From floods to pandemics: adapting to COVID-19

Andrew Turner is the Emergency Officer for Sixpenny Handley and Pentridge Parish Council in Dorset, whose role until COVID-19 largely covered groundwater flooding. Here, he discusses how he and his team of community volunteers adapted to the impact of COVID-19.

Can you explain some of the steps you took to adapt to COVID-19?

I started to review our Community Emergency Plan in February 2020 as more COVID 19 outbreaks were occurring. At this point, I had planned out the workings of our Flu Friends support group but had no community volunteers. In early March I put posters up around the village with my contact details asking for volunteers. Within a week I had 18 and by the time the lockdown occurred I had over 80. I divided the Parish into areas based on the number of houses and allocated a team to each with a Leader and Deputy. I also established a Phone Buddy team, made up of people in the community with appropriate skills or those who wanted to be involved but couldn’t as they had to self-isolate.

We sent letters to residents, explaining how to order food from our local shops and arranging for prescriptions to be collected. This was issued along with a newsletter explaining what we were doing and helping keep people informed. We’ve kept the newsletters going and each one has had a different angle, including good news stories and reminders about key safety aspects.

Everything we have established through COVID-19 needs to be maintained so that we have a package ready should it be needed again.

How did you find the process of adapting?

It was very quick to get the group up and running because I had done the groundwork with the plan and received a lot of community volunteers willing to support those having to isolate. Our Dorset Councillor was and is very supportive and I have a call each week with the Parish Council to keep them up to date. However, making decisions in the beginning, based on what I felt was the right thing to do, was very difficult; no county wide communication loop had been established and I did feel very isolated as a result.

Within the team I have maintained weekly calls with the Team Leads, Phone Buddies and Reserve volunteers. This ensures we have a chain of command and consistent messaging as well as the ability to feed back. I gather stats from each team every week and collate these to establish how much ‘work’ we are undertaking. Initially, this was to know whether any team was overloaded, and is broken down in terms of shopping, prescriptions and phone calls. As we gathered data, I have been able to build a profile and can now see we have a steady volume of trips and calls that is sustainable within the team.

How did you use social media and other communication tools during the crisis response?

I set up a Facebook page and a group in the NextDoor app to push information out – either updates on our group’s activities or output from the GOV.UK daily update. This information also gets uploaded onto our community website, so those not using Facebook or NextDoor can still access it. I have also set up a free Microsoft Teams area where all our documents are stored.

I used the Communities Prepared website for information and guidance in setting the support team up and continue to check back for other resources to utilise.

Have there been any key learnings from this experience that you’ll take forward?

Everything we have established through COVID-19 needs to be maintained so that we have a package ready should it be needed again. I made use of Communities Prepared training/briefing packs to ensure we were covering the right scope at a realistic level and to inform community volunteers joining the team. Engagement within the community has been key to the success of the plan and so we need to ensure we maintain this going forward. We need to work with Dorset Council to ensure we are better integrated.

Will you maintain engagement with the new volunteers you’ve acquired through the pandemic? If so, how do you see them playing a role in future emergencies?

Yes, when we’re able to meet, I want to workshop the whole experience to gather everyone’s thoughts and ensure we track what we did but also what could have been done better. With this information I will update the Pandemic Flu plan for future use. I also want to keep everyone registered so that I can contact them periodically and look at how we can extend other areas of our overall emergency plan if needed.

What stage is your community at now? Are you looking at crisis recovery?

We are continuing our support model and expect to align this with the overall Government recommendations.

Andrew Turner sitting with his dog

As lockdown restrictions ease, communities will be starting to look at ways to rebuild and strengthen. Our free upcoming webinar takes a practical look at how community volunteer groups & Town & Parish Councils can assist with crisis recovery. Book here.

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