Volunteer organizations prep for disasters, address strengths and weaknesses

April 14, 2014 Updated: April 14, 2014 at 12:31 pm
photo - Larry Schmidt of Ruidoso, N.M., cuts down a burned tree while he and other members of the Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief team help the Kincade family Tuesday, July 9, 2013, clean up their property after the Black Forest Fire.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Larry Schmidt of Ruidoso, N.M., cuts down a burned tree while he and other members of the Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief team help the Kincade family Tuesday, July 9, 2013, clean up their property after the Black Forest Fire. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Volunteers are the driving force behind disaster relief and recovery operations across the state, making recruitment, training and preparation an ongoing effort.

Lt. Jeff Williams, commanding officer of the Fountain Valley Salvation Army, said the organization is focused on building its volunteer base, educating the public and securing the best equipment to provide disaster relief.

"Our goal is to have about 25 volunteers readily available, fully certified and trained," Williams explained. "Usually volunteer crews go out in groups of four or five in a canteen. By having 25 volunteers, we can have multiple units available, because disasters often have several areas that need attention.

"There needs to be enough people so everything and everyone can be covered, and we need a network of people who are willing to help and serve the community."

Securing the right equipment is also paramount for the Salvation Army. A top-of-the-line canteen that can serve 12,000 meals per day was added to the local chapter's vehicles from the organization's headquarters in Denver, Williams said.

"Through the Black Forest fire and the floods we realized that this region really needed a much larger and more capable food and emergency canteen. It's valued at $170,000 and it's one of five units of its kind in the western U.S." he said. There are seven smaller canteens in service in the Front Range.

In addition to providing food and water, the Red Cross is usually the first organization to open shelters when disaster strikes. Having the right types of shelters has become one of the agency's biggest priorities, one that its logistics teams evaluate every January, spokesman William Fortune said.

At the beginning of the year, every shelter site in the region affiliated with the Red Cross is assessed, and administrators decide which sites remain in the shelter database.

The Red Cross has begun to adopt an approach in which local chapters call the shots to mobilize relief efforts, relying on regional and national chapters after local resources are exhausted, Fortune said.

"One of the biggest things we took from the fires was that the decision-making in disaster response has to be at the lowest, local level," he said.

"The people at the site of the disaster need to be the ones calling the shots on the details of how materials, volunteers, and resources are allocated," he said. "If you're in Denver, and you're trying to make decisions for a situation that's going on in Colorado Springs, that's not going to work."

Beefing up training academies for volunteers and continuing recruiting efforts, Fortune added, have become top priorities for the Red Cross.

"We never have enough volunteers; we have more than we ever have, but recruitment is a constant concern," Fortune said. "We have a couple thousands of volunteers in the books, but we're making sure everyone is ready to commit to three 12-hour days in the beginning of every disaster event."

The Red Cross and Salvation Army require training, background checks and certifications for volunteers.

Other agencies, such as Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado, sometimes find themselves overwhelmed with volunteers and donated food and supplies during emergencies.

The most valuable lesson the food bank learned from the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012 and Manitou Springs floods last year was asking volunteers to register online, rather than show up at the warehouse, said Shannon Coker, Care and Share's marketing and communications director.

That way, Care and Share can build a database with each volunteer's information, skills and any first aid or specialized certifications, making it easier to match volunteers with needs.

"Especially the day after the Mountain Shadows community lost several homes, it really struck a chord in the community and we had so many people show up at the warehouse that it was overwhelming," Coker said.

"Having too many people stops the process. It presented a safety concern, because there were people everywhere and we couldn't operate the forklifts around them, and we had to turn people away," she said. "That was a really tough thing to do."

"Spontaneous volunteers," as they are called, can be a challenge but they are always an asset, Fortune said, and disaster relief organizations are constantly coming up with ideas of how people can help.

Agencies such as www.helpcoloradonow.org and Colorado Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters have proven to be the best way to galvanize spontaneous volunteers and to channel a community's generosity, Williams said.

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