Organised volunteers and spontaneous responders: their special role in disaster management

When a disaster occurs, the use of organised volunteers and spontaneous helpers must be well coordinated.


During natural disasters or other emergencies, organised volunteers and spontaneous responders help professional rescue workers save lives and minimise impact.

However, in order for their deployment to be successful, professional disaster management must have appropriate structures in place to mobilise and train volunteers and, above all, to coordinate their work. At the same time, the boundaries and responsibilities of volunteers must also be clearly defined, in order to ensure safe and successful interaction with professional responders.


How are volunteers, who are members of the Red Crescent or volunteer fire brigades for instance, and spontaneous responders, integrated into disaster management in Turkey and Germany? Based on these two examples, the participants from five countries discussed inter alia the double-edged role of spontaneous responders. On the one hand they have enormous resources at their disposal to deal with disasters. But at the same time they can also hinder disaster management, for example if they block access routes to the disaster area or spread false reports or fears on social media. Furthermore, participants emphasised the importance of certification for organised volunteers in the event of a disaster. This can quickly provide information about their skills and potential for deployment.

Agenda [pdf]


Working with Volunteers at Disasters
Mr. Yusuf Doğan Gürer (Deputy Director Operations – Fire Department Istanbul)

Organized Volunteering – The volunteer Fire Brigade in Germany
Ms. Katharina Timm (Managing Director of the Crisis Unit, Head of Division, Professional Fire Brigade Dortmund)
Ms. Sylvia Pratzler-Wanczura (Scientific Director, Professional Fire Brigade Dortmund)


Yusuf Doğan Gürer from the Istanbul Fire Brigade talked about how spontaneous responders and organised volunteers, such as those from AFAD, the fire brigade or the Red Crescent, support disaster management in Turkey. Experience from past disaster events shows that spontaneous responders are helpful when many workers are needed, and those with special technical skills are of great benefit. However, spontaneous responders are difficult to coordinate, because unlike organised volunteers they are not part of official command structures. Furthermore, the way they self-organise via social media makes information management difficult. They also often lack the skills to deal with a disaster, and can become a logistical burden during an operation.

Katharina Timm from Dortmund’s professional fire brigade described the unique situation in Germany. There, the fire brigades would not be able to perform their tasks without the engagement of volunteers, she explained. 22,000 volunteer fire brigades with about one million volunteer members are responsible for rescuing people, fighting fires and providing fire protection. For the population in larger cities, on the other hand, 110 professional fire brigades perform these tasks. Volunteer and professional fire brigades receive the same training and equipment.

In case of major disasters, the emergency response institutions always reach the limits of their capacities. As a rule, they are then supported by spontaneous helpers. However, legal aspects such as insurance or data protection have to be taken into account, and this help has to be coordinated. This requires, among other things, effective communication with a good flow of information concerning risks and current needs for help. Katharina Timm concluded that to integrate spontaneous helpers, municipalities need a communication and coordination system that is compatible with all other systems. She suggested that municipalities should support the self-organisation of spontaneous helpers, without restricting their own leadership role.

In a comment, Axel Schmidt (German Workers' Samaritan Federation and Sphere trainer) pointed out that those affected by disasters are not helpless victims. In fact, he explained, they possess a wealth of important local contextual knowledge and potential for self-help.


Spontaneous responders have a great deal of potential for coping with disaster events. They can disseminate important information quickly and very efficiently via social media, for example, and are quickly ready for action, e.g. when filling sandbags during flood events. They also often possess highly relevant knowledge of acute needs and the local context. Participants concluded that disaster management planners should recognise these valuable contributions. However, the great challenge remains coordinating the spontaneous helpers, who are usually highly motivated, in such a way that they actually contribute to the management of a disaster, and do not unintentionally hinder the deployment of disaster management professionals and organised volunteers.


This virtual workshop is a follow-up activity to the three-day dialogue event "For more than one night: Emergency accommodation for evacuees - how municipalities can improve the provision of medium- to long-term emergency accommodation".

A detailed report follows at the end of the whole learning process.


Categories: Connective Cities Documentation Good Urban Governance crisis management nad disaster preparedness

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