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Back to Archives | Back to September 2007 Contents 

Are Volunteers a Part of Your Disaster Preparedness Plan?

By Jay Spradling, Assistant Chief of Police (Retired), Tempe Police Department; Assistant Chief of Police, Arizona State University Police Department, Tempe, Arizona

It is a normal day in the office when a supervisor walks in to brief you that an explosion has just occurred at a sporting event in your jurisdiction. It is too early to know if this is the result of a gas line break, a mechanical failure, or a terrorist act. In the next few hours, the death toll climbs to 30, and more are expected. Soon, news satellite trucks from all over start to appear. There is also an outpouring of citizens arriving at the scene wanting to help out in any way they can.

or most police agencies around the country, an event like the one described above would tax most, if not all, of the resources the department has available. In emergency planning, law enforcement agencies traditionally count on mutual-aid agreements with surrounding or nearby agencies to help out during times like this. Yet incidents such as the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, also showed agencies that they can expect an outpouring of citizen volunteer support to assist with disasters or terrorist events.

However, the problem with accepting the assistance of large numbers of volunteers is that many or most are unfamiliar. In the event of a terrorist act, can agencies afford to let unknown, untrained citizens near or into their crime scenes? The answer from most agencies would be a simple and quick no. At the same time, many citizen volunteers can provide resources, otherwise unavailable to agencies, that might be needed. Some quick examples include foreign-language speakers, heavy-equipment operators, SCUBA-certified divers, ham radio operators, and so forth. Is there a better way to manage and use volunteers in a response to a disaster?

Shortly after September 11, 2001, administrators in the Tempe, Arizona, Police Department met to discuss some of the lessons learned from the terrorist attacks and related events that had occurred around the country. The particular emphasis of these discussions was how volunteers might play a more important role in their agency’s emergency planning. A short list of concerns that had arisen as a result of the events began to emerge:

  • The well-intended outpouring of volunteer support at the site often interfered with the work of the first responders. How can agencies prevent this from happening again?

  • Who can be trusted? How can agencies trust volunteers that they have never met before?

  • If agencies do use a “spontaneous volunteer,” what level of background check, if any, is required? Is a “wants and warrants” check enough?

  • Some events could be so burdensome to agency personnel that using volunteers is almost a must. Is it feasible to deal with these issues at the time of the disaster?

The Tempe Police Department set out to address these concerns in order to better utilize and manage volunteers in response to disasters and other incidents. The department already had a successful Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) program, which had been running for several years. Yet two challenges remained: (1) how to better utilize the existing VIPS volunteers for disaster response and (2) how to prepare for and manage the spontaneous volunteers that are expected to show up at the scene. The result was the Assistance in Disaster (AID) program.

The AID Program

Police administrators brainstormed ways in which police volunteers could assist the department during a major disaster or terrorist act. For brainstorming purposes, administrators envisioned a worst-case scenario that required the use of as many resources as available. They came to the conclusion that police volunteers, if properly trained, could be used for several purposes for which the Tempe Police Department had traditionally not used them. Existing VIPS volunteers interested in helping during a disaster were recruited for advanced training. A few declined, due to their age or abilities, but several jumped at the chance for additional training and increased responsibilities.

One of the primary advantages of using existing VIPS volunteers for the AID concept is that they are already known to the department. Many of these volunteers have worked with the department for several years. In addition, the Tempe Police Department requires all VIPS volunteers to undergo a background check and polygraph test before they are permitted to work with the department. By prescreening all VIPS volunteers before they can even apply for the AID program, some level of trust in these volunteers is established.

Figure 1. AID Training Topics
The department developed a core training curriculum for AID volunteers. Classes are based on the knowledge and abilities needed to provide assistance during a disaster (see figure 1). At one time, the department planned to give those who had completed the core curriculum a credential distinct from the police department showing that they are trained AID volunteers.

However, the State of Arizona is moving toward using a “capabilities card” for all Citizen Corps volunteers. Like those used by forest firefighters, these cards list the training and abilities that the carrier brings to the event. AID volunteers will soon report with their department-issued volunteer credential and a capabilities card. The card will list the approved AID courses the volunteer has passed, as well as other skills and abilities that might help first responders, for example, speaking a foreign language. AID volunteers provide the Tempe Police Department with prescreened, pretrained, “known” volunteers to use in the event of a disaster.

In the event of a disaster, AID volunteers can be deployed in a number of ways to assist first responders. All of the traditional purposes for which a department might use its VIPS volunteers still apply: for example, helping out in the emergency operations center (EOC) or at the command post, delivering meals and water to officers, administrative functions, and so on. Yet AID volunteers can do so much more. Some examples include extending a perimeter detail by placing an AID volunteer between every sworn officer’s post. They can also run traffic control posts that would normally require an officer. An AID volunteer can assist with evacuation teams. Depending on the need, AID volunteers can be partnered with a sworn officer, or teams of AID volunteers can assist with evacuations under the direction of a sworn officer. Tempe has tested its AID volunteers with mock evacuation drills and has seen great results.

An added benefit of the AID program is that it has provided many of Tempe’s VIPS volunteers with opportunities for growth. As stated earlier, several of Tempe’s VIPS volunteers have been with the department for many years. New volunteer opportunities have not arisen often for these volunteers.

Ongoing Training and Opportunities

A common concern with many disaster preparedness–trained first responders is that their skills will suffer due to a lack of use. All police administrators obviously hope that a disaster never happens on their watch; however, keeping officers ready and prepared should an incident occur remains a challenge. Volunteers are no exception. Ongoing training is a must. Tempe provides such training by way of periodic lectures or classes on related topics. As new AID volunteers are being trained, current AID volunteers are given the opportunity to attend any of their original core classes again as a refresher.

Another way to keep AID volunteers engaged and active is by providing additional opportunities to assist the department. One such opportunity is participation in the Speakers Bureau. AID volunteers are sought out to help educate the community in the importance of disaster preparedness. They give presentations to homeowner’s associations as well as “brown-bag lunches” at businesses, apartment complexes, service clubs, and so on. AID volunteer Thomas Doll is committed to spreading the message of disaster preparedness: “The ability of our first responders to react during the first 72 hours of a major emergency may be severely compromised. I feel there is a significant need to prepare our citizens to take care of themselves and their family during that time period.” Volunteers can relieve crime prevention officers, who would normally fill these public-speaking requests, of a significant part of their workload. A few of the volunteers are so active that they seek out new presentations that were not previously scheduled. As such, the community of Tempe is clearly better educated about—and hopefully better prepared for—dealing with disasters.

Another opportunity for AID volunteers to engage and assist further during a disaster is with volunteer reporting centers (VRCs). To address one of the identified concerns with spontaneous volunteers, the Tempe Police Department developed a VRC concept. These centers are designed to accomplish several objectives; among them are removing the spontaneous volunteers from the disaster site and preventing their interference with the work of the first responders until needed, cataloging the resources available through these volunteers for the logistics officer and/or incident commander, allowing for predetermined background checks of the volunteers, and allowing time to brief and/or train the volunteers on information they may need before their deployment.

As an example of the quality and initiative of Tempe’s AID volunteers, one can take a look at how the VRC concept began. With a little oversight from the police department, volunteers worked through most of the policy issues during the development phase of the concept. Once completed, they began training and practicing the setup and tearing down of a VRC in preparation for an actual need. With virtually no assistance from sworn staff, the AID volunteers prepared themselves to open and run a VRC from start to finish.

Opening a VRC begins with the selection of a location. The guiding principle is to select a location far enough from the disaster site that it will not interfere with the public safety response but close enough to allow for information and resources to be transferred between the sites, if needed. Tempe’s VRC concept allows for AID volunteers to bring up a VRC in virtually any location. They created “go kits” that contain all of the supplies necessary to open a VRC. However, being able to preplan such aspects as room layouts and traffic and parking issues is preferred. As a result, AID volunteers proactively forged relationships with the responsible parties for several potential VRC sites around the city of Tempe. This proaction resulted in a list of several predetermined VRC locations, where the available resources are known and the logistics of setting up the VRC have already been addressed. Although many businesses and churches would make great VRC sites, several of Tempe’s predetermined sites include local high schools. The local high school district has been extremely gracious in offering its facilities, which offer many benefits for a VRC: wireless computer networks, large parking lots, cafeterias, large open rooms, and so forth. Once the police department identifies a VRC location for a specific disaster, AID volunteers will set up all of the necessary equipment to make the site operational.

Once open, the VRC is staffed almost exclusively by AID volunteers. Tempe’s plan calls for one officer to be assigned to the VRC, primarily for security. AID volunteers check all other volunteers in, both affiliated and spontaneous. VIPS volunteers simply check in as an available resource and receive any briefings or site training they may need. Spontaneous volunteers are interviewed about the skills, knowledge, or abilities they bring to the situation. In addition, they are screened to determine their appropriateness for deployment. All of these resources are ultimately supplied to the logistics officer or the incident commander for potential use.

A final way to keep AID volunteers engaged and active is to use them in everyday situations. With their training, AID volunteers can assist in such activities as looking for missing children or elderly people or controlling traffic for special events, among other things.

Increasing the Benefit

In the event of a major incident requiring a 24-hour-a-day response for multiple days, Tempe’s AID volunteers would be depleted very quickly. Shortly after developing the AID program, department administrators realized that if surrounding police departments in the area adopted the concept, each agency would have potential access to even more AID volunteers, if needed. The Mesa, Arizona, Police Department was quick to become a partner. During the last couple of years the two agencies have shared the hosting of AID classes and instructors. AID volunteers from both agencies have had an opportunity to meet each other and work together. This partnership essentially doubled the number of trained AID volunteers available to each agency, should a disaster occur. In addition, a handful of other police departments in the area are currently considering an AID program of their own. The benefit to “Valley of the Sun” first responders could continue to multiply.

Even though the AID concept has not been officially put to the test in Tempe or Mesa, these cities are fortunate to have volunteers ready and able to assist, if needed.

For more information on the AID program, contact the Tempe Police Department’s volunteer coordinator, Christine Kling, via e-mail at or the Mesa Police Department’s volunteer coordinator, Linda Bailey, via e-mail at■

Volunteers add considerable value to law enforcement agencies on a daily basis, and they can also provide critical support during disasters. As previous disasters have shown, there are not enough first responders or trained disaster volunteers to sufficiently manage a major event. Training and exercises are vital for all personnel, including volunteers, who may be tasked with responsibilities during a disaster. Agencies may consider providing Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training as well as National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Incident Command System (ICS) courses to its volunteers. Once properly trained, volunteers can assist in the following ways:

  • Providing community education programs on disaster preparedness

  • Conducting an audit to identify persons who may be in need of special assistance in the case of an evacuation

  • Conducting door-to-door notification of evacuation orders

  • Providing welfare checks on homebound residents

  • Performing duties for employees who may be unavailable or occupied with emergency responsibilities

  • Answering hotlines

  • Serving as a liaison for family members of law enforcement personnel

  • Providing translation services to non-English-speaking populations

  • Delivering resources to officers on extended duty

  • Performing search-and-rescue operations

  • Providing transportation services for law enforcement and emergency personnel

  • Transporting key supplies for law enforcement and emergency personnel

  • Providing for crowd control/security at shelters, points of distribution (POD) facilities, and other key sites

  • Assisting and supplementing law enforcement officers with perimeter control

  • Helping with the screening and processing of unaffiliated volunteers

  • Conducting tours or handling other duties related to visits by local, state, and national dignitaries visiting a disaster site

  • Gathering information and compiling lists of missing persons or shelter residents

  • Directing traffic in areas affected by power outages or roadway obstructions or near POD facilities

  • Assessing damage and conducting home checks for evacuated residents

  • Cleaning up areas damaged by the event, including the department itself, the homes of affected agency employees or volunteers and community members

Whether expected or not, volunteers will come. In addition to the volunteers trained in advance, people unassociated with a recognized government or disaster response agency may appear on the scene of a disaster or otherwise offer assistance. They may also be called unaffiliated, spontaneous, or convergent volunteers. They can be a valuable, even muchneeded resource. In response to evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, Harris County, Texas, VIPS and other trained volunteers were able to process and deploy 8,000 unaffiliated volunteers in a 24-hour period and 60,003 volunteers during a 22-day effort.

The national VIPS program offers a host of no-cost training, technical assistance, and resources to assist in the development of a law enforcement volunteer program. The latest training course, VIPS and Disaster Response, focuses specifically on the role that volunteers can take during all phases of the emergency management cycle. The VIPS program also offers publications and educational videos about the use of volunteers in disasters. (For more information, visit

The IACP manages the VIPS program in partnership with and on behalf of the White House Office of the USA Freedom Corps and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 9, September 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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