Natural Disaster Response: What Role Can You Play?

Volunteering after a disaster has “always been something on my radar,” said Laura Cardinal, clinical assistant professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. So when the American Red Cross put out a call looking for responders to send directly to Texas communities affected by Hurricane Harvey, Cardinal answered.

Her experience counseling survivors of Hurricane Harvey emboldened her to encourage others in social work and similar helping fields to consider volunteering for disaster relief. 

“It’s now become part of what I’m doing professionally,” said Cardinal, who also serves as a faculty member for the MSW@USC program. “I’m working on ways to get students or new graduates to be involved in deployment and to help students be ready for deployment — not like me, where I did it all at the last minute.”

Preparedness is an important part of disaster response, particularly with so many people working in different capacities in a crisis setting. In the wake of a natural disaster, a variety of responders volunteer to provide physical and emotional relief to the affected population. In 2018, the American Red Cross activated more than 14,000 workers (90 percent volunteers) to respond to major disasters. 

But for those who haven’t served in a disaster response capacity, knowing which organizations to connect with, what capacity to serve in, and how to prepare to enter disaster sites can be overwhelming. 

What Roles Do Disaster Responders Serve

FEMA’s National Preparedness Goal, which defines what it means for communities to plan for all types of disasters and emergencies, describes response actions as whatever is “necessary to save lives, protect property and the environment, and meet basic human needs after an incident has occurred.” Its National Response Framework for disasters (PDF, 977 KB) breaks down a community’s needs and the assignments required by responders, whether or not they are volunteers.


  • Planning: The leader and management team are responsible for the whole response effort.
  • Operational coordination: These experts understand and facilitate initial action, request for additional support and identify and integrate resources and capabilities.
  • Public information and warning: The communications team keeps emergency personnel, media and the public informed.
  • Operational communications: This team maintains communication with the emergency response teams and affected populations.


  • Critical transportation: These coordinators determine status of transportation routes and infrastructure and identify temporary alternative transportation solutions.
  • Infrastructure systems: These experts reestablish critical infrastructure to support emergency response operations and provide for clearance, removal and disposal of debris.
  • Logistics and supply chain management: These planners ensure the delivery of needed supplies, equipment and services to affected communities and survivors and coordinate efforts between government and private resources and services.


  • Mass search and rescue operations: These experts, often from the group of first responders who show up immediately and remain on site, contribute to search-and-rescue operations and implement all levels of personnel, animals and equipment.
  • Environmental response: These experts identify, mitigate and assess worker health and safety hazards and support responders and citizens by providing safety guidance and resources.
  • Fire management and suppression: Firefighters, who are part of the traditional first response, coordinate response of fire management or fire suppression resources after the disaster.
  • On-scene security, protection and law enforcement: Safety officers are on the scene to ensure a safe and secure environment in the affected area, as well as among the responders and survivors.

Health and Recovery

  • Fatality management services: These teams recover remains from any fatalities, identifying and returning them to family; they also offer counseling to bereaved.
  • Mass care services: These volunteer-heavy teams distribute emergency supplies and provide food, water, shelter, temporary housing, evacuee support and reunification.
  • Situational assessment: These experts facilitate recovery activities and address the affected population’s needs regarding information that involves decision-making and life-saving activities.
  • Public health, health care and emergency medical services: These professionals provide medical care to affected community members and responders, assess potential for any resulting illnesses among the survivors and offer mental health counseling.

What to Consider Before Volunteering

For those interested in volunteering, understanding their response role and where they fit as they arrive on the scene is critical. While the term first responders — comprising the police, firefighters and EMTs — is the one most people are familiar with when discussing emergencies, secondary responders, including nurses, mental health counselors, and social workers, are necessary in a community’s recovery.

“We have an array of opportunities for volunteers,” said Alexis Agrinsoni, regional disaster recovery manager for the American Red Cross Los Angeles Region. “If you’re a cook and you want to provide folks with food, you can do that. You can be a driver, the logistics person or be the photographer in a disaster response.”

Agrinsoni says it’s important for every volunteer to ask themselves what they like to do and what they have an expertise in when considering how they would like to volunteer.

Disaster volunteers should also be prepared for emotionally and physically draining work in highly stressful situations.

“You’re not going to know the resources that you have,” said Tracie Kirkland, clinical assistant professor of Nursing at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “Because you’re unaware of what the situation will be, just prepare yourself mentally to be able to operate on adrenaline. If you have a higher faith and you believe in a higher being, be able to pray, to gather yourself, and to be calm in order to meet the needs of other people.”

Where to Look for Volunteer Opportunities

Multiple groups recruit people to help after a disaster. In addition, community organizations and churches often organize their own donation efforts for victims. Volunteer groups for natural disaster response include the following:

How to Prepare for Deployment

A volunteer’s absence from their day-to-day life also affects their spouses, children, friends, employers and coworkers. Volunteers can prepare themselves and those close to them before deployment: 

  • Make loved ones feel that the experience is theirs too.
  • Allow children to help pack.
  • Discuss with your partner how to explain to children why you are gone, emphasizing the positive impact and helpful nature of the work.
  • Make sure your employer and/or substitute has all the information to keep things running smoothly at work during your absence.
  • Prepare yourself mentally to understand that the family is about to sacrifice and struggle without you and that staying in touch might be a challenge in a disaster zone. 

Additional resources:

“Getting ready for your emergency deployment,” UN Refugee Agency
“Disaster,” American Red Cross 

How to Cope with Conditions on the Ground

Once on the ground after a disaster, volunteers need to practice self-care to do their jobs properly. Conditions can be difficult with water, food and rest in limited supply. Cardinal and Kirkland offer some key advice:

Be flexible. Expect the unexpected.

Keep a journal. Express yourself. If you can’t talk about it, write about it.

Know yourself. If you need time alone, make that happen.

Maintain healthy habits. Eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep and exercise.

Use the buddy system or something similar. Check on your team members and make sure someone is checking on you.

Additional resources:

“Coping with a Disaster or Traumatic Event,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
“Attention Federal Disaster Responders!” Occupational Safety and Health Administration
“Psychological First Aid for First Responders (PDF, 509 KB),” Substance and Mental Health Services Administration

How to Care for Yourself After Returning Home

Homecoming requires as much care for disaster volunteers. While organizations such as the Red Cross have specific action plans for its responders, individuals will need to pay attention to their personal needs. For example, Kirkland says rest is a priority after working a disaster. People have different responses to their experiences, and their needs may depend on the crisis and the work involved, she added.

Some basic questions for returning volunteers to ask themselves that would indicate if they need counseling:

  • Do you want to talk about your experiences?
  • How is the transition home?
  • Are you struggling with anything as you return to your routine?
  • Are you eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep and exercise?
  • Are you experiencing physical aches and pains? 

Additional Resources:

“Tips for Families of Returning Disaster Responders: Adjusting to Life at Home (PDF, 835 KB),” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
“Returning Home After Disaster Relief Work,” Occupational Safety and Health Administration 

Citation for this content: The MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California.