We caught up with Community Emergency Volunteer, John Roe, who, as Coordinator during the COVID-19 emergency response, led on the support efforts for the village of Great Barton. Here, he takes us through the details of their Emergency Plan and how he and his team of volunteers put this into action.
Can you tell us about your role in the community?
Normally I take the lead for the Great Barton Emergency Response Plan, heading up the Volunteer Team for the village, which is situated near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. When we triggered our plan, in response to COVID-19, I undertook the Coordinators role.
Great Barton is a diverse village with 947 households, spread over a large rural area. Many of our residents are retired and there can be a reluctancy from the community to ask for help, with many opting to put others before their own needs.
In 2003 I was approached to help with the task of creating an emergency plan for the village that would respond to the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. There were seven other local volunteers who supported this task. Between us we brought a good level of professional experience with backgrounds in power network distribution and telecommunication resiliency.
As part of the plan, we created an emergency risk assessment, which laid out the vulnerability levels of 50 different types of risk. It included high probability events such as blizzards, hurricanes and radiation, but did not extend to pandemics at this stage.
Can you explain how you have structured your group?
As a large rural village, it is vital that our volunteers are able to reach households easily on foot during an emergency, when there may be a loss of power and/or communication. In response to this, we divided the village into 21 sectors to form a ‘Community Cascade Network.’ Each sector covers a relatively small geographical area with their own Main and Reserve Local Coordinator who look after approximately 50 properties between them. Each sector has a property list with addresses. A telephone/courier fan-out procedure is in place to provide a communication conduit if needed.
Our emergency plan is structured around 3 volunteer groups:
Can you discuss how your group adapted to meet the challenges of COVID-19?
Early online conversations through our village’s Facebook group, (relayed to me by my daughter) highlighted the community’s awareness of what was happening. This really gave me the confidence to trigger our plan on 16th March (with the agreement of the Parish and West Suffolk Councils).
It was obvious that because of social distancing, the Operations Team would have to perform in isolation from one another, directed by the Coordinator. Fortunately, we had already in place a telephone exchange line number, which was diverted to me as the Coordinator, but could be diverted to any member of our Operations Team at any time if needed. Adapting to the demands of COVID-19 was a challenge, but because I have lived in the village for many years and maintained our plan, I had developed a rapport with the community. Alongside my professional experience, I had the confidence I could do it.
A letter was delivered on the 17th March to all households, offering help to people in the community who had lost their support structure, were self-isolating as a result of the virus or were feeling isolated. We decided that our support efforts would be focused on the vulnerable and isolated members of our community, organising prescriptions, food deliveries etc. and we put out a request for additional volunteers to get involved.
It was important that the new volunteers were honest about what they could or could not do in their response effort (for example, if they had reduced capacity due to childcare). We changed our Facebook group from ‘Great Barton Neighbourhood Watch’ to ‘Great Barton Emergency Response Group Volunteers’ and put up a post calling for volunteers. We had 92 new volunteers through this as a result, which was just brilliant. Assigning the volunteer to their local sector meant that they would know the residents and could build on this rapport.
Other efforts included:
What would you say are some of the personal qualities and skills that make an effective group Coordinator?
You have to be a people-person and think of others first; it is important to be mindful of the whole picture. Recognise that you have a whole team of volunteers wanting to be part of the decision-making process and want their voices heard. Other key skills are organisation, the ability to identify priorities as well as delegation.
There were times when my volunteers were understandably apprehensive about the tasks we were carrying out in the community during this challenging time. It was crucial that I reassured them. I did so by relaying key government information, communicating my confidence in them, as well as being clear and decisive in my role as their Coordinator.
Recognise that you have a whole team of volunteers wanting to be part of the decision-making process and want their voices heard.
What has been a key learning experience for you?
If you want help, always go out and ask for it. If you explain clearly what you are asking people to volunteer for and where they fit in, they will support you. Keep in regular contact with them, so they will know they have a valued role to play. We are so lucky to have this in place.
I am very proud of the village for the way it has supported its residents during this extremely difficult time.
John and The Great Barton Emergency Response Volunteer Team have not had a logged COVID-19 related support request since the 8th June and have been able to take some much-deserved rest.
Alongside all things community resilience, John enjoys DIY, travel, rambling, bird watching, and photography.