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CA Disaster Corps focuses on training

National disaster organizations surprised they weren’t consulted as new program was developed


The recent announcement of the creation of a new “Disaster Corps,” designed to train and credential emergency response volunteers for work in California, surprised officials of many national disaster response organizations whose organizations have their own training and credentialing programs.

The nearly $2 million California program, largely funded by a $1.15 million Department of Homeland Security grant and donations by major corporations and foundations, is designed to “make California better prepared and better equipped than ever before, for any emergency,” said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger when he announced the program.

According to Marta Bortner, assistant director of external affairs for CaliforniaVolunteers, the program’s emphasis will concentrate on immediate disaster response but could be used for long-term response depending on the needs of affected communities.

Initially envisioned as a program that would coordinate all disaster volunteers working in the state, in reality, at the present time Disaster Corps will consolidate and standardize training for many volunteers already working for within California’s government-sponsored emergency volunteer groups, including community emergency response teams, Disaster Healthcare and Volunteers In Police Service.

“(Disaster Corps) represents a unified standard and level of training and classification and typing for these volunteers so they can be deployed over jurisdictional lines,” Bortner said. “If all these volunteers have the same level of credentialing and typing, they are a trusted resource. They can arrive on the scene at any incident and anyone familiar with Disaster Corps knows what background checks, training and typing these individuals have received.”

Participants in the program are “the Navy SEALS of trained disaster volunteers," said Karen Baker, the state Secretary of Service and Volunteerism.

But officials of several national disaster response organizations expressed concern that the creation of the program could ultimately create a new layer of bureaucracy for disaster response in California, where governmental regulations already make it difficult to rebuild homes following disasters. Others said they were surprised national organizations with many years of experience in training disaster volunteers were not consulted as the program was developed.

The National Voluntary Agencies Active in Disaster (National VOAD), a signatory to the federal National Response Plan was not consulted according to Diana Rothe-Smith, who served as the organization’s executive director until July 1. Florence Coppola, executive of national disaster ministries at United Church of Christ, an organization that provided disaster response support following the 2007 Southern California Wildfires and a sponsor of Communities Arise, a volunteer training program created and maintained by the Emergency Response Program of Church World Service, said she was unaware of the new California program. Bill Adams, head of domestic response for Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) and Kevin King, executive director of Mennonite Disaster Service, both of whom have had volunteers in the state following recent disasters also said the announcement last month had been a surprise to them as well.

On a local level, Brian Regan, president of the Northern California Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD), said his group was updated on development of Disaster Corps but didn’t have a prominent role in shaping it.

Bortner says, however, the state believes Disaster Corps will not affect the vital role played in disaster response by non-governmental and faith-based organizations with established disaster response programs.

Nor will it burden them with additional requirements or certification processes, she added.

“We still will work to coordinate volunteers that are affiliated with nonprofits. Originally when we tackled this project, we wanted everyone on the boat. As we moved forward, however, we realized we wanted to start with a manageable group that would be deployed through the mutual aid system so we started with this group. This doesn’t mean Disaster Corps will always stay within governmental affiliates but at this point that’s what the program is,” Bortner said.

It is also designed to provide an additional outlet for volunteers to earn certification and training other than through non-governmental organizations and disaster response groups that have their own disaster response education programs.

Bortner said the state saw a need for the program after thousands of uncertified volunteers showed up in 2007 when devastating wildfires swept Southern California and a cargo ship leaked oil into San Francisco Bay after striking the Bay Bridge.

The state is jump-starting the program in five counties, using $1.15 million in federal homeland security funding and a $60,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation to finance the launch. A $750,000 grant from the Deloitte & Touche consulting firm paid for program development. The counties Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and San Francisco will each hire an emergency personnel volunteer coordinator who will map their community’s volunteer resources and identify current volunteers within their counties who already meet Disaster Corps’ training and security guidelines.

California aims to have 1,000 volunteers on Disaster Corps’ roster in the following months with plans to add 1,000 more in fiscal year 2011, Bortner said.

Given that the state of California is in a budget crisis, Bortner sought to assure state residents that no general funds would be used to support the program.

“There’s no crystal ball for funding, but disaster preparedness and response is universally important, and we have consistently received funding to support disaster volunteer coordination over the past few years,” Bortner said.

To create Disaster Corps, CaliforniaVolunteers met with 1,200 stakeholders who fall under California’s disaster response umbrella and held more than 300 meetings with various entities, including local and state emergency managers, federal response forces and volunteers, Bortner said.

Charles Craig, Volunteer Agency Liaison for FEMA Region IX, which includes California said he saw a need for Disaster Corps because there existed little coordination among the state’s government-affiliated emergency response programs like CERT, VIPS and medical programs. “This coordination with the state, this standardized emergency management system will allow for mutual aid across California,” Craig said.

He added that Disaster Corps fits into the National Response Framework developed in 2008 by the Homeland Security Department because it is an organization the state can mine following tragic events. “In disasters, the state has the lead. FEMA is a partner, set up to supplement what the states are providing themselves. Disaster Corps is one more way California can respond first,” he said.

Local disaster response officials say they also see Disaster Corps as another resource in times of disaster.

“It will be very important for us all Disaster Corps, American Red Cross, Salvation Army, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and others -- to be communicative and coordinate in a way that all organizations are making sure their services are being used to the fullest,” Regan explained.

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