Building emergency resilience through volunteers

Two people dressed in grey with gloves and masks and a name tag stating 'Volunteer' holding a silver tin can at a food bank

Research has identified the value of local community volunteers and shaped guidance on how they can be mobilised to help respond to and recover from disasters.

Historically, spontaneous volunteers, individuals who self-mobilise to provide unpaid support in emergencies, were viewed by some as more of a hindrance than a help to emergency responders in the aftermath of a disaster. Without connections to existing official response organisations, it was feared they may put themselves or others at risk.

The Economic Science and Research Council-funded (ESRC) research led by Duncan Shaw, Professor of Operational Research and Critical Systems at The University of Manchester, has challenged these perceptions and recognised the value of spontaneous volunteers.

It identified how spontaneous volunteers can effectively and safely be used to assist public sector bodies and private sector organisations in local and national emergencies. As a result, the research has had a significant impact on UK and international policies on mobilising spontaneous volunteers, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor Shaw and his team’s work informed government policy in the UK and the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) guidelines on spontaneous volunteers in emergencies. This led to the ISO standard on spontaneous volunteers and UK Cabinet Office guidance.

A follow-on ISO standard on planning recovery and renewal from disruption led to Professor Shaw and his team developing the National Consortium for Societal Resilience. This is a network of over 60 organisations from across the UK, including local resilience group and stakeholders from business, voluntary and government sectors, as well as academia.

The consortium serves to build societal resilience to help deal with future disasters across UK communities.

Video credit: Economic and Social Research Council

Video transcript and on-screen captions are available by watching on YouTube.

About the project

The scale of emergencies, such as COVID-19, requires a response that goes beyond the emergency services and requires communities to have an active role.

Professor Shaw explains:

Some disasters are so big and create needs that are so diverse, that they cannot be fulfilled by the limited resources available from emergency responders alone. Our research aimed to establish how we can enhance local and national societal resilience to disruption. Take a major flood, for example. What can a community do to support itself and take purposeful action in such a difficult situation?

Professor Shaw’s research began before the COVID-19 pandemic with ESRC Impact Acceleration Account funding, where he used a series of interviews, workshops and case studies to analyse the involvement of spontaneous volunteers in flood emergencies in the UK. The work not only demonstrated that the perceived risks of using volunteers in emergency situations could be managed, but their role was, in fact, crucial to creating a locally appropriate response and enhancing sustainable recovery.

When COVID-19 hit, Professor Shaw and his team received funding from ESRC to build on this work and develop a framework for the recovery and renewal of society from the pandemic. By working extensively with local governments and providing insights, partners received support and guidance on designing their recovery strategies to reinstate local resilience to emergencies.

This work continued beyond the pandemic as Professor Shaw and his team used further ESRC funding to develop the National Consortium for Societal Resilience to help communities in the aftermath of emergencies by supporting people and places to implement and manage change.

Impact of the project

Professor Shaw’s research on mobilising spontaneous volunteers has had a significant impact on UK and international government responses to the COVID-19 emergency, provided support for spontaneous volunteer networks and helped local vulnerable communities. Beyond the pandemic, these networks are a key resource when future emergencies occur.

Informing guidelines and standards for spontaneous volunteers

The research evidence has influenced practice and guidelines both in the UK and abroad. Professor Shaw worked with the UK Cabinet Office to form the National Committee on Spontaneous Volunteers. That committee used this research to inform the UK government’s national guidance on spontaneous volunteer involvement in emergency responses, which was published in June 2019.
He was also invited by ISO to author international guidelines on spontaneous volunteers in emergencies (ISO22319).

Mobilising volunteers during COVID-19

During the response to COVID-19, Professor Shaw and his University of Manchester colleague David Powell worked with the Cabinet Office’s Emergency Planning College. They supported local government in their deployment of thousands of volunteers in local pandemic responses via a network of schemes run by non-governmental organisations, community groups, and local and national government.

For example, Professor Shaw and his team worked closely with Essex County Council and their volunteer response team which registered 3,600 spontaneous volunteers to help local welfare services. They also worked with Thames Valley Local Resilience Forum to support their assurance process to ensure that local people got the help they needed through the volunteer systems set up across the region.

The ISO standard on spontaneous volunteers in emergencies led to the development of policies within international ministries and governments to mobilise spontaneous volunteers during COVID-19 and other global emergencies.

In Chile, for example, the Ministry for Youth secured significant government funding to implement the international standard on spontaneous volunteers in 16 regions of the country. More than 3,000 individuals registered with a national online platform and over 300 volunteers were deployed to provide vulnerable people with food and medicine.

This ISO standard led to another ISO standard on recovery and renewal from COVID-19 (ISO22393), which was fast-tracked due to its global importance. After implementing that standard in Ramallah, Issa Kassis, the Mayor of Ramallah Municipality, Palestine, explains the impact of the research in the region:

ISO22393 fundamentally changed the way we approached our recovery and renewal in Ramallah. It helped us to take an evidence-based approach, following the University of Manchester research documented in ISO22393. As a result, our recovery and renewal solutions were more holistic and gained wider buy-in – supporting transformational change in Ramallah.

These resulted in a quicker response and stronger social benefits for our citizens. These benefits included better management of public spaces, management of economic support grants, improvement in citizen communications, and effective use of our geographic mapping system during lockdowns to map out essential supply points.

A new consortium to share expertise

Formed in the later stages of COVID-19, the National Consortium for Societal Resilience brings together relevant groups to enhance societal resilience to disasters. The resilience partnerships, multi-agency collaborations that address local risk, vulnerability and preparedness for disruptive events, cover 98% of the UK population.

Professor Shaw adds:

The consortium brings together local governments, local resilience groups and stakeholders from the business, voluntary and government sectors as well as academia, to provide a strategic approach to societal resilience. The work we’ve done on ISOs and national guidance explains what to do, but not how to do it. So, we’re developing a manual and toolkit that supports society to make a difference to resilience at local levels.

Find out more

Read more about the project and its impact:

Top image:  Credit: Halfpoint, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

This is the website for UKRI: our seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK. Let us know if you have feedback or would like to help improve our online products and services.