Annals of the MBC - vol. 3 - n' 4 - December 1990


Costanzo S.

Settore per L'igiene e la Salute Pubblica, Ospedale Maddalena USL 30, Rovigo, Italia

SUMMARY. Voluntary Services can provide valuable assistance in the event of a disaster provided that they are well organized and that their work is properly coordinated. It is also necessary to know the exact number and size of these organizations and the particular nature of the assistance they are capable of providing in emergency situations. A number of suggestions are made as to how the contribution of Voluntary Services could be improved, and a comparison is made between the Public Services and the Voluntary Services.


A disaster is a more or less rapid, often unexpected destructive event, of established order which occurs in a particular natural and human context in a definable territory, causing death and injuries as well as extensive damage to property and disrupting the social structure of the general population.
In such cases the upheaval in the life of the collectivity is so great that the social structure loses its functioning capacity and there is urgent need for special organization and mobilization of the social services.
This definition of a disaster or an emergency situation indicates that there is ample justification for the promotion of interventions which involve the participation of the general population in the difficult task of solving the various problems posed by the emergency situation.
This participation must however be competent, responsible, organized and guided.
Disasters have three main characteristics:

  1. exceptional and unexpected nature of the event;
  2. rapidity of occurrence and localization in a definable area;
  3. disruption of the social structure with damage and/or destruction of persons and property.

These three elements also characterize the response that has to be given:

  1. the event's exceptional nature and rapidity require exceptional and rapid measures;
  2. the exceptional measures must be limited to the acute phase of the event (subsequently the phases of recovery work and repair will require planned and organized interventions of a different nature);
  3. the social structures must be put back into operation by simultaneous activation of all the components of existing organized structures, including non -institutional structures.

Voluntary Service

All volunteer activities in the course of their existence have always endeavoured to express their participation through the more or less officialized spontaneous constitution of groups which "... fill gaps in civil life not occupied either by profit-guided economic organizations or by central or local State authorities..." (Ardig6, Lucca, 1982).
Although Voluntary Services have on several occasions been the object of legislation in Italy, there still does not exist - except in a very few cases - a clear social policy in which it is possible to identify the areas of strictly public responsibility, the areas covered by Voluntary Service organizations, and the space left to the management of private commercial organizations.
It is therefore not easy to define what flow of resources (also in terms of information) there should be between these areas or the pattern of their relationships.
The Ministry of Civil Defence has counted 3114 Volunteer Groups in Italy, but a study carried out by a group of sociologists reports 7000.
Whatever the actual number, apart from a very few cases (Voluntary Firemen, Italian Red Cross, Alpine Rescue, Amateur Radio Operators, etc.), little is known of their operative capacity, level of training, numerical size and equipment.
The Voluntary Services without any doubt cover a considerable part of the gaps left open by public organizations in normal times and also in times of emergency.
The Voluntary Services also present characteristics which make them a useful complementary Service to those provided by the public agencies (Tab. 1).
Three types of -Voluntary Service can be distinguished in the field of Civil Defence:

  1. associations with aims related to emergencies and rescue work which organize properly equipped professionally trained and first intervention rescue units which are self-sufficient and can be brought into operation without loss of time (Voluntary Firemen, Alpine Rescue, Italian Red Cross, Amateur Radio Operators Emergency Body, etc.);
  2. associations whose main aims may not be first aid but which are available to help in the event of calamities and which can thus contribute to the logistic services and to general assistance work;
  3. groups of volunteers that develop spontaneously during the emergency.

Voluntary Services in Fire Emergencies

In fire emergencies, possibly more than in any other type of emergency, a fundamental role is played by the "reaction time" in the containment of human and material damage.
The reaction time consists basically of four elements:

  1. alarm time;
  2. preparation time;
  3. mobilization time;
  4. recognition time.

Each of these elements is affected by the organization of the services, whether public or not, in times of normality.
One particularly important consideration is the territorial distribution of personnel and equipment which in turn is directly linked with the characteristics of the territory in relation to specific risk factors that may be present (zones of high energy concentration*), to orographic and geographic characteristics, to road conditions and to the presence or absence in the area of Adequate technical facilities.
The distribution of the Fire Services unfortunately follows an administrative criterion of subdivision which does not always correspond to the areas of greatest risk.
With regard to the Voluntary Services it must be pointed out that the associations and organisms mentioned in point 1 of our classification, i.e. the most useful ones and those that in fact are called most frequently into action, are mainly present in the Alpine regions and are totally absent in zones where there are high concentrations of energy.
The reaction time which is broken down into four components in reality consists of nine distinct phases: - outbreak of fire disaster

  • alarm signal received
  • alarm transmitted to rescue forces
  • departure of rescue forces
  • arrival of rescue forces on scene of fire
  • initiation of extinguishing operations
  • completion of extinguishing operations
  • damage assessment and accommodation for the homeless
  • recovery work and reconstruction.

The first seven points correspond to the emergency proper, while the last two concern the post-emergency phase of recovery work and reconstruction. In the first seven phases the only Volunteer Groups that can be used are of the first type, as emergency rescue work requires rigorous specialized physical and technical training as well as appropriate means and equipment.
The same.applies to medical rescue work in the early phases: the particular nature of the lesions and the need for rapid intervention require that volunteer personnel should already have received specific training and that they should be efficiently organized.
One point that cannot be disregarded is the juridical aspect of the use of volunteers. Unless the groups are recognized bodies that are properly accounted for and expressly activated in the event of an emergency by those authorities that have the power to do so (Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Civil Defence, Prefect, Mayor), a number of juridical and legal difficulties may arise if the volunteers cause or suffer damage or physical harm.
During the final phases other groups of volunteers can be used to provide valid support for logistic services and general assistance.
We would like to conclude by synthesizing in a few points what might constitute a good preliminary basis for the efficient coordination and management of Volunteer Groups during a fire emergency:

  1. a map must be prepared of areas at high risk of fire, both as a natural risk and as a risk related to human activities;
  2. an operational map must also be prepared, in association with the Prefectures and the Town Authorities, indicating all the local Voluntary Associations which have satisfied certain predetermined requisites of training, organization and equipment and are capable of providing assistance in the event of an emergency;
  3. intervention plans must be drawn up that include the use of the Voluntary Services as a resource that can normally be employed. To this regard it will be necessary to define clearly the role, the responsibilities and the specific tasks of each Group, both as a whole and in its single components; the levels of integration with the public Civil Defence institution will also need definition, together with the identity of the decision-making centres;
  4. it will also be necessary to organize at the level of the Ministry of Civil Defence a General Emergency Plan, to be proposed at local administrative and executive level, providing for the uniform standardization of symbols and terminology also within the Volunteer Groups;
  5. permanent Training Centres for Volunteers must be set up and managed in integrated fashion by the public institutions and representatives of the Volunteers. . ' A final note: we believe that operatively speaking it is advisable that the management of Volunteers should be directly related to their particular specialization.

All the above proposals are motivated by the fact that through the inclusion of the Voluntary Services in emergency management we are able to work not just for the population but with the population, and this certainly guarantees that our interventions are more effective.

RÉSUMÉ. Les Services Volontaires peuvent prêter une assistance précieuse en cas de désastre pourvu qu'ils soient bien organisés et coordinés d'une manière adéquate. Il faudrait en outre savoir avec précision le numéro de ces organisations et des personnes qui y appartiennent et la nature de l'assistance qu'elles sont à même d'offrir dans les situations calamiteuses. L'Auteur fait des propositions pour l'amélioration de la contribution des Services Volontaires et enfin il y a une comparaison entre les Services Publics et les Services Volontaires.


  1. Ranci C.: -Volontariato bisogni e servizi". Angeli, 1985. 2. Kramer R.M.: "Volontariato e Stato Sociale". Lavoro, 1957.
  2. Tarozzi and Bernfeld: "Il volontario, un fenomeno intemazionale". Angeli, 1981.
  3. Various Authors: "Enti locali e Volontariato per una educazione alla Protezione Civile". Fondazione Zancan, Padua, 1984.


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