State-wide databases and better-funded programs are needed to help councils respond to changes in how Australians volunteer around disaster.
Traditionally a backbone of local emergency management, volunteers are in short supply in some parts of Australia as social and technological developments change how and where people give up their free time.
Councils across Australia have been grappling with how best to attract and retain volunteers, who experts say are essential to helping communities prepare, respond and recover from a disaster.
Now the initial findings from an ongoing study suggest that “enablers” such as state-wide databases of volunteers and technology to improve information sharing locally are needed to support councils.
National and state frameworks to provide local government with consistent processes, and reform in intergovernmental disaster arrangements to ensure continuity of funding to councils are also needed, according to the study by RMIT University and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.
The latest findings, based on interviews with 17 local government professionals from across Australia, found many people were no longer signing up for long-term volunteer roles while regional and remote councils report being particularly challenged.
Dr Tarn Kruger, a social scientist at RMIT University who is undertaking the study with her colleague Dr Blythe McLennan, said council professionals also identified issues of ageing volunteers and difficulties attracting young people.
“They also talked about people being less inclined to volunteer for roles that might require ongoing commitments,” she told Government News.
Training requirements, regular meetings and travel were among the deterrents for people engaging in traditional volunteering roles, she found.
While online courses had overcome some of the training and distance obstacles, such approaches could also isolate people and lessen the camaraderie often essential for volunteering around disaster recovery.
A major issue highlighted by the local government professionals was the “inadequate financial assistance to support volunteer programs,” Dr Kruger said.
“They often described the never-ending battle to secure more funds. As additional roles and responsibilities are often tasked to local government, this can increase the strain on their limited resources and capacity to deliver.”
Councils try new approaches
Dr Kruger found that local governments have been exploring new approaches to respond to the changes in volunteering patterns, such as tapping into their volunteers in other areas and collaborating with other councils.
“Many councils host a range of volunteer programs across areas like library services, gardening and Meals on Wheels – there can be hundreds of people doing these sorts of activities. Some councils are now looking at ways of ensuring that, when a disaster comes along, interested volunteers from other areas can opt in and be part of that recovery effort,” she says.
Local governments are also looking to collaborate with other agencies, such as by sharing resources and staff before, during or after major events, Dr Kruger said.
“They are thinking beyond their own boundaries, because floods and fires don’t stop at local government areas.”
More broadly, the research says that state-wide databases listing current details on volunteers, enhanced information sharing locally and better funded programs are all needed to support local government.
Policies and frameworks at the national and state levels were also essential to ensure councils had guidance and consistent processes, the research has found.
The next phase of the three-year study, which began in July last year, will include a targeted online survey of community organisations and volunteers across Australia.
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