The Navy Seals of Disaster Volunteers?


Two years ago, I wrote an essay in TIME about the radical genius of creating a cabinet-level position to manage volunteers in California, America’s Disaster Laboratory. Today, we have more big news coming out of the lab.

Secretary Karen Baker, the woman who got that job on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s cabinet, is introducing the nation’s first Disaster Corps—a squad of 1,000 elite, well-trained volunteers who can can be deployed to disaster sites as soon as they are needed (without waiting for the soul-killing bureaucratic sign-offs that so often delay volunteer efforts after big calamities.)

“We needed to develop the Navy Seals of volunteers,” Baker says. OK, first of all, it takes some chutzpah to put the words “Navy Seal” and “volunteer” in the same sentence. Baker can pull it off only because she has actual power—the kind almost none of her peers across the country can claim. When I greeted her as “Secretary Baker” on the phone the other day, she laughed and said, “Call me Karen, or I’ll kill you.” But she (and by association all volunteers in the state) have experienced a surge in credibility since she got the cabinet post. “All of a sudden all phone calls are returned,” she says. “Instantly.” (Seven months after Schwarzenegger created the cabinet post, Gov. David Paterson did the same thing in New York.)

For two years, Baker has worked on creating the Disaster Corps. “We needed to up the game,” she says. Why?  Because California is crowded with volunteers (one quarter of the population volunteers in some way.) But too few of them have the training, the experience, or, crucially, the trust of the authorities. “Everyone will say, ‘Yeah, we love volunteers.’ But the truth is, they don’t often use them because they don’t know what they’re getting.”

The new Disaster Corps will be made up of citizens who have received Department of Justice/FBI background checks and First Aid/CPR training, at a minimum. Many will have special skills (like language fluency or law enforcement experience) that make them particularly valuable for certain kinds of crises. They will be drawn from existing volunteer outfits like Citizen Corps, which means they will have worker’s compensation coverage already—an important pre-requisite for higher-risk disaster sites. The Corps will be supported by five local coordinators, full-time staffers in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and San Francisco counties.

The idea is to make it easier for the people in charge to find, trust and deploy volunteer assets when they need them. As part of the project, Baker’s office is also creating a large new database that everyone can access with critical information about which volunteers (from all organizations across the state, not just Disaster Corps) are available to do what. “Often in government, they know what the problems are but not what resources are available to them privately.” And Baker has set up mutual aid agreements so that volunteers can work across different counties. Not very sexy, but very important. All of this has been done with private and federal dollars, which is a good thing given that Baker’s state has no dollars. 

So why did it take two years? “That was not what I’d expected,” she admits. “But we needed to get buy-in.” Baker held over 30 meetings throughout the state to convince people at the top (fire chiefs, police chiefs, emergency managers) and people at the bottom (volunteers who were used to the status quo) that Disaster Corps would be a good idea.  The Corps should be fully stood up by this fall. It will be interesting to watch what happens when disaster strikes, as it always does in California.