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Disaster responses: How to work with your community

The public that we serve is not only looking for help, but often given the chance they would like to help others in case of a tragedy

It feels in recent months and years as if all areas of the U.S. are having more and more natural disasters.

Here in the Northeast, we have just survived a major hurricane and a freak October snowstorm. It is times like this that a volunteer fire department becomes more of a community resource than just a fire department.

It’s both an essential task of a local department and also a great opportunity.

Fire departments are the last resort in any emergency, expected to handle anything the world can throw at them. Our communities expect us to be there, and we are. Fire departments turn into shelters, community centers and places of refuge.

Unfortunately, our training is often focused on handling short-term emergencies, not crisis that can stretch weeks or even months. But even if it is not what we are prepared for, we seem to find a way.

The public that we serve is not only looking for help, but often given the chance they would like to help others in case of a tragedy.

For many, finding a way to be useful in an emergency (especially a prolonged one) provides both a sense of purpose and stability.

The problem is that departments tend to be exclusionary and only rely on ourselves and our brethren. Therefore, when our community wants to help, we quickly reply that we are there to help them, not the other way around…

Community disasters provide us with an opportunity to not only help our community but to build the community as long as we are willing.

Ideally we would want to have planned in advance through programs like the Fire Corps or CERT teams. This helps to train and prepare the public to help others.

Even if we haven’t set up a CERT or Fire Corps program in advance, there is likely to be great interest directly after the event that can be used to our advantage.

Also, directly after an event, we may be able to identify ways that we could have used CERT or Fire Corps members.

In the old days, before federal programs, many departments had auxiliary corps (often women’s auxiliary). Many of these groups have fallen off or turned into social clubs rather than being a resource for the department.

Emergencies and disasters may spark renewed interest or focus in being an auxiliary member. Auxiliary members are often acting in non-firefighting organizational roles, which helps free up active members to do their duty.

So what happens if you do not have an auxiliary, CERT team or Fire Corps? It is still possible to leverage your community to help, but it becomes more difficult.

During a disaster, you may actually have too much help, or not the right type of help. There have been many documented cases of people self-responding to emergencies without the proper training, equipment or insurance coverage.

The difficulty comes in managing these new volunteers and assuring they are helping you, not being a hindrance.

Our community wants to help in any way it can, so the best bet is to find a way for them to be involved, but without taking too much extra effort or putting them at risk.

This is a great area for your more senior or retired members to help provide guidance and management. Your retired members can help assign tasks, track volunteers and act as a resource for those who want to help.

Public volunteers can be used to help serve food, clean, answer phones or a variety of other tasks. I even heard about a group of youths traveling from shelter to shelter with their musical instruments to provide a bit of entertainment!

After the disaster, we need to make sure to thank our community for their help just as much as they thank us. During and after a disaster there are many donations of time, money, items and food, and it is our duty to track and thank each and every donor.

We can even use community members to help thank other community members. The idea is to make sure that everyone both gets a chance to be involved and be thanked.

Disasters can tear us apart, but as we have shown many times, they also bring us together.

Volunteer fire departments face a unique set of challenges. Learn how to manage or serve on a volunteer department with Jason Zigmont, founder of, in his FireRescue1 exclusive column, ‘Volunteer Professionals.’