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How to engage the public in a crisis

During the widespread forest fire in Västmanland during 2014 and the forest fires across Sweden during summer 2018, many private citizens were affected and wanted to get involved to help. In a crisis situation, however, what is the best way to engage the public and those who would like to volunteer? A research project on how to organise volunteers in a crisis situation shows that authorities and emergency services need to better understand how people react during a crisis. They must also be prepared to handle the surge of interest from those wanting to volunteer.

The acute situations and crises that have occurred in Sweden in recent years have made it evident that we have a new culture of volunteerism in Sweden. There aren’t as many people these days who are involved in traditional associations. However, when something serious happens, many want to volunteer and make a contribution. In other words, people seem to be more willing to help in specific situations, rather than regularly, as a member of an organisation. In two research projects at Mid Sweden University, where RISE is involved, researchers are investigating how to best organise voluntary efforts during a crisis by looking specifically at what occurred during the Västmanland forest fire of 2014 and the widespread forest fires across Sweden during summer 2018.

– “We want to understand how to best organise volunteers during a crisis. Many people sign up to help, including those belonging to an organisation and individuals. The government authorities and emergency services need to be more prepared for this outpouring of concern and willingness of people to help,” says Kerstin Eriksson, who is conducting research on crisis management at RISE.

Volunteers can be an important resource

The widespread forest fires of recent years in Sweden have demonstrated that society needs to be prepared for the unthinkable. Voluntary efforts can be a great asset during a crisis. What’s important though, is having the preparedness and ability to make use of those resources in order to derive the greatest benefits. One example of this was how individuals with IT expertise were used as an extra resource for IT support that was provided to the emergency services during the fire of 2014. At that time, the management team on location in Ramnäs was having problems with inadequate mobile coverage and internet capacity. The problem was solved by using a group of volunteers with IT expertise to construct an IT environment so that the management team could use the internet, along with saving and sharing documents within the team. Antennas were set up to solve the coverage problem and eventually, the Swedish Transport Administration was also contacted so that fiber-optic cables could be installed, which also improved the internet connection.

One goal of the research projects on organisation of volunteers during a crisis has been to determine which voluntary efforts worked best, and which did not. The knowledge can be used to ensure more efficient organisation during future crises. Researchers in the project visited the affected area in Västmanland, along with the areas impacted by the fires of 2018, to interview volunteers about the roles they played during those crises. Interviews were held with the individuals who had volunteered as part of an organisation, as well as others, who had taken own initiative to come to the area and help out.

– “It was interesting to see how the emergency services dealt with the outpouring of help from individuals. We looked more closely at who was accepted and who was not. Our conclusion was that it was easier to use and integrate the efforts of those from voluntary organisations. And, it was more difficult to involve individuals who were not part of an organisation in the official rescue operations,” says Kerstin Eriksson.

People belonging to an organisation have typically practiced and are prepared for the task

Many want to help in unofficial rescue operations

As might be expected, it is initially rather chaotic when an acute crisis situation arises. It can be difficult knowing what to do, or who you should contact, if you want to volunteer and help out. One conclusion of the research project is that more people want to volunteer in situations where there appears to be a void, a need that is not being met, or when efforts and activities simply aren’t working. One lesson from the fires is just how important it is for the government authorities to be prepared for managing and coping with all of the spontaneous offers of help from volunteers.

When the forest fires in Västmanland occurred, the authorities set up a station where volunteers could register themselves. It was a way of not only organising the work, but also preventing the public from interfering with the rescue effort. Allowing people to add their name to a list served as a symbolic way of getting involved. Although only a small percentage of those who had signed up were actually included in the official rescue operations, there were nevertheless many who did help in one way or another.

Various reasons for wanting to volunteer

Besides creating a system to register those wanting to volunteer, it is important to have access to the expertise, materials and equipment required for alleviating a specific crisis. To a certain extent, that did occur during the Västmanland fires. For example, there was a need for sprinklers, which are ordinarily used by farmers to spread fertilizers. This type of equipment can spread water more efficiently than fire trucks. It can also easily suck up water. Many of the people who volunteered were farmers and forest land owners with exactly this type of equipment.

It is interesting to understand just what motivates a person to volunteer in a crisis. What are the reasons? Here, we also see differences between those who are members of an organisation and individuals who volunteer spontaneously, on their own.

– “People belonging to an organisation have typically practiced and are prepared for the task. During our interviews, they talked quite a lot about the organisation they belonged to. Individual volunteers, on the other hand, talked more about their desire to help others. They also thought it was fun and exciting to be there, on location, experiencing it all,” says Kerstin Eriksson.

Published: 2020-02-19

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Kerstin Eriksson

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