Volunteers
Written by Vince MacKenzie
It is common in smaller communities that the volunteer fire department is the only available emergency agency. Most of Canada’s smaller communities have fire stations, but they don’t always have police stations or medical centres. Therefore, when a major emergency incident or disaster strikes these communities, it is the volunteer fire departments that respond.

Unlike in larger cities with emergency-management offices and full-time staff, rural, large-scale disasters are usually dealt with by the members of the volunteer department. The rural fire chief or senior fire officer is thrust into the role of disaster operations commander, or, in times of non-emergency, the role of emergency operations co-ordinators and planners. This can certainly be a challenging role to be thrust into without preparation.

I would like to focus on one element of emergency planning: communication. When the emergency is over and evaluation and inquiry begins, communication is commonly identified as a key factor in the success or failure of disaster operations.  

Emergency management communication includes directing emergency responders, sharing public information, and gathering data about the emergency. Therefore, the fire chief needs to know how to receive credible information and how to communicate to the public effectively.

I think we can all agree that forms of communication have changed dramatically in the last five years with the growth of social media. In order to effectively communicate in today’s world, emergency planners now have to consider a social-media component to the emergency-operations plan.

Credible information now comes in many forms from the public. It used to be that everyone phoned into the emergency services to report issues, but today, many people who witness the incidents use social media to inform everyone. While most social media information is credible, some is tainted with opinion and rumors that will quickly spread to the public. The deluge of tweets and posts lends itself to misinformation because the public can receive information as quickly as the officials handling the situation. Unfortunately, the constant monitoring of crucial information can rapidly overload a conventional public information officer or media centre.

Reports from the public also generally come with photos that cannot be ignored by emergency operations centres. The challenge for local emergency managers is to capture that information to assist in a manner that is credible and timely.

I learned a new term during a recent session on media training: the digital volunteer. It’s a relatively new concept as applied to emergency management, but I believe it will soon become a familiar term.

The digital volunteer is a person who emergency managers identify to help monitor social media platforms for relevant information and data during emergencies. Digital volunteers are not actively engaged in the emergency operations centre, but are engaged with the public information officer to alert those in charge when significant messaging is trending. Digital volunteers are, in essence, social-media savvy spectators recruited to help filter the barrage of information. If you spend any time on social media, you can probably think of a few of those people now. During almost every emergency, people emerge online to provide information to the public through posts on social media, as though they were officials themselves.  

We all know someone who is tuned into the event for whatever reason. Many times these people are actively engaged in the situation and can be a valuable resource to assist with analyzing the volume of information. Enlisting these digital volunteers to filter and inform the emergency operations centre of trending issues or damaging rumors will be very helpful to overall communication. We should not turn away from these opportunities that can help us navigate the changing world of emergency management. So why not write this concept into our emergency planning?

This fall, I will participate in an exercise on the concept of the digital volunteer at an emergency management conference in Nova Scotia. I am excited to find out what the organizers have in store for us. While the concept of the digital volunteer is relatively new, I see great value in it as a tool to help fire departments keep on top of today’s busy communication world.


Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Service and an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. Email him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince


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