training in safe and proper disaster response.

In a report published online on March 25 in advance of the print edition of Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, Lauren Sauer, M.S., surveyed 24 nongovernment volunteer organizations (NVOs) that had responded to in the past and found that 19 of them—or 79 percent—had spontaneous volunteers show up to help. While a majority of those organizations said they found such volunteers useful, 42 percent reported that volunteers had been injured in the response, and there were two reported deaths among them. Organizations were allowed to respond anonymously as a way to encourage survey participation.

Sauer, a disaster training expert and faculty member in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's Department of Emergency Medicine, says she decided to conduct her survey when she found that the level of risk such volunteers may face had never been well-studied despite how ubiquitous the volunteer phenomenon is in the United States.

"In the U.S., it's very common to see a big outpouring of volunteers after a disaster. People feel compelled to turn out," Sauer says, noting that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City, 40,000 volunteers streamed to ground zero. "What's interesting is no one's taken a close look at the level of risk for the people who show up after these disasters without any training on how they can stay out of harm's way."

Sauer also found that:

  • Only about one-third of the organizations responding to the survey said they accepted any legal liability for unsolicited volunteers.
  • Sixteen percent of organizations reported lawsuits as the result of casualty among unsolicited volunteers.

Two organizations always made sure that the volunteers they tapped in a disaster had prior response training, called "credentialing." Only one organization performed background checks on volunteers. More than half—53 percent—of the groups said they provided on-the-spot or "just-in-time" training for volunteers turning out to a disaster site.

Prior to her survey, Sauer reviewed studies documenting psychological stress among untrained volunteers in the wake of their disaster experience and found that post-traumatic stress disorder was common.

Overall, Sauer says, her research raises a number of compelling volunteer safety and liability issues that need to be addressed with further studies and the development of a safer, more systematic approach to taking on unsolicited and untrained volunteers in the field right after a calamity.

There are some models worthy of consideration, says Sauer. For example, the community service organization Points of Light Foundation, based in Atlanta, recommends that a "go kit," which includes training information, be issued to volunteers prior to them being allowed into a disaster area to assist.

"The presence of spontaneous volunteers is unavoidable after a disaster. They are always well-intentioned and have a high level of altruism. We don't want to discourage that," says Sauer. "But it does appear from this study that the NVOs need to take a harder look at safety and liability issues. The goal should be minimizing any risk of harm to their ."

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Volunteers and algorithms need training to find MH370

Mar 14, 2014

It has been nearly a week since flight Malaysia Airlines MH370 disappeared some time after taking off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Despite searches led by the Malaysian authorities, there is still n ...

Health care volunteers and disasters: First, be prepared

Feb 24, 2010

A surge in volunteers following a major disaster can overwhelm a response system, and without overall coordination, can actually make a situation worse instead of better .The outpouring of medical volunteers who responded ...

Recommended for you

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jim4321
not rated yet Apr 02, 2014
This article touches on a very important debatable aspect of disaster relief. The fact is -- sometimes spontaneous volunteers are essential for saving many lives and preventing further destruction, other times, these volunteers just get in the way of trained first responders. When are such volunteers essential and when are they just a big pain in the neck? I suggest that this depends on: the degree of destruction; its spatial extent; and how many lives can be saved by rapid response. At one extreme, let's assume that a monster quake, the big one, hits coastal California along a line from just north of San Diego to nearly San Francisco resulting in tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the rubble. We will want "all hands on board" to extricate people. All volunteers should be welcomed in such a case. In other disasters, such as a building collapse -- where there are adequate numbers of first responders--volunteers should be firmly discourage

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.