Risk Management For Your Volunteer Forces

The following article, by our Senior Division Advisor, David Holm, was recently published in the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Bulletin.


Risk Management For Your Volunteer Forces

Few things are as valuable to emergency managers as a cadre of trained, qualified, dedicated, capable volunteers, and few things will deplete those volunteers as quickly as failing to defend them and their agency from risk.  Yet typically little thought is given to risk management involving volunteers.  The risks involved with volunteers fall into several categories:

Physical risk of harm or death to the volunteer;
  1. Risk of damage or loss to the volunteer’s personal property;
  2. Risk of liability by the volunteer and their agency for harms based on the volunteer’s actions, or failure to act;
  3. Risk of economic harm to the volunteer by loss of salary, employment, benefits or seniority due to their service.
Each of these categories can be addressed and minimized/eliminated by taking proper actions before an emergency.

Physical risk to the volunteer

The physical risk of injury to a worker is often the most obvious risk.  By the nature of disasters, our response forces are often placed in harm’s way.  Day to day emergency workers are protected from exposure by proper training, equipping, supervision, guidance and oversight, but failing that, almost all of them are also protected by worker’s compensation insurance.  Few government agencies would consider operating without their employees being covered by worker’s comp, and yet many have no such coverage for volunteers.  A worker’s compensation policy serves to assist the injured worker, but it may also serve to protect the agency from liability for the injury beyond the scope of the insurance.  (See Colorado Revised Statutes 24-332-2201 to 2221 http://www.michie.com/colorado/lpext.dll/cocode/1/3c208/3dc15/3e358/3e97d/3e97e?fn=document-frame.htm&f=templates&2.0# for example legislation.)

If your jurisdiction has laws allowing such coverage, acquire a policy and fund the premiums to cover your volunteers.  It is amazing how inexpensive it can be and it may fund legal defense costs.

Risk of damage to volunteer’s property

Public responsibility for damage to a volunteer’s property is usually limited to personal property they would forseeably use in performing their duties, or which they have been requested to use by the agency.  Define and limit personal property used by the volunteer.  Wherever possible, provide agency property for them.  If they will be using personal motor vehicles, review their insurance to ensure their volunteer service will not disqualify their property damage, bodily injury nor liability insurance.  If they must use personal equipment, assure that the agency insurance policy will cover loss or damage or that the volunteer signs assumptions of risks/waivers of liability for personal equipment loss.

The risk of liability for harms based on the volunteer’s actions, or failure to act

Although courts tend to see if they can avoid holding volunteers and governments liable for actions taken in good faith during emergencies, judgments have been handed down in such events.  While proper training, equipping, supervision, guidance and oversight can go a long ways towards avoiding liability, many states and localities have enacted some form of sovereign immunity.  They then extended that immunity by making acts taken under color of disaster laws the responsibility of the state or other government entity, shielding the volunteer and placing any potential legal burden on an entity with access to government attorneys, i.e. Colorado Revised Statutes 24-32-2301 to 2304 [http://www.michie.com/colorado/lpext.dll/cocode/1/3c208/3dc15/3e358/3ea3f/3ea4f?fn=document-frame.htm&f=templates&2.0#].  If your jurisdiction has such laws, utilize them.  If it doesn’t, get some enacted.

The risk of the volunteer to loss of salary, employment, employment benefits or seniority due to their volunteer service

The volunteers on a fire, flood, search and rescue mission, debris clearance, sheltering or any other emergency mission are protecting us, often at risk of their livelihood, health insurance, career position etc.  We owe them protection in return.  In 2008, Colorado passed (unanimously except one no vote) an act providing protections to those who volunteer their services in a large scale emergency (http://dola.colorado.gov/dem/volunteer/volunteer_leave.htm ).  The act provides for 15 days of leave when a volunteer is called to work by a qualified organization for a qualified emergency, paid leave for government workers and unpaid for the private sector.  It provides that no such volunteer can lose seniority, rank, benefits, retirement credits etc. so long as they follow certain procedures.  Any government entity can certify a volunteer organization they work with for such protection.  Volunteers we all depend on no longer risk their livelihood by volunteering.


In order to keep a vibrant, essential corps of volunteers in emergency management, we need to take steps to protect them (and their government agencies) from some of the harms inherent in a disaster emergency situation.

NOTE:  This article previously appeared in the IAEM Bulletin and is being reprinted with the permission of the International Association of Emergency Managers, www.iaem.com.