Saturday, 31 March 2018

A Role in Response: The Place of Voluntarism in Emergency Organisation

There are several reasons why voluntarism is important to emergency preparedness. First, in certain areas of activity, it can compensate for lack of official resources. Secondly, it can help connect the official response mechanism to the beneficiaries, namely the general public. Thirdly, it may give people more of a stake in how local risks are managed. Finally, it may help create a sense of community and encourage people to work for the common good.

Voluntarism can help to connect ordinary people to the system of official disaster risk reduction and emergency response. It can counteract the ‘top-down’ effect, with its potential blindness to local concerns and priorities. It can also help adapt emergency provisions to local needs. In this context, organised voluntarism can act as a link between salaried administrators and the general public, enabling the latter to connect with the emergency preparedness process and voice concerns to the authorities.

It is often suggested that voluntarism is in crisis in various parts of the world. The market-based ideologies of neoliberal capitalism have encouraged, promoted and prized individualism at the expense of selfless collective action. Harsh economic conditions and the rise of the ‘gig economy’ have created financial pressures that discourage people from volunteering, as this would be too great a sacrifice of time that could be spent earning a basic income. Public discourse has become harsher, and civil values have taken a beating. Nevertheless, charity, self-sacrifice and social participation have found new ways of expressing themselves, notably with the aid of social media. In one of her Christmas addresses to the UK nation, Queen Elizabeth II observed that, among the many people she has met during the course of her official duties, the happiest and most fulfilled have usually been those who sought a role helping others. Hence, voluntarism is certainly not dying and doubtless has a rich, varied future ahead of it.

This essay briefly examines (or really re-examines - see Alexander 2010) the nature of civil protection voluntarism. This largely means emergency response, although there is of course a role for volunteers in the wider processes of mitigating risks and preparing for future emergencies. In this work, the key question is how best to organise voluntarism so that it provides a valid and valuable service, motivates the volunteers and fits in with the ‘official’ system. As the legal, administrative and social support systems of countries vary widely, no one model is appropriate everywhere. There is a series of options to be considered, as the following section will show.

The nature of civil protection voluntarism

According to sociologists, agent-generated demands arise from the specific nature of the hazard or threat impact and response-generated demands stem from the process of organising and implementing the response (Quarantelli 1982, p. 3). Hence, the need for casualty management is agent-generated, but the need for stretchers and ambulances is response-generated. Volunteers respond to the former category of needs but generate the latter category.

The first question for civil protection authorities is whether it is better to avail themselves of spontaneous volunteers or create the conditions for organised, incorporated voluntarism. Although there are pros and cons on both sides of the dilemma, the world-wide trend is decisively away from spontaneous voluntarism in favour of the organised kind. This, however, may be a process or path, rather than a net distinction.

Spontaneous volunteer forces have been organised by enterprising citizens through use of social media to articulate people’s pressing concerns. Thus people with brooms and plastic sacks went out on the streets of London after the 2011 riots both to clean up the debris and to demonstrate that Londoners still have civic values of tolerance, solidarity and participation. In 2014, similar forces were out on the streets of Hamilton, Ontario, to clean up the debris left by the passage of an intense storm.

In Italy, organised voluntarism in civil protection stems from the founding of the Venerable Company of the Misericordia in Florence in 1244. In 2018 it is still in the same headquarters but has grown into a major ambulance and civil protection response service that is federated across the nation. Nevertheless, the dawn of the modern era of civil protection voluntarism in Italy stems from the arrival of many young people in Florence after the 4 November 1966 floods. Equipped with nothing but a backpack and bedding role, they dedicated themselves to the clean-up process with enthusiasm and earned the title of “mud angels”.

Spontaneous demonstrations of desire to help and participate are all very well, but they carry a number of drawbacks. Unorganised volunteers can be a drain on resources and are of limited use. Yet most civil protection voluntary organisations began in this manner. Thus, one could trace a  progression from spontaneous to fully organised and incorporated voluntarism (see figure). Hence, in Italy, 3,600 volunteer organisations are the backbone of the system. The organisations have government sponsorship and their members are protected with legal provisions. For example, they cannot be sacked from their regular jobs if they are called upon to respond to a disaster.

It is a valid hypothesis that voluntarism in civil protection cannot adequately be organised on an unprogrammed basis. Some of the reasons for this are as follows. First, members require personal protection in their response roles and insurance against accident, liability or losses. The complexity of events and increasing professionalism of roles requires systematic training. Volunteers work best in groups or organisations and these need to be accommodated by the system of official emergency response. In fact, given the need to orchestrate the response, it is important for such organisations to have defined roles that can fully be taken into account in emergency plans. Moreover, such roles must harmonise with other roles and tasks in such a way as to cover all anticipated needs generated by foreseeable emergency situations.

The process of building a system of volunteer organisations that is both parallel to the official response system and is harmonised with it involves a series of steps. Associations need to be formed and to acquire identity based on their tasks, roles and constituent members. Association involves working together; organisation involves grouping and readying for action. Training, the acquisition of equipment and operational bases, the formation of communications networks and the creation of procedures for recruitment are all part of the process of maturing and developing organisations. They may then enter on the path to incorporation, in which they gain official recognition and absorption into official structures, with an official role in emergency response or other civil protection activities.

Models of voluntarism in civil protection

When considering how voluntarism could be developed in civil protection, the first question to answer is what can volunteers do? Here is a list of possible roles:

  • urban search and rescue (USAR), regional search and rescue (SAR)
  • marine rescue (lifeboat services)
  • evacuation and the management of temporary shelter
  • mass feeding for displaced populations and emergency responders
  • transportation and humanitarian logistics
  • ambulance service, with paramedics and possibly doctors
  • volunteer fire service
  • medical services, support for people with disabilities, psychological assistance
  • interpreting and translating
  • building and construction skills
  • monitoring, observing and providing information to the public.
In most countries there are probably already volunteer organisations that respond to with some of these needs.

In some countries emergency response voluntarism is well developed. In Germany, for example, Technisches Hilfswerk (THW) has almost 80,000 volunteers and 630 bases. It is well integrated into the official emergency response system. In Italy, there are 3,600 volunteer organisations with civil protection roles, some of which are federated into 36 national organisations. The volunteer rescue tradition stretches back 775 years and is fully accepted and well supported by local communities. It is usually a matter of local pride, as well as the prudence of having functional emergency services at close proximity. A corollary is the fact that Italian Law (specifically no. 225 of 1992) identifies the elected mayor of a municipality as the chief civil protection authority, which is a further connection between the official emergency response mechanism and the beneficiaries in the general population. Similar kinds of organisation exist in countries such as Colombia, but with lower levels of development, in part due to lack of resources and in part because of the persistence of conflict situations that have restricted the development of civilian agencies (Salamon and Sokolowski 2001).

In the United States individualism is such that volunteer activity is somewhat limited, although the American Red Cross is a fine example of how a regular institution can be integrated with volunteers. In the more seismically active parts of California there have been experiments with organising neighbourhood-level emergency response, by training and equipping groups of neighbours (Lichterman 2000). In southern Ireland, villages have organised to be resilient against emergencies using social media to communicate and identify indigenous skills.

Voluntarism and communities

The concept of ‘community’ is difficult to define and not necessarily therapeutic. In the first place, it has no inherent scale, It can be conceptualised as any grouping of people with a common agenda, or common fate, from the level of a single inhabited street to that of the entire world, as linked by information technology. Many local communities have expatriate elements, perhaps in the form of a diaspora. Secondly, the mere fact of a common destiny, or common interests, does not automatically make communities a force for social progress. Rather than being therapeutic phenomena, many communities are factional, divided by rivalries or subject to ‘elite capture’, a process in which the common agenda is subverted to the desires of the most influential or powerful members of the community (Lund and Saito-Jensen 2013). Although elite capture is mostly associated with communities in developing countries it is equally likely to occur in rich nations, albeit under a different, more subtle guise.

Despite these reservations, where they can be defined at a local scale, communities are usually rich in human capital (Becker 1994). People have skills and experience, as well as potential commitment. Organising volunteer groups is thus also a question of organising expertise in such a way that it can be exploited in emergency response or mitigation actions.

Another issue concerns how to use existing volunteer organisations, if there are such things, in order to extend their reach to emergency response activities. In the local community, there may be trained figures (such as flood wardens and snow wardens) as well as entire trained organisations. An ambitious scheme would operate at the national or regional level. It would provide a legal framework for operations, including coverage for anticipated risks, funding for equipment and training, and recognition and accommodation within the official system. Once established, the organisation could be incorporated into emergency plans with defined roles under expected emergency scenarios.


Civil protection is made up of the processes and organisations involved in preparing for and responding to civilian emergencies such as natural hazard impacts and industrial accidents. To be effective, it needs the recognition, and perhaps the participation, of the beneficiaries, namely the general public. In many situations, how to connect the public and the system is a major challenge. Encouraging and developing organised voluntarism is one possible way of taking up that challenge.

There is a choice of three possible strategies (which are not mutually exclusive):-

(a) Rely on spontaneous voluntarism and existing volunteer organisations. Seek to guide and direct them more effectively. This means anticipating developments that will occur which may involve volunteers and predicting both how they can be used and how they will act in a crisis.

(b) Make better use of existing voluntary organisations. Understand them, engage with them, seek to change and develop their roles in emergency situations. Seek a better institutional role for them.

(c) Start to develop serious civil protection organisations and a role, accreditation system and institutional framework for them. Templates and procedural and legal mechanisms will be needed.

By and large, the development of voluntarism is one of the possible measures of the maturity of the civil protection system and its path towards a service that is responsive to local needs and priorities, organised from above, but activated from below.


Alexander, D.E. 2010. The voluntary sector in emergency response and civil protection: review and recommendations. International Journal of Emergency Management 7(1): 151-166.

Becker, G.S. 1994. Human capital revisited. In Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis with Special Reference to Education (3rd Edition). University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 15-28.

Lichterman, J.D. 2000. A "community as resource" strategy for disaster response. Public Health Reports 115(2-3): 262-265.

Lund, J.F. and M. Saito-Jensen 2013. Revisiting the issue of elite capture of participatory initiatives. World Development 46: 104-112.

Quarantelli, E.L. 1982. Human resources and organizational behaviours in community disasters and their relationship to planning. Preliminary paper no. 76. Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware, 19 pp.

Salamon, L.M. and W. Sokolowski 2001. Volunteering in Cross-National Perspective: Evidence From 24 Countries. Working Papers of the Johns Hopkins Comparative Non-Profit Sector Project, no. 40. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 34 pp.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Black-Sky Thinking

 Network of Stoppages - Marcel Duchamp, 1914

"For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky." - E.M. Forster, 1909

In the current furore about artificial intelligence (AI), there is a growing fear that machines will take on a life of their own and behave in a malign and uncontrollable manner (e.g. Observer 2016). There are many worrying aspects of AI, and some heartening ones, but there is a remarkably simple answer to talk of machines taking over, namely, why not pull out the plug? The insurgency of self-controlled machines is a staple of science fiction, and much of the respect for that genre stems from the fact that it often contains a metaphor for humanity's current mores and preoccupations. In this case, it is an indication of the extent to which we all take electricity for granted.

More than ever before in history, electricity is now our life-blood, and every day that passes this becomes more and more true. If anything threatens our survival, it is the absence of electrical current in the distribution system of high- and low-tension cables and wires. In fact, when NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 tacticians put a great deal of effort into bombing power stations with graphite (which short-circuits them) in order to render them inoperable and thus undermine the functioning of the enemy state.

Power failure is taken very seriously by utility providers and hospitals, but not by the general public or many businesses. For many decades we have been habituated to the idea that, if the power ever goes off, it will come on again very soon, and interruptions of service will be rare. They are a nuisance that forces us to suspend our activities, but that is all. This is a testimony to the dogged work of the electricity providers in ensuring supplies. It sets countries aside from those where, through lack of energy resources, inability to maintain networks, shortage of investment and growing demand, electricity distribution is not so stable. It sets us aside from the forgotten corners of the world where power grids and distribution networks have not yet arrived. They are either treated as romantic anachronisms or marginal places of little consequence. But what if electricity distribution did significantly fail? Both the causes and the consequences are likely to be quite involved (Luke 2010).

Much work has been carried out to protect electricity generation and distribution networks against progressive failures of the 'toppling dominoes' kind, characterised by a chain of protective isolations and shut-downs of the system (Terzija et al. 2011, Nateghi et al. 2016). However, with rising demand for electricity and diversifying supply, power distribution has become progressively more sophisticated, pervasive and internationalised. This has also created many more areas of potential vulnerability (Elizondo et al. 2002). Hence, 'cascading failure' is a term that is now less applicable to the physical relationships in a power network and more to the relationship between overall failure and chains of consequences (Chang et al. 2007, Bompard et al. 2009, Chiaradonna et al. 2011).

Despite all the work that has gone into making power generation and distribution resilient processes, natural hazard impact cannot be ruled out, and neither can technical failure (Maliszewski and Perrings 2011). Moreover, cyber attack cannot be regarded as a threat that is totally under control and will remain so (Stefanini and Masera 2008m Piccinelli et al. 2017). In this sense, the 2015-16 cyber attacks on the Ukrainian power grid have acted as a wake-up call to the electricity industry (Lee et al. 2016). In the last analysis, power supply will never be completely safe against widespread failure.

Because water supply and sanitation, fuel supply, food distribution and other services depend on the availability of electricity, there are grounds for regarding it as the primary form of critical infrastructure (Kröger 2008). It also provides some essential mechanisms through which critical infrastructure failure is linked to cascading disasters. In most places, the degree of dependency of society on electricity has not been tested by a prolonged, widespread outage (although around the world major events of this kind occur with a frequency of about once a year, and less consequential events orders of magnitude more often - Atputharajah and Saha 2009).

At present, we have a poor understanding of the degree to which we depend on electricity. Consider the impact of prolonged loss of power on food conservation and distribution. If motor fuel supplies cannot be pumped, food will rot in warehouses. If refrigeration fails, food will rot in situ. This may lead to a proliferation of gastro-enteritic diseases, as contaminated food is eaten, for example in the home environment, and it would certainly lead to a problem of how to dispose of large quantities and varieties of contaminated food. Hence, an extra burden on hospitals and a problem of rectifying the food supply chain would be consequences.

From advertising to sales and dispatch, commerce is now heavily, almost universally, dependent on electronic systems. Hence, interruption of electricity supply inevitably means interruption of business: the supplier cannot sell and the customer cannot buy. In such a situation, it will be interesting to see what degree of cushioning there is between interruption of service and bankruptcy. This came close to being tested in both "9-11" and the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, each of which put a groundstop of about a week upon the airlines, leading to massive losses of revenue (Alexander 2013a).

How would a "cashless society" manage in the absence of electronic banking and electrically driven transactions? This problem covers a wide spectrum because it stretches from simple issues about paying for essential goods, such as food, to complex ones about major time-dependent electronic transactions, such as house purchase conveyancing.

One of the most significant and least explored elements of dependency upon electricity is the psychological side. For people who are completely habituated to communicating via social media and telephone, what would it mean to have to do without these devices (Wang et al. 2015)? This brings us to Barton's post-disaster 'therapeutic community' (Barton 1970). It is probable that a prolonged black-out would lead to more cooperation, social identification and self-sacrifice. It would tend to bring outcasts into the social circle rather than reinforce their exclusion. However, the other side of the coin is crime and social deviance. Despite the prevalence of the 'therapeutic community' and its reinforced consensus on what is right and proper, for criminals disaster is an opportunity (Zahran et al. 2009). Looting (Alexander 2013b) is not an inevitable consequence, but where appropriate preconditions exist (for example in deprivation, lawlessness or lack of social justice), it may be a significant outcome. The connection between electricity supply failure and looting has been well researched in its North American context (Muhlin et al. 1981, Wohlenberg 1982). However, before plans are laid to cope with a massive onset of looting as the lights go out, perhaps attention should be devoted to the presence or absence of preconditions and what they signify in terms of propensity or its absence.

If we became completely habituated to using digital technology, would we be able to think and act effectively in its absence? Information technology has caused people to retreat from reality, and at the same time it has made itself indispensable. If this seems to be too extreme an interpretation, an alternative view is that information technology has redefined reality. However, technological failure could redefine it again.

The Internet age has given a special sort of prescience to the renowned science fiction story that E.M. Forster wrote in 1909, The Machine Stops (Forster 1928). This is an apocalyptic tale of how universal dependency on technology leads to the breakdown of civilisation and the annihilation of all those who depend on it, except for a small group of people who have managed to break away and revert to a more natural form of living. Forster and his contemporaries faced the incubus of the First World War, in which the machine gun and poison gas did so much to show the prowess of technology on the killing fields. Yet it was not until the beginning of the nuclear age that people and their prophets began to see technology as genuinely capable of making an end to civilisation. Nonetheless, Forster's magisterial tale at least offers his readers a glimpse of future regeneration. Whether or not Forster was foreseeing something in the future, Domesday scenarios and the means of coping with them remain extremely difficult to think through (Bostrom and Cirkovic 2011, Denkenberger et al. 2017).

Forster's story relies much on automation, which is in turn dependent on the algorithms that make it function. The proliferation of algorithms is becoming a major influence upon modern life. All algorithms are models, and all models simplify reality. Good models are elegant simplifications and successfully extract the 'signal' from the 'noise' that surrounds it. However, the simplification process involves making assumptions, which in the end may be valid or false. By their very nature, as part of the modelling process, assumptions exclude information, observations and elements of reality. When algorithms fail, reality surges back, with all of its awkward complications and chaotic implications.

At present, we are not devoting enough attention to the question of how digital development creates vulnerability and dependency. Dependency, in fact, is the motor of vulnerability. All technology is ultimately fallible, but how vulnerable are we to its failure? The present tendency is to counter this fallibility with the application of yet more technology. Nothing could be more conducive to breeding the conditions for cascading failure. Will artificial intelligence and information technology failure create tragedy? If not, will it contribute to, exacerbate or multiply tragedies?

Technology has reorientated person-to-person communication. It has opened up new avenues, both good and bad, for leadership and for the management of public opinion. The spontaneous loss of the technology, for example in any form of prolonged failure of the equipment, will inevitably lead to resocialisation, but largely through a highly inefficient process of improvisation, of trial and error. Paradoxically, by creating massive redundancy, its very inefficiency may be the source of its richness and success. In the end if failure occurs on a grand scale (Pescaroli et al. 2018), afterwards, the attitude to technology will never be the same again.


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