In the story book fable, Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, Toto and her friends walk down a path filled with many frightening animals including Lions, Tigers and Bears, wondering which one of them could do the most harm or be the one to end it all. In today's world of first responders with emphasis on law enforcement, Mother Nature, not the evil little old man behind the wizard machine, has been our worst fear. Just last week, over 40 tornadoes hit the mid-west with over 70 more unconfirmed yet deadly storms that wreaked havoc in the southeast. It never fails that when you see the overhead news footage from helicopters the day or two after, we almost always see a number of police cars blocking roads that are too dangerous to pass because of downed power lines, major flooding or in some cases, the road is gone due to a tornado, hurricane, earthquake or wildfire.
One of the greatest aspects of law enforcement is the willingness of agencies and their sworn members to respond to the call for help from their fellow members. When the call goes out for "officer needs help", it's an awesome sight to see the overwhelming response from available local, state and federal agencies and personnel to that call. Agencies you may have never heard of come out to assist in addition to federal agents and investigative services who may not typically roll code 3 to calls do so in a heartbeat, not knowing anymore than that a fellow member of law enforcement has asked for help. It's a lesson not only many other government agencies could well learn from but so could leaders of law enforcement when it comes to accepting and utilizing civilian volunteers to assist with the onslaught of natural disasters that seem to be coming more and more often across our nation.
One percent helping ninety nine percent.
When it comes to responding to natural disasters in hard hit areas, it's almost mind numbing to think that on average, only about one percent of the nations population are full time first responders, which include police, deputies, firefighters and EMS personnel. On any given day, these one-percenters have the awesome responsibility of responding to the various needs of our citizens call for help, whether it be police responding to a crime in progress, firefighters responding to structure fires or our EMS personnel providing onsite life saving tasks. Now take that average and turn it upside down completely when your city, town or county, is hit by a natural disaster such as a hurricane, tornado, etc. and suddenly all your citizens are calling for help at the same time. Needless to say, the odds our stack greatly against our nations first responders when this happens as it becomes the very few one-percenters trying to help 99 percent of their local population or at best case, a number less than 99 percent but still very high.
The need for Volunteer Mutual Aid Teams
Mutual aid agreements are just a way of life for members of law enforcement and public safety. However when it comes to mutual aid agreements for the use of other than sworn officers, it's far more the exception than the rule when other agencies' volunteer units are requested. A key component to successfully utilizing other agencies' volunteers in a time of need is to establish agreements in advance. While members of law enforcement within each state are trained to statewide standards, volunteer units' training and capabilities vary from agency to agency. Thought should be given to how local volunteer units can and/or should be utilized for non-enforcement actions. In the case of a search effort where hours of walking through rough terrain is required, units who only utilized senior volunteers may not be the best choice versus a reserve officer, explorer scout and/or citizen patrol unit. Conversely, utilizing senior police volunteers to assist checking in evacuees at a shelter could be a better choice than highly trained reserve officers. Other items to consider in advance is how will your agency communicate with the responding outside volunteer units, what type of vehicles, if any, do they have available, what type of emergency training, First Aid/CPR or other specialized training have they received which may assist your agency in certain circumstances.
Once you've established a local volunteer mutual aid agreement or VMAT, consider establishing a common item of clothing for outside volunteers to wear which will easily identify them as "trusted and welcomed" members of your team. Something as simple as a light mesh vest, such as those used in traffic control, with the letters "VMAT" or "Police Volunteer" on the back and front can be purchased inexpensively (generally speaking), usually one size fits all and it can be worn over any form of existing uniform.
Having this type of program established in advance of your agency's potential need for force multipliers will help everyone respond and assist in a much more professional and organized approach. I urge any member of law enforcement reading this article not to overlook the power of volunteers within your local and surrounding agencies in a time of need and to begin establishing volunteer mutual aid agreements now when you can, rather than later when time and Mother Nature may be against you.