Baldwin County creates program to guard against "rogue volunteers" after disasters

By Guy Busby
Government Editor
guy@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 9/23/22

ROBERTSDALE — Volunteers can be a key part of disaster recovery, but unorganized assistance efforts by "rogue volunteers" cannot only hinder relief, but also result in injuries, additional …

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Baldwin County creates program to guard against "rogue volunteers" after disasters

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ROBERTSDALE — Volunteers can be a key part of disaster recovery, but unorganized assistance efforts by "rogue volunteers" cannot only hinder relief, but also result in injuries, additional damage and fraud, assistance agency members said.

The Baldwin chapter of Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster is working on plans to update the county Volunteer Registration Centers to be activated after a hurricane or other disaster. The group, known as VOAD, is a collection of agencies such as the Red Cross, United Way, Salvation Army, Prodisee Pantry and other community organizations that work together to coordinate assistance efforts after hurricanes or other disasters.

Deann Servos, VOAD chairwoman and director of Prodisee Pantry, said one of the organization's duties after a disaster is to set up a system to register, interview and coordinate the efforts of volunteers.

"It is a place where we register, screen and place the spontaneous, unaffiliated or, another term, rogue, volunteers, that say, 'I'm going to get my truck. I've got my chainsaw. I've got my gas and I've brought lunch and I'm going down and I'm going to stay there as long as they need me,'" Servos said. "We don't want them crossing the line, going in and being unaffiliated, creating more potential for fraud, more potential for injury, more potential for moving into someone's driveway in their pickup truck because they didn't think about where they were going to stay."

Servos said volunteers are welcome and needed after disasters, but people who are not part of a group such as the Salvation Army, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief or Red Cross, need to register in order to be accessed and assigned to a particular job or area.

"Those that are coming in as spontaneous volunteers, we try to get them affiliated with other support agencies that are already in and doing," Servos said. "We do this by registering, interviewing, assigning them to these volunteer opportunities, providing them safety training, job training and issuing them an appropriate ID, so that the family's home that they are showing up to say they're there to help, they can be confident that they've been vetted. We know who they are. We know where they went so that if there is a problem, we can follow up on it."

Servos said some volunteers in the past have added to the damage to homes and property.

"Not everybody wants their big old oak tree cut down just because it's two feet from their house," she said. "If it's still standing, you didn't need to do that. Whatever that example is that's out there, there are volunteers who have done it."

Lana Mummah, Baldwin County United Way finance and program director, said one or more VRCs will be set up within 72 hours of a disaster if officials with the Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency agree that volunteer coordination is needed. She said the plan was put in place after Hurricane Sally in 2020.

"When we knew the storm was heading our way and that we were 24 to 72 hours out, we had a plan who was going to be sitting at the VRC," Mummah said. "It's very important that we cover our bases for the whole thing, just like Public Health, just like EMA, all the other organizations. They know what they're going to be doing."

She said, however, that plans must be in place before a storm, including what sites can be used as a center. Before Hurricane Sally, VOAD had plans to use a Foley church as the VRC site. That church, however, was damaged by the storm and could not be used.

Mummah said Robertsdale officials offered the use of the PZK Hall. The PZK Hall had power and enough parking and other space needed for the facility, however, the location on Alabama 104 made the site difficult for some volunteers from out of the area to find.

Mummah said all disasters are different. After Hurricane Sally, VOAD members prepared for several hundred unaffiliated volunteers to come to the area.

"So, we're picturing that this is going to be the biggest zoo in the world," Mummah said. "I think we had 20. We had to prepare for more, but people didn't want to come out because it's COVID."

At the center, volunteers are interviewed to determine how they want to help and what they can do. Mummah said volunteers who do not register and receive identification showing that they have been certified by VOAD and the EMA will not be allowed in disaster areas.

"If you want to volunteer, if you are unaffiliated, if you are not associated with the Red Cross, Prodisee, Salvation Army, all these other organizations, this is where you show up," Mummah said. "You are not allowed to go anywhere, because that policeman's going to be standing on that corner. They're not going to let you pass just because you want to help. You have to go to the VRC."

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