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

  • Lauren M. Sauer (a1) (a2), Christina Catlett (a1), Robert Tosatto (a3) and Thomas D. Kirsch (a1) (a2)

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.


Of the 51 National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters organizations that were contacted for surveys, 24 (47%) agreed to participate.


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.


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)

Corresponding author
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
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1. SA Glynn , MP Busch , GB Schreiber , etal. Effect of a national disaster on blood supply and safety: the September 11 experience. JAMA. 2003;289(17):2246-2253.

13. SL Steffen , A Fothergill . 9/11 volunteerism: a pathway to personal healing and community engagement. Social Sci. J. 2009;46:29-46.

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27. I Debchoudhury , AE Welch , MA Fairclough , etal. Comparison of health outcomes among affiliated and lay disaster volunteers enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Registry. Prevent Med. 2011;53(6):359-363.

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Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness
  • ISSN: 1935-7893
  • EISSN: 1938-744X
  • URL: /core/journals/disaster-medicine-and-public-health-preparedness
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