– Executive Summary –

Spontaneous volunteers who conducted search and rescue (SAR) in the aftermath of major hurricanes, such as Katrina in 2005, Harvey and Irma in 2017, and Florence and Michael in 2018, are changing the emergency management landscape because they self-organize and conduct independent SAR operations. Additionally, organized spontaneous volunteer (OSV) groups are not well understood and official response organizations struggle to engage them effectively during disasters. These OSVs can and should be leveraged during disasters, as they provide a surge capacity to an already strained disaster response system. However, failure to understand how an official organization’s response to disasters can affect the engagement and actions of spontaneous volunteers detracts from the overall disaster response effort, as official responders try to respond to the disaster itself and address the influx of spontaneous volunteers.

Spontaneous volunteers who emerge during disasters carry out many tasks that aid response and recovery operations. However, groups that self-organize and conduct independent SAR during hurricanes, such as the Cajun Navy, pose these same challenges for the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and other established SAR organizations. The USCG should embrace these challenges, learn from past events, and prepare for the ever-increasing influx of spontaneous volunteers by understanding how their own organizational response to disasters affects spontaneous volunteer engagement and actions to incorporate OSV groups better into future hurricane responses. Additionally, a surge in spontaneous volunteerism is not exclusive to hurricanes. Emergency management officials and emergency responders at all levels of government should be prepared for an influx of spontaneous volunteers during any disaster, and should also seek to understand how their own organizational response affects spontaneous volunteer engagement and actions.

While spontaneous volunteer motivations can vary, and an organized spontaneous volunteer response to disasters is often difficult to recognize and prepare for (especially as they embrace social media and other digital technologies to self-organize, communicate, and coordinate their actions), one thing is clear. Spontaneous volunteers are going to respond to disasters, yet spontaneous volunteer groups continue to be disregarded by official response organizations, despite the value they may provide, or substantial effort is expended attempting to incorporate them into existing command and control systems.[1]

Recent disaster research studies have highlighted that during disasters, a rigid top-down command and control process is routinely being substituted for a more collaborative model of response.[2] If official response organizations want to increase coordination efforts with spontaneous volunteers during future disaster response operations, they need a better understanding of how their own organizational response to disasters affects the coordination efforts and actions of spontaneous volunteers.

The research question for this thesis is: How can the United States Coast Guard better engage organized spontaneous volunteers who conduct maritime search and rescue during hurricane response operations?

To answer this research question, an exploratory case study methodology was used to analyze the organizational response of both the USCG and OSVs who conducted maritime SAR operations during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and the Lower Manhattan Boat Lift on 9/11.

The studies were structured using the four tasks routinely carried out by the USCG during SAR missions: distress monitoring and communications, search planning and preparedness, SAR coordination, and SAR operations. Once SAR tasks were identified, an analysis was conducted to determine what factors contributed to or hindered the SAR response efforts of each organization. Additionally, the organizational response of both the USCG and OSVs was analyzed using the Disaster Research Center’s (DRC’s) four-fold typology of organized responses to disasters. This analysis was used to identify specific factors of the USCG’s organizational response that affected OSV engagement.

The DRC typology is a quadrant based on tasks (regular or non-regular tasks) and structures (existing or new). Based on the structures and tasks, Table 1 depicts four types of groups (established, extending, expanding, and emergent).

Table 1.           DRC Typology of Organized Responses to Disasters.[3]


This DRC typology analysis was conducted by examining the SAR tasks identified in each case study to determine if they were regular or non-regular tasks for the organization carrying them out, as well as if the organizational structures used to carry out each SAR task were in place prior to the disaster, or if they were created as a result of the disaster itself. Ultimately, this DRC typology analysis led to a typology identification for each organization during each event. The intent of this analysis and typology identification was to ascertain if certain USCG organizational responses were more conducive than others were for engaging OSVs.

When the organizational response of both the USCG and OSVs was analyzed across all three case studies, several findings emerged:

  • Neither organization was able to respond to any of the disasters and perform maritime SAR functions as an established organization. This finding makes sense for OSV groups that do not conduct SAR tasks daily, where any SAR tasks undertaken are by default non-regular tasks for the group.
  • OSV groups emerged as a direct result of the disasters themselves, which required their organizational structures to be developed on the spot, and according to the needs of each event.
  • The fact that the USCG did not respond as an established organization to perform SAR tasks, which the organization conducts daily, during disaster response operations, was quite interesting. In all three case studies, the USCG had to take on non-regular tasks to carry out traditional SAR functions.
  • The USCG took on new or non-regular tasks to carry out three of the four SAR tasks routinely carried out by the USCG during SAR missions, with the exception of search planning and preparedness, which the USCG conducted as a regular task prior to Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey.
  • In two of the three cases studied, the USCG had to develop new organizational structures to carry out these non-regular tasks. According to the DRC typology of organized responses to disasters, if an organization takes on non-regular tasks and develops new organizational structures to carry out those tasks, it is then considered an emergent group. This finding is consistent with those of this research that identified the USCG as an emergent group during both the Lower Manhattan Boat Lift on 9/11 and Hurricane Harvey. However, what is unique is why the USCG became an emergent group during the lower Manhattan Boat Lift, by developing organizational structures external to the USCG and included OSVs, whereas during Hurricane Harvey, the USCG became an emergent group by developing organizational structures internal to the USCG and did not included OSVs.

Ultimately, this research determined that the USCG is not able to respond effectively as an existing group to carry out SAR tasks during maritime disasters, and at a minimum, would need to conduct either new or non-regular tasks, or most likely, would need to create new structures to carry out new or non-regular tasks. The challenge is finding ways to integrate OSVs effectively into disaster response operations. The USCG can better engage OSVs who conduct maritime SAR during hurricane response operations by seeking out innovative and new ways to respond to disasters organizationally, with the goal of becoming an emergent group itself. As an emergent group, new organizational structures would be developed that include OSVs to carry out new or non-regular tasks as part of the emergent group transition process. While the notion of developing new organizational structures that include OSVs to enhance engagement during hurricane response operations seems simple, in reality, several barriers must still be overcome:

  • First, the USCG responds to disasters as part of a national response strategy using the National Incident Management System. This system relies on the Incident Command System (ICS) to define roles and structures for responding organizations. The use of ICS is one of the major inhibitors of OSV engagement, and future studies should be conducted on the application and use of ICS during disaster response operations to develop strategies for incorporating OSVs outside of typical ICS structures.
  • Another barrier is the ambiguity of the USCG’s role during disasters that require maritime SAR operations in support of a national response strategy. To understand the USCG’s role better during disasters that require maritime SAR, a comprehensive review of national response strategies should be conducted. This review should focus on addressing the USCG’s role to support state and local agencies during disasters, yet still fulfill its statutory requirements to conduct SAR missions as an independent SAR organization.
  • Finally, the natural evolution of digital technologies, and specifically, the widespread adoption and use of social media, is affecting how individuals reach out for help during disasters. The USCG should work to develop policies and procedures for officially receiving distress notifications through social media, for both routine and disaster related operations, and should work to develop consistent mechanisms to collect and aggregate social media data effectively to create crowdsourced rescue maps during disasters.

[1] Lauren M. Sauer et al., “The Utility of and Risks Associated with the Use of Spontaneous Volunteers in Disaster Response: A Survey,” Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness 8, no. 1 (February 2014): 65–69, https://doi.org/10.1017/dmp.2014.12; Joshua Whittaker, Blythe McLennan, and John Handmer, “A Review of Informal Volunteerism in Emergencies and Disasters: Definition, Opportunities and Challenges,” International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 13 (September 2015): 358–68, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.07.010.

[2] Russell R. Dynes, E. L. Quarantelli, and Dennis Wenger, Individual and Organizational Response to the 1985 Earthquake in Mexico City, Mexico, DRC Book and Monograph Series, no. 24 (Newark, DE: University of Delaware, Disaster Research Center, 1990), 115, http://udspace.udel.edu/handle/19716/2259; Nancy Casper, “Organizational Leadership’s Impact on Emergent Behavior during Disaster Response and Recovery Operations” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2011), http://hdl.handle.net/10945/5504.

[3] Source: E. L. Quarantelli and Russell R. Dynes, Different Types of Organizations in Disaster Responses and Their Operational Problems, Preliminary Papers, No. 41 (Newark, DE: University of Delaware, Disaster Research Center, 1977), 2, http://udspace.udel.edu/handle/19716/414; Havidán Rodríguez, Joseph Trainor, and Enrico L. Quarantelli, “Rising to the Challenges of a Catastrophe: The Emergent and Prosocial Behavior Following Hurricane Katrina,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 604, no. 1 (2006): 85, https://doi.org/10.1177/0002716205284677.

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