Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness

Brief Report

The Utility of and Risks Associated With the Use of Spontaneous Volunteers in Disaster Response: A Survey

Lauren M. Sauera1a2 c1, Christina Catletta1, Robert Tosattoa3 and Thomas D. Kirscha1a2

a1 Department of Emergency Medicine and Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland

a2 Department of Emergency Medicine, the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response, The Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland

a3 Division of the Civilian Volunteer Medical Reserve Corps, Office of the US Surgeon General, Washington, DC


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. (Disaster Med Public Health Preparedness. 2014;8:65-69)

Key Words

  • spontaneous volunteers;
  • disaster response;
  • nongovernmental organizations


c1 Correspondence and reprint requests to: Lauren Sauer, MS, Johns Hopkins University, Department of Emergency Medicine, 5801 Smith Ave, Davis Bldg, Ste 3220, Baltimore, MD 21209 (e-mail Lsauer2@jhmi.edu).