Commentary / Japan

Time for a national volunteer registry

by Robert D. Eldridge

As previously discussed (“Natural Disasters: Preparing for the unexpected,” Oct. 2), Japan has been rocked this year with a number of natural disasters, primarily deriving from typhoons or heavy rains and flooding, which were further compounded by other man-made errors or natural complications to further devastate the country. Indeed, the scenes from some of the disaster areas remind one of the tragic aftermath of tsunami.

Like tsunami-struck areas, the restoration of services and the cleanup have taken a great deal of time, more than was expected, affecting those still living in the area and unfortunately leading to deaths that could have otherwise been avoided.

Volunteers have come out in fairly good numbers to assist, but the frequency of the storms and the large areas that have been impacted, in some cases one after the other, have limited the impact of these volunteer efforts or the speed in which the recovery takes place.

If 2019 is any indication — and we have seen similar small-scale disasters over the years in different parts of the country — the future will likely bring more and more small- or large-scale disasters that will overwhelm local services, both public and private, paralyzing communities. As a result, volunteers will become increasingly important to dig residents out, run evacuation shelters, prepare for the next typhoon or rains, or rebuild roofs and housing.

Many of the communities affected tend to be in hard-to-reach areas, such as mountain village or coastal towns. Transportation to them is inconvenient (indeed, roads may be closed), distances great and time off to volunteer limited. As a result, it becomes difficult for volunteers, most of whom come from cities and other population centers, to get there easily and provide effective assistance.

Volunteerism, fortunately, overall is on the rise, and more and more municipalities and organizations are getting better at receiving them. However, the systems to do so vary from town to town, and the skills sought — from hard, back-breaking labor to medical assistance and mental counseling — vary from disaster to disaster.

One thing that is clear is that first responders and local governments can not do it all alone. Volunteers are necessary.

To simplify the on-site process of accepting volunteers, and to expedite things overall, I would argue that it is time now for a national volunteer registry.

Each community has its own registration process and sign-ups, requiring time to fill out forms by the volunteers and register them by municipal officials or volunteers deputized by them. This cuts into the volunteers’ time, when they could be doing the actual volunteer work they came for, and necessitates time by these officials to devote to registering the volunteers when they could be doing other necessary tasks.

This registry could provide photo IDs with an IC chip, bar code or QR code that are color-coded, based on types of previous training and/or skill sets for easy identification or processing if computers or readers are available.

A unified training and education guideline, including minimum standards approved by the Red Cross and other organizations, could be adopted nationwide or within the larger disaster response NGO/NPO community at large, partnering with established organizations in their respective fields. The volunteers do not have to be professionals, but they should receive training from professionals.

Many readers may have taken classes on CPR, water safety (life-guarding) or other life-saving skills from the Red Cross. Other agencies and organizations provide training in their respective fields. The Boy Scouts, for example, sponsor numerous types of survival skills and other practical training.

In the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides numerous levels of training for incident response and other types of emergencies. The U.S. Agency for International Development provides training for disaster response and working with other agencies and cultures.

Many of these classes can be taken online, while others are conducted in person. I benefited from both types when I worked for the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as in my off-time with the Red Cross and in leadership positions with the Boy Scouts.

Japan is behind in online training, preferring the classroom, but time constraints, a lack of instructors and greater facility of young people with technology will likely expedite its use of online training.

But more than the training is the need to create a national volunteer registry. The technology exists to do so now, before future disasters. The creation of a training menu, designation of standards, execution of the courses, and need for retraining and follow-on training can come afterwards.

Who would be in charge of it, and questions of protecting personal information and sharing of costs to run the program, should be discussed immediately.

Robert D. Eldridge, author of “Before Operation Tomodachi” (Reed International, 2018) and “Megaquake: How Japan and the World Should Respond” (Potomac, 2015), is director, North Asia, for the Global Risk Mitigation Foundation and is an adviser for Peace Winds Japan and the Asia-Pacific Alliance for Disaster Management.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5