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Nixle, SUVs, E-sponders–All from WI VOAD

By Amy Donahue, MLIS, AHIP
University of Minnesota Bio-Medical Library

Back in December 2010, I had the opportunity to attend the free Wisconsin Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD) Conference. (Link to brochure: Lodging, lunch, and breakfast were provided for those who traveled more than 50 miles, which included me, and was sponsored through state funding.

I decided to go to the 3-day event after e-mailing the conference organizers to see if it would be appropriate for me to be there as a medical librarian with an interest in disaster information–given that I have no direct relationships with any VOAD member organizations.  They encouraged me to come, and it was a great opportunity. The conference was held in Fort McCoy at the Wisconsin Military Academy.

Below you’ll find some of my notes and information on what I learned while I was there.  I’ll warn you it’s a bit long, but it still doesn’t cover all the details I learned, so feel free to e-mail me (adonahue at or comment if you want to know more specifics about something or have any questions!

Although I went with the intention of networking a bit and expounding on the resources libraries provide (I went with GMR resources in hand), what ended up happening was that I stayed pretty silent and just learned a lot and thought about places where libraries/librarians could get involved and how. The VOAD people came to this event to learn, share, and ask questions about experiences across the state. They wanted very specific answers to such questions as whom to talk to to get emergency food stamps and whether using cell phones in volunteer phone banks was a good or bad idea. The people from VOAD were not necessarily looking for another place they could go for resources.

I think that the biggest thing I learned (in addition to increasing my vocabulary!) was that if you have an organization that can provide some specific service in the time of the disaster, getting connected either on a really local level (e.g. your community hospital library partners with the public library and joins your area VOAD) or on a more regional level (your academic health sciences library makes sure your regional FEMA office knows about your resources). The key is to always make sure that the relationships are built and maintained. And the service that any given group/library provides could be very different: maybe you have the resources to provide the space for a volunteer reception center; maybe you can provide organizers with information on how to deal with your local environment. Probably you can provide multiple services, but make sure you fill a need and that you are definitely prepared to do so.  Trust and home rule were major themes.

And on to the information overload!

Some info from my notes on the sessions I attended:

  • Federal Update on Emergency Volunteerism (Plenary session; FEMA, DHS, and National VOAD representatives): All of the speakers emphasized that their organizations recognized the partnerships between their organizations and the volunteer organizations that are crucial before, during, and after disasters, and that federal, state and local GOs and NGOs can’t function in silos.  Discussed the importance of the “4 C’s:” Communication, Coordination, Cooperation, Collaboration.
  • The FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaison (Ian Becherer-Gerrie, Region V) went over several new and old “regional partnership” positions, including the Individual and Community Preparedness Officer, whose role is to make sure individuals and communities have the information they need (I noted that this might be a potential person disaster librarians/libraries might want to develop a relationship with).  He also went over several successful local/state/national partnerships (the context was the Milwaukee flooding in 2008), and the written agreements that help make these partnerships successful.  I just discovered a note I wrote to get his slides; I’ll e-mail him and if I do get them, I’ll pass those on to the list as well.
  • Kevin Massey, of the National VOAD board, gave some of his organization’s history, which started in the 1970’s with several faith-based organizations (FBOs) plus the Red Cross. The National VOAD has several committees that work on national goals (my impression, anyway), each with 3 state representatives.
  • Jannah Scott, Deputy Director of DHS Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, went over the recent executive order that “solidified constitutional services through FBOs and neighborhood partnerships” with 13 federal centers, including HHS, EPA, and the Department of Justice.  Part of her office’s role is to provide mission support, including working with organizations outside of the VOAD system who want to help.  It sounds like her office provides direction to individuals and organizations, connecting them with regional emergency managers and VOADs so they work to know what is going on all over the country.  Talked about volunteerism as investment and mentioned need to figure out what to do with “SUVs” (spontaneous unaffiliated volunteers).
  • “VOAD Roles and Responsibilities” Plenary Session:
    • Roles noted include supporting “All-Hazards Assessment” in communities without resources, community building, resource organization.  More specific roles for organizations included identifying “functional needs populations” (those most at risk; for instance, the older members of a congregation), and the “E-sponder” (electronic responder) who communicates what’s happening to the outside world.
    • Lots of discussion of the sharing of resources between voluntary organizations. Also talked about the responsibility to provide protection to volunteers, victims, and the environment.  The discussion of SUVs came up again, and dealing with them is another role/responsibility, as is tracking and accountability of all volunteers, which is important for lots of reasons, including FEMA claims.
  • Breakout sessions I attended (again, if anyone wants more detailed info on any of these, just let me know!  But I’ll just let give the titles here because there was a lot of specific information that might not be relevant to everyone):
    • “Social Media/Nixle/Twitter” (do check out Nixle if you haven’t already!)
    • “Local VOAD Development” (two directions for forming a local VOAD group were discussed: starting from a Government Emergency Management position and reaching out to local voluntary orgs, or starting as a voluntary org and reaching out to government and other groups and stakeholders; major focus on idea of “home rule”.)
    • “Neighbor to Neighbor Preparedness” (working within specific communities; speakers represented groups that worked with a neighborhood org, senior populations in a county, and the state Hmong population)
    • “Volunteer Reception Center Planning” (went over the physical logistics and issues of creating this space w/ lessons learned)
  • The final plenary sessions gave information on WI resources in times of emergency (University of Wisconsin Extension offices, Rural Development-USDA resources, etc.; these were all groups who exhibited at the conference), and some lessons learned from the 2010 Milwaukee flooding (using 211 for communication triage, getting safety gear for volunteers working with black mold, working with national volunteer groups like AmeriCorp that came in to help).

I think that’s it!  To conclude, I would definitely recommend going to this type of meeting if you’re invited or otherwise have the chance. Working with VOADs and their member organizations definitely seems worthwhile if you’re interested and can provide needed services.

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