Spontaneous volunteering during the Pandemic

Back in June last year I wrote a blog for Communities Prepared about my research into volunteers in disasters after being awarded a Churchill Fellowship.  My report has since been published in September and can be found here.

I have now been commissioned to undertake further research into the work of spontaneous volunteer groups across the United Kingdom by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust as part of their Covid-19 Action Fund which provides grants for Churchill Fellows to run projects combatting the effects of Covid-19 in all areas of society. 

The UK government definition categorises spontaneous volunteers as “individuals who are unaffiliated with existing official response organisations, yet, without extensive prep planning are motivated to provide unpaid support to the response and /or recovery to emergencies.”

Through disasters such as the Grenfell Tower Fire and many flooding incidents over the last decade, groups have been formed in the community by concerned individuals who want to help others in need. Through the pandemic, thousands of spontaneous volunteers have come forward to support their communities, forming Mutual Aid and COVID-19 support groups.

Often, they have faced barriers and issues that have prevented them working as effectively as they could. New Local’s report Communities vs. Coronavirus: The Rise of Mutual Aid examines some of these challenges, including “how best to structure themselves” and “managing their relationships with local government.”

In examples where the authorities work with volunteer groups, the combination of effort maximises the benefits to those in need.

My research and experience working with these spontaneous volunteer groups in Eastleigh, Hampshire (where I am the Resilience Manager), have demonstrated the impact of a joint effort. In examples where the authorities work with volunteer groups, the combination of effort maximises the benefits to those in need.

Here we worked with three spontaneous volunteer groups, which were formed in direct response to the pandemic. They have acted as the delivery arm of our local response centre, providing help and support to both those Clinically Extremely Vulnerable people who were shielding, and also to those who were having to self-isolate due to catching the virus or being a close contact. We have hundreds of volunteers doing shopping, collecting prescriptions, dog walking, befriending over the phone and doing regular checks on those in need of support. It has been and continues to be a fantastic effort by many members of the local community.

I am therefore calling to all spontaneous volunteer groups in the UK to ask for their help by completing a simple survey on behalf of their local group. This survey looks at how the groups were formed, their role and the work they have undertaken, how they are led, their interactions with the statutory authorities and considerations for their future post COVID-19.

I am conducing this survey through my work with Eastleigh Borough Council which ensures therefore that all data will be kept securely and used appropriately during the course of the research.

You can find the survey here on my blog: https://disastervolunteers.home.blog/

Alternatively, please email Melvin.hartley@eastleigh.gov.uk and I can send you a copy.

Melvin Hartley
Melvin Hartley is Safety & Resilience manager at Eastleigh Borough Council and Community Resilience lead for Hampshire and IOW Local Resilience Forum. Following a career with Bedfordshire Police and in community safety, he was part of the London Borough of Southwark’s management team for the 2012 Olympics response. 

An Emergency Response Plan in action

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:

The Great Barton 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:

Support services of the Great Barton Emergency Response Group Volunteers

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.

Volunteer, John Roe, who takes the lead for the Great Barton Emergency Response Plan.

Alongside all things community resilience, John enjoys DIY, travel, rambling, bird watching, and photography.

Responding to Coronavirus: Communities Prepared launches Public Health Volunteer training

With the world battling the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic and increasing levels of fear and uncertainty, harnessing the power of community action has never been more important. Across the world communities are adapting in the face of adversity. Many existing flood and emergency volunteer groups have extended their services to offer support to people self-isolating and new groups have formed to assist the most vulnerable with accessing food and medical supplies and reducing isolation.  In response to this, Communities Prepared has developed training resources to help Community Emergency Volunteers and spontaneous local groups better understand public health emergencies and their potential role in supporting community resilience at this time.

To ensure we provide the most up to date information that
is reflective of latest government guidance on Covid-19 and responds to the
needs of community volunteer groups, we will make periodical updates to our
public health training module and cue card.

Our latest update was made on 30/03/2020 to reflect latest government guidance, the launch of the NHS volunteering programme and to incorporate feedback from key partner organisations. You can see the marked changes to the presentation and the cue card or simply download via the buttons above.

These resources have been designed to be used by anyone
keen to volunteer and support vulnerable members of their community during a
public health emergency such as the current Covid-19 pandemic. The information
provided is reflective of the wider context, but can be adapted and tailored by
volunteers and groups for use in their own community.

For any questions on these updates, please get in touch at communitiesprepared@groundwork.org.uk

Course objectives

  • What is a public health emergency
  • Types of public health emergency
    • Pandemics
    • Temperature extremes
    • Hazardous chemical or bacteria release
    • Local communicable disease
  • Who does what in a public health emergency
  • Your role before a public health emergency
  • Your role during a public health emergency
  • Your role after a public health emergency
  • Safety during a public health emergency
  • Triggering a call out
  • Coronavirus pre-briefing

These materials are a clear, concise and informative way that community resilience and knowledge is developed, both for an event such as COVID-19 that we are currently facing, but also future events we will encounter with, for example, changing climates and the knock-on effects on communities, large and small.

Dr Tony Robertson, Lecturer in Social Epidemiology and Public Health, University of Stirling

Thank you to the University of Stirling’s Extremes in Science and Society research programme for helping shape the development of this public health module

The module has been invaluable in our community response to the ongoing public health emergency – it’s helped to inform both Councillors and volunteers, to make sure that people are acting safely and are getting the information they need to support each other.

Councillor Dom Newton, Leader of Bradford on Avon Town Council

Contact us to find out about online training sessions with one of our training officers or call our non-emergency advice line on 0117 910 3930 if you have any questions. You can download the training pack for your own use and adapt it accordingly.

Hear Senior Project Officer for the programme, Paul Robertson, delivering the training as a webinar to volunteers in Wiltshire. Listen here.

SSEN funding and assistance helps keep ‘Communities Prepared’ across Dorset and Wiltshire

Through SSEN’s Resilient Communities Fund (RCF), over £30,000 has been awarded to Groundwork South to deliver Communities Prepared to communities within a two-year period, working with volunteer groups to build community resilience to floods and other severe weather emergencies; a priority in the context of climate emergency. In-person training, a first-of-its-kind online resilience hub and an advice line are all features of the support package on offer to communities, with resources designed to be adaptable across multiple emergencies, including snow, fire and utilities failure.

Groundwork South is a not-for-profit organisation supporting
communities and working with a range of partners to create social, economic and
environmental improvements by enabling both communities and individuals across
the south of England to make positive changes to their lives and
neighbourhoods. Communities
is one of its flagship projects, providing people around the
country with the knowledge and tools to effectively prepare for, respond to and
recover from, severe weather emergencies, while strengthening working
relationships with the emergency services and other key local stakeholders.

Across Dorset and Wiltshire, the programme has identified
fifteen communities with a combined population of over 81,000, who will be
invited to take part in locally held workshops; there they will be introduced
to the project, given an outline of the training on offer and the opportunity
to network and share experiences. Presentations from key agencies and
discussions on community resilience to floods and severe weather emergencies,
volunteering opportunities and the support on offer from Communities Prepared
will be part of the workshops, with coordinators and members of existing local
flood warden, community emergency volunteer groups, community representatives
from the surrounding parishes and emergency professionals in attendance.

Based on interest from coordinators, Communities Prepared
will then run training sessions for individual groups, tailored to their needs
and priorities. These will offer a choice of modules, covering a range of
issues including flooding, snow, fire and utility failure, delivered with
support from the Environment Agency and local Cat 1 and 2 responders.  The
programme will also support groups in developing and testing their community
emergency plans, and offer guidance on other issues such as fundraising,
communications, risk assessments and insurance as required; this will be
complemented by an online community resilience hub, offering free resources and

The first workshop has already been delivered in Marlborough Town Hall, where SSEN’s Customer and Community Advisor, Helen Vass spoke to the attendees about SSEN’s ongoing work with local parish councils and community groups. She said:

“We were delighted to take part in this first workshop of many that aims to improve the resilience of local communities. SSEN has well established links with local organisations and parish councils, so to be able to bring those relationships and knowledge to other groups and locals residents helps us all to build stronger communities.”

Imogen Smith, a Senior Project Officer for Communities Prepared, helped organise the Marlborough workshop. She said:

“It was great to see so many community representatives and partners at our first SSEN funded event and such enthusiasm for community resilience. We look forward to rolling out our training and support to community volunteer groups across Wiltshire and Dorset over the next two years and thank SSEN for making this possible.”

In its latest round of annual grants – distributed in autumn 2019 – SSEN’s Resilient Communities Fund (RCF) has awarded over £185,000 to the successful applicants across its south network area. 

This most recent round of funding is the first where support has been extended to projects which achieve one of the following criteria:    

  • Vulnerability – to protect the welfare of vulnerable community members through enhancing their resilience and improving community participation and effectiveness.
  • Resilience for Emergency Events – to enhance community facilities, services and communication specifically to support the local response in the event of a significant emergency event.

In addition to the Resilient Communities Fund, SSEN has been working closely with local communities in the south east of England, helping them create resilience plans for emergencies, such as adverse weather and possible power disruption during winter storms. SSEN’s Resilient Communities Fund will re-open for applications in the spring of 2020. Guidelines and applications forms are available on SSEN’s website: www.ssen.co.uk/RCF/England/ with a full report on the fund available here – https://www.ssen.co.uk/RCF/.

Set up in 2014 as a two-year pilot scheme, SSEN has pledged to extend the fund to 2023 using a proportion of the income it receives from the industry regulator Ofgem in relation to its stakeholder engagement performance.

Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks

Communities Prepared provides training and support for volunteer groups on fundraising, which includes guidance on writing and submitting funding applications. For more information, please contact us. To download our introduction to community fundraising, please register here.

Staying safe: how to be prepared in the modern world

Have you ever considered what you would do in an emergency? How would you keep yourself and others safe? In today’s uncertain world, it’s important to understand the likelihood of an emergency occurring and how to be more prepared. Understanding risk and improving personal resilience is key to effective emergency preparedness and response. Daily emergencies happen worldwide, however hearing about them depends on your location and the circumstances of the emergency.

Staying Safe: How to be
Prepared in the Modern World
a free online course produced by The
Emergency Planning College
(EPC) in partnership
with Serco, an international service company that manages the EPC for and on
behalf of the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat. The course has
been designed to help individuals develop their own personal resilience and to
understand the ‘what ifs’. This will allow them to plan how to deal with them,
prioritise them and lessen the affects to the individual and their family. It
is ideal if you want to understand the actual risks to you and your family, and
how to be prepared in an emergency. Professionals who may be involved in
community resilience planning may also find the course beneficial.

Topics covered include:

  • Identifying types of emergencies
  • Risks, hazards and threats assessment
  • Impact and consequences of emergencies
  • Developing emergency plans
  • Individually preparing for emergencies
  • Developing personal resilience

And by the end of the course, individuals will be able to:

  • Assess the likelihood of risks, hazards and threats
  • Develop the skills to evaluate actual risk and understand
    how you could react in an emergency
  • Explain the difference between threats vs hazards and
    intention vs capability
  • Explore information available, for use in your emergency
  • Improve your own personal resilience to become more
    prepared for disruption

course can be found at https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/staying-safe

Click here for more information and for answers to course FAQs.


is the UK’s national centre for resilience learning and development services;
we develop people, teams and organisations through training, exercising and

Serco is
an international service company, improving essential services for customers
around the world.

By Beverley Griffiths, Executive Lead on the course

Beverley is Resilience Capability Lead with responsibility for management and development of the Crowd and Public Safety capability, also advises on Business Continuity, Risk, Security & Safety, Crisis Management.

The power of 3 words

Knowing exactly where an incident is taking place helps Emergency Services to respond efficiently and effectively. However, emergencies can happen anywhere, often in places not covered by an accurate or reliable street address and without a visible landmark or reliable mobile connection. This means call handlers are frequently provided with inaccurate or unreliable directions from 999 callers, which can limit their ability to dispatch crews quickly.

what3words is providing a solution. By converting GPS coordinates into words, the system has given every 3m square in the world a 3 word address. This means that unique combinations made of three random words can now be used to describe precise locations around the world. For example, ///labels.quiz.bound is a specific entrance to the The Lanes shopping centre in Carlisle, UK.

“Using words makes the passing and sharing of locations more human-friendly and reduces the likelihood for error.”

The free what3words app allows members of the public calling Emergency Services to find their current 3 word address and use it as a simple way to communicate exactly where an incident has taken, or is taking, place. Using words makes the passing and sharing of locations more human-friendly and reduces the likelihood for error. For instance, a person reporting a problem along the River Calder could tell West Yorkshire Police that it was taking place at “chin asleep pump” and response would be dispatched to that exact location. Services have also deployed the what3words app onto team devices so crews can use it to get to the precise 3m squares.

Over seventy Emergency Services in the UK are set-up to use what3words within their control room. Many control room software systems have also integrated what3words directly into their incident reporting software so 3 word addresses can be typed directly into the computer-aided dispatch system.

“In multi-agency operations, 3 word addresses allow different crews from Police, Fire and Ambulance to share accurate location information with ease.”

Many stories are emerging about how 3-word addresses are being used effectively within Emergency Response. The type of incident varies widely – from locating lost and vulnerable missing persons, to tackling rural fires, or ensuring that medical assistance is delivered to those with critical injuries quickly. In multi-agency operations, 3 word addresses allow different crews from Police, Fire and Ambulance to share accurate location information with ease, which has reportedly reduced the need for expensive resources like helicopters and search units to be deployed in many scenarios.

With more Emergency Services rolling out what3words these benefits are now being experienced across the country, making what3words an everyday part of emergency response today.

By Geordie Palmer, Business Development Director at what3words

Biography: Prior to what3words, Geordie founded and sold a travel tech company. He joined what3words and led their international expansion into Mongolia and South Africa. As Business Development Director he is responsible for partnerships in the emergency services sector.

Our partners