Preparedness & Recovery

How to Get Help Painting that Fence

Emergency managers could learn a thing or two from Tom Sawyer about how to approach our jobs.

by Eric Holdeman / June 1, 2016

Perhaps not everyone is familiar with the fictional character Tom Sawyer and the stories told in the book that shares his name. One of the tales from Tom’s adventures was the task given to him of whitewashing a fence. Since he considered this chore “work,” he was determined to avoid it by enlisting the support of friends who happened to pass by. Tom pitched the task as being fun and in fact collected payment from them for the joy of painting. He was very successful.

Emergency managers could learn a thing or two from Tom Sawyer about how to approach our jobs. From the personal side, there are aspects of our jobs that we either don’t know how to do, don’t like to do or aren’t good at doing. If this is the case, find someone who can do the job or task faster and hopefully with more joy than yourself. This frees you to spend time on either higher priority work or in areas where you have more expertise and can be more productive.

Then, more importantly, we should look at our programs and examine what we are doing and how we accomplish the work of our emergency management office. Being in government, we often seek to solve every potential problem all by ourselves.

Instead of trying to do all the work alone, we need to enlist the help of others, starting with other government departments within our own jurisdiction. Of the four phases of emergency management, it is disaster response that will most likely yield a plethora of volunteers. These come in the form of organizations — public, private and nonprofit — as well as individuals and spontaneous groups of people. This latter group is a result of our social media culture where people can mash up in cyberspace over a common cause, become organized and function well for a specific task, objective or amount of time.

Our response to these spontaneous “painters” should be not to push them away, saying they aren’t needed and that only we know how to paint the fence correctly, safely and with less waste. You must find a way to manage the volunteers, aligning their skill sets with the program’s needs or helping them find an organization that can use their skills and provide them with a value-added experience.

If you don’t find a way to utilize those who want to help, you will find out very quickly that helpful volunteers will soon turn on you, running to the news media or elected officials to complain about how their skills, resources, etc., aren’t being leveraged and incorporated into the response.

Recognizing that not many organizations will have the resources to create detailed pre-disaster plans and procedures for volunteer management, emergency managers can develop frameworks for managing spontaneous volunteers that include a checklist and responsibility matrix. The key to making it work is to assign responsibility for volunteer management immediately. Potential organizations to perform this task may include leadership from your human resources department to help with volunteer assistance. If that department cannot accept the responsibility, find another office or agency that doesn’t have a major role during a disaster and recruit it to take the lead.

In some communities, the lead for this function may be found in the volunteer community itself. There are many retirees or community members with organizational and management skills who could lead this effort or supplement paid staff members in assigning and managing spontaneous volunteers.

If you read the story of Tom Sawyer, you’ll find that in the end everyone is happy. The fence got painted so Aunt Polly was satisfied; Tom’s friends had a grand old time; and Tom achieved what he wanted. We can only hope the same for our emergency management programs.