If there’s smoke in the air, the best thing a volunteer can often do is wait.
Don’t collect jackets. Don’t offer up housing on Facebook. Don’t show up at a staging site offering to lend a hand. At the point when a blaze is already underway, Teton County Emergency Management Coordinator Rich Ochs said, it’s too late for untrained volunteers to get in the mix.
“I don’t want you during a disaster,” Ochs said. “If I didn’t meet you before the disaster you’re a liability.”
Well-intentioned as they may be, “spontaneous volunteers” — do-gooders who come out during floods, fires or other disasters — often cause problems for emergency management organizations on top of the disaster at hand, Ochs explained.
Disaster recovery requires the orchestration of dozens of previously prepped volunteers, many of whom have undergone hours of training on safety and privacy protocols and the incident command system.
Come fire or flood, disaster recovery volunteers are typically well prepped to serve meals, set up shelters and coordinate resources. And there isn’t time to train those who aren’t, Ochs said.
“I need people I can trust that I knew before the disaster happened,” Ochs said.
The Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, known as VOAD, is an alliance that works to provide disaster relief. The coalition includes more than a dozen organizations, including the American Red Cross, PAWS of Jackson Hole, Teton County Community Emergency Response Team and various churches, among other nonprofits.
While some in the group are part of a core group of responders, all fall under the command of Teton County Emergency Management. PAWS of Jackson Hole, for example, oversees the disaster animal response team, which is deployed only by order of Teton County Emergency Management.
Other organizations — churches, Jackson Hole Elks Lodge No. 1713, Jackson Hole Lions Club, for example — are tapped for “unmet needs,” Ochs said. The community can help these organizations, which may be tasked with collecting materials or money.
(Trained) volunteers wanted
Simply put: Disaster relief doesn’t work without volunteers. But the commitment to the cause, be it for humans or pets, starts long before a fire is sparked.
“It’s always better to have people trained because then they know what to expect,” said Dee Buckstaff, community ambassador for the American Red Cross of Wyoming.
While the Red Cross won’t turn away volunteers who show up to help — “we always have jobs for them” — privacy concerns and liability issues limit untrained volunteers to just a few positions, she said.
The same issue can arise in the case of the deployment of the disaster animal response team, known as DART, which is run through PAWS of Jackson Hole. Volunteers undergo at least two days of training to be on the team, and ideally have undergone additional training and simulations, a precaution taken to keep both people and animals safe in what is sure to be a stressful situation.
Even if the team isn’t deployed, PAWS remains the first contact if pets or stock need to be relocated.
“If you’re somebody who wants to help in terms of pets, call the [PAWS] office,” PAWS Program Coordinator Jess Farr said. “Everything the county needs will go through us.”
For those who want to be on the front lines, now is the time to train for it. Typically the disaster animal response team and the community emergency response team host trainings in the fall.
“What I want people to do now before the next fire is sign up,” Ochs said.
Don’t collect what’s not needed
Another challenge emergency management teams and organizations often face are unsolicited donations.
It’s often best to wait to learn what organizations need before arranging what can become an “incredibly well-meaning” donation drive for unnecessary items, Ochs said.
Like collecting winter clothing for people displaced in the middle of the summer.
Shortly after the Saddle Butte Fire broke out, Ochs and other emergency personnel heard rumblings of a coat drive being organized on social media for displaced homeowners.
“Again, incredibly well meaning,” he said. “But it’s 90 degrees outside and nobody needed a jacket.”
It’s not uncommon that people jump into action — they often want to do something when tragedy strikes their community, and dropping off donations is something tangible. But unsolicited donations can be a drain when crews have to figure out what to do with all the unneeded stuff, he said.
“If the donations cost us more money to deal with than the donation itself, it’s really hurting the people that need help,” Ochs said.
As for donating money, nonprofits that aid in disaster relief often have funds earmarked for such work. Organizations like Teton County Emergency Management have a harder time accepting donations, being a government agency. If you’re feeling the urge to write a check, Ochs suggested contacting VOAD organizations.