Enabling Volunteer Leaders – A new model for ESS in Vancouver

By Katie McPherson, Manager of Community Resilience. With special thanks to Jackie Kloosterboer, Emergency Social Services Director

In 2012, the City of Vancouver launched the Vancouver Volunteer Corps (VVC) program to create new and expanded roles for citizens in emergency preparedness and response. The program consists of a general population of VVC volunteers with a basic level of training, and also serves as an umbrella for 4 specialized streams including:

  • Emergency Social Services (ESS)
  • Vancouver Emergency Community Telecommunications  Organization (VECTOR – amateur radio society)
  • Neighbourhood Emergency Preparedness Program (NEPP, public education)
  • Neighbourhood Emergency Assistance Team (NEAT)

Since its inception, more than 1000 citizens have taken the VVC Orientation and Level 100 course which are pre-requisites for all streams. Many have advanced through to become active members with specialized training in ESS, NEAT, VECTOR and NEPP. VVC members have participated in a number of response and public safety operations ranging from evacuations to oil spills to large special events. They have demonstrated their ability to learn new tasks and lead teams during the first ever functional exercise testing a door-to-door evacuation process.

The VVC Program has had a significant impact on ESS, with a flood of new members and increased demand for training and engagement. ESS has operated as a well-established program since long before the VVC was introduced. For many years, ESS has relied on a small number of highly trained and dedicated Disaster Assistance Team (DAT) volunteers who respond regularly to house fires and smaller emergencies. The DAT is a well-oiled machine when it comes to smaller emergencies, however, as many emergency managers can attest, it is difficult to train and retain numbers of volunteers sufficient to respond to major emergencies. In Vancouver, for example, we estimate that we will need up to 180 volunteers to staff 6 group lodging centres for just one shift.

The ESS program has set an ambitious 3 year goal of being able to sustain 6 group lodging centres simultaneously for 7 days. To achieve this with no additional resources, while maintaining day-to-day operations, is a tall order. When we looked at this goal in light of the other challenges for volunteer engagement and training, we recognized we had reached the extent of capacity under the current structure. We needed a model that was sustainable for our staff, ensured that we could provide ESS to the community, and also engaged and met the needs and interests of volunteers.

In January of 2016, the City of Vancouver launched the ESS Zone Team Program, embarking on a mission to dramatically enhance volunteer leadership and participation in planning, training, and community outreach.  By facilitating volunteers’ ownership of activities in their own neighbourhoods, we hope that the zone teams will not only increase engagement, but also improve the quality of plans and programs, and the commitment and understanding of the volunteers asked to implement them when disaster strikes.

The concept is simple. The city has been divided into 6 geographic zones. Within each zone, Leadership Teams have been established. The target for Leadership Teams is 12 volunteers per team; meanwhile, in 2016, we hope to have 6 – 8 of the positions filled.

Leadership Teams are tasked with leading ESS activities in their zones.  All ESS members are assigned to the geographic zone where they live. Now, instead of having 500 people reporting in to a single staff person, there are 6 Leadership Teams serving as a force multiplier for outreach, planning, and engagement.

In addition to the primary responsibility of building and maintaining capacity to deliver emergency social services, leadership teams are encouraged to identify and oversee other types of activities in their zones that will contribute to local emergency preparedness and community resilience.

At the Zone Team Launch Party in February, over 100 volunteers showed up to provide their input on the events, activities, training, and projects that they would have liked to lead or participate in. Some of the top recommendations included conducting community mapping and gathering information about local resources to help drive planning and preparedness, hosting neighbourhood events to recruit more team members, and making connections with community organizations to engage them in planning and preparedness. All of these projects have direct relevance to ESS, but are outside of the traditional ESS program.

At just 4 months in, it is too early to tell how this program will fare. There will no doubt be stumbling blocks, but the initial response has been overwhelmingly positive. The tasks that have been left in the hands of the volunteers are moving forward. Leadership teams are setting zone priorities, developing plans, and solving problems together, much like they will be asked to do when the big one strikes. Everyone will have a role to play when an earthquake strikes Vancouver.  We firmly believe that enabling volunteer leaders now will drastically improve community response and recovery when that happens.

Katie McPherson is the new Chief Resilience Officer with the City of Vancouver. Currently she oversees the Community Resilience portfolio including volunteer programs, community and business engagement, public education and other strategic projects. She is also leading the City of Vancouver’s involvement in various consultations and planning initiatives related to marine shipping and oil spill response. She regularly takes on leadership roles in emergency response operations in Vancouver. Previously, as Manager of Emergency Planning for City of Vancouver Katie was responsible for developing a range of emergency plans, hazard and risk assessments, and planning and operations for special events. Prior to working for the City of Vancouver, Katie managed a multi-year Climate Change Adaptation project in Northwest BC, planted over 1 million trees across the country, and served as an ESS volunteer in Kingston and Vancouver. Katie’s interest in emergency management and community resilience began in earnest when she responded as a volunteer to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and supported the development of a co-operative economic recovery project in a relief camp in Ban Nam Khem, Thailand. She holds a Master’s Degree in Disaster and Emergency Management from York University and a BA in International Development and History from Dalhousie University.