News from the CRC


Since the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, spontaneous volunteering has been on the rise. Photo: BlazeAid
Release date
01 Mar 2017
More information:
Dr Blythe McLennan
Project Leader

'Unofficial' volunteers

How people volunteer to keep their community safe from natural hazards is changing. As our work and life commitments change, many people do not have the time to dedicate to traditional ways of volunteering with an emergency service, undergo the required training and develop the ability to respond to potentially dangerous situations. But they still want to help, and they still want to volunteer.

Research from the Out of uniform project has influenced key national initiatives, with findings from the study used extensively for the development of the National Spontaneous Volunteer Strategy by the Australia and New Zealand Emergency Management Committee. The strategy provides advice to emergency service agencies on what they need to be aware of, and what they need to consider and plan for when working with spontaneous volunteers. Important issues such as legal obligations and social media are also covered, with the work of the project team integral to the Strategy’s completion.

With research showing that the nature of volunteering and citizen involvement in disaster management is fundamentally changing, advice from the RMIT University team led by Prof John Handmer is regularly sought by individual agencies and organisations in the development of guides and policies around volunteering and spontaneous volunteers. In particular, the research is already having practical impact on policy and planning, for example by informing a Volunteering ACT guide to managing volunteers in emergencies, and contributing to Volunteering Victoria’s Outcomes Framework for Spontaneous Volunteer Management. Emergency services, including the Department of Fire and Emergency Services Western Australia (DFES) and Emergency Management Victoria (EMV) are also using the findings. Be Ready Warrandyte, a community group in one of Melbourne’s high bushfire risk suburbs, has also drawn extensively on the research to help educate and support their local community, while the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience is using the research to shape a handbook on spontaneous volunteering.

DFES’s Director of Human Resources, Karen Roberts, says the department is changing their approach to create the appetite to effectively harness the support the community is offering.

“Our long term volunteering strategy includes establishing an agency position on non-traditional volunteering. The learnings and knowledge generated by this research will be critical to informing our policy,” Ms Roberts says.

EMV’s Paul Davis agrees, saying that the research is helping to shift the narrative around emergency volunteering from one of crisis and decline, to one of transformation and opportunity.

“This is where we must focus our energy and efforts, as communities change so must we,” says Mr Davis, EMV’s Manager of Volunteer Development and Change.

“Failure to accept and adapt to the changes means running a very real risk of falling behind as new voluntary and community-based organisations pursue their own ways to get involved in disaster management, powered by new technology, start up business models, very clear purposes and smart volunteer value propositions.

“There is much to learn from this research and a collaborative approach with these new organisations offers a way to augment our own capacity and possibly achieve better community outcomes,” Mr Davis says.

The project has provided an important and comprehensive resource to benchmark best practice in supporting and integrating spontaneous volunteerism for emergency service agencies across Australia. The scope and relevance of the project will provide a valuable framework of knowledge for the future.

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