The utility of and risks associated with the use of spontaneous volunteers in disaster response: A survey

Lauren M. Sauer, Christina Catlett, Robert Tosatto, Thomas D. Kirsch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective The use of spontaneous volunteers (SV) is common after a disaster, but their limited training and experience can create a danger for the SVs and nongovernmental voluntary organizations (NVOs). We assessed the experience of NVOs with SVs during disasters, how they were integrated into the agency's infrastructure, their perceived value to previous responses, and liability issues associated with their use. Methods Of the 51 National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters organizations that were contacted for surveys, 24 (47%) agreed to participate. Results Of the 24 participating organizations, 19 (72%) had encountered SVs during a response, most (79%) used them regularly, and 68% believed that SVs were usually useful. SVs were always credentialed by 2 organizations, and sometimes by 6 (31%). One organization always performed background checks; 53% provided just-in-time training for SVs; 26% conducted evaluations of SV performance; and 21% provided health or workers compensation benefits. Two organizations reported an SV death; 42% reported injuries; 32% accepted legal liability for the actions of SVs; and 16% were sued because of actions by SVs. Conclusions The use of SVs is widespread, but NVOs are not necessarily structured to incorporate them effectively. More structured efforts to integrate SVs are critical to safe and effective disaster response.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)65-69
Number of pages5
JournalDisaster medicine and public health preparedness
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2014


  • disaster response
  • nongovernmental organizations
  • spontaneous volunteers

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


Dive into the research topics of 'The utility of and risks associated with the use of spontaneous volunteers in disaster response: A survey'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this