Tag: Volunteer Protection Act

Managing Risk for Volunteers

Volunteer placing band aid on finger

Our neighborhood emergency response group is in the midst of updating after a year of very little activity. COVID has added new perspective, so managing risk for volunteers is part of our update. Fair warning: this is only the first episode on risk!

Our volunteers’ risks may be different from yours.

Every group is different. Risks depend on WHO is being covered and WHAT actions they are taking.

Take a look at our volunteer group. It is made up entirely of senior citizen volunteers. Their ages range from 55 to 85. Some of them have had CERT training and some have not. (CERT training has been the basis for all our organizing and training.) However, we share one mission: be of service to our senior community by helping each other prepare for and manage our way through a disaster.

Over the years, we have met frequently with local First Responders. They have encouraged us to above all focus on everyday safety and security with a secondary emphasis on shelter-in-place.

Some historic examples of our volunteer activities.

With these two priorities, we’ve held many educational meetings, often with 50-100 people in attendance. As we look back, we can see where and how some of our activities might be considered to have risks! For example:

  • How to stabilize furniture and shelves to keep things from falling in an earthquake (Local handyman gave demo and volunteered to help secure shelves, TVs, etc. in neighbors’ homes.)
  • How to build up emergency supplies (Local hardware store brought examples of lights, fire extinguishers, first aid kits, etc. People bought whatever equipment they decided they needed.)
  • How to protect home from wind-blown sparks (FD did tour of entire area and we wrote up their findings regarding weeds, flammable decorations, etc. There was no follow-up to confirm whether people followed the recommendations of the fire department.)
  • How to avoid ATM scams (Police department crime prevention specialist gave Zoom presentation.)
  • How to turn off gas line to your home if there’s a leak (Our group owns a real gas meter attached to a base, so people can practice turning the valve using a wrench. Unfortunately, every time we have a practice, somebody runs home, smells “gas,” and shuts off their meter! One year the “gas smell” resulted in a visit by our emergency response team plus a visit by the fire department. No one could find the leak until we determined it was the smell of marijuana floating over from a nearby backyard . . .!)

A new risk emerged in 2020.

Last fall we faced a new situation – a near miss with a rapidly moving wildfire! Since then we’ve expanded our education to include evacuation. In coordination with the fire department, police department and city emergency operations, we came up with a series of recommendations. (You can read details about how the evacuation threw everyone for a loop here and what we did afterwards here.)

As a result of the evacuation scare, it has become clear that, at least in our senior community, an informal volunteer group cannot be responsible for an evacuation. People have to make their own decisions! And now the question regarding managing risk for volunteers:

If our neighbors don’t take precautions, or don’t make smart decisions, can they (or their relatives) somehow blame our volunteers?

That’s the question that started this whole Advisory. As I began to do the appropriate research on managing risks for volunteers, I realized there were three main issues to examine. I’ve spent the last month or so asking questions of Emergency Plan Guide subscribers, LinkedIn connections, and insurance companies.

As you continue to read, please realize we are not offering legal advice. We trust you will follow up with research on your own volunteer needs and your own country or state laws.

Part 1: How does the Good Samaritan Law work?

Generally, a “Good Samaritan” is someone who volunteers to aid an injured person in an emergency.  The term comes, of course, from a parable in the Bible. The Samaritan helped the victim of a robbery, even after others had passed the victim by.

In the United States there is no one law.  Each state is different. Moreover, state laws sometimes change. Action item: Go to your browser and type in “Good Samaritan Law [your state}”. What follows here is our best understanding as of the date of this Advisory, and some examples to show differences. 

What separates a Good Samaritan from a First Responder?

 In an emergency setting, a Good Samaritan someone who has no duty to give aid and is not trained to do so but volunteers to help. 

A member of the fire department, for example, is not volunteering to help in an emergency. CERT members who have been “activated” and are serving under the direction of CERT leadership may or may not be volunteers. The point? You have to know your own circumstances.

What kind of care can I give and be considered a Good Samaritan?

The Good Samaritan Law protects you if you provide assistance “as an ordinary prudent person would under the same or similar circumstances.”  (There is a similar “Prudent Man Rule” that operates in the world of finance.) It is assumed you won’t try something that would be considered “wanton or reckless.”

Do I have to ask the person if they want help? 

Generally, if the victim is unconscious, it is assumed that they give their consent for your help.  If they are conscious, it’s a good idea to first ask permission to help. (You see a person choking. He can’t talk. Before you start the Heimlich maneuver, it’s a good idea to ask: “Are you choking? Do you need help?” and get a positive nod!)

A recent law in California added Good Samaritan protection to people who call 911 to protect people who have overdosed. This broadened the scope of the law from providing purely “medical assistance” to “non-medical” – and saved lives because the 911 callers were often underage or engaging in dangerous or illegal activity themselves and thus were afraid to call.

What if their injuries are such that I can’t really help? 

In most states, you are not obligated to give help. You can at least call 911. It may be considered negligence if you simply do nothing. You’ll have to check with your local laws to see if you have a “duty to help.”

What if I make it worse by helping? 

If you are acting in good faith you will likely be protected. But, here are the limitations that you don’t want to ignore if you are depending on Good Samaritan protection.

Make sure you know these limitations to the Good Samaritan Law!

  • First, you must provide the care at the scene of the emergency, and to protect the victim from what might be considered “imminent peril.”  An example. There’s been an automobile accident, but there is no fire or danger of a second collision. The victim is stable. Moving her at that time might be ill-considered.
  • Second, your assistance won’t be considered having been given in good faith if you think it will result in payment. Even getting a reward days or weeks after the fact may exclude you from Good Samaritan protection.

What about volunteer activity that takes place when there is no emergency?

Now we get to a completely different situation!  So, let’s take a look at a Federal law passed in 1997:

Part 2: How does the Federal Volunteer Protection Act work?

Its goal was to encourage volunteerism at a time when social services were needed. Non-profits formed, but volunteers were afraid to help because they thought they might be sued. The VPA was passed to help manage risks for these volunteers.

The non-profits are expected to provide the appropriate training so that the organization’s mission or purpose will be properly served. Training usually includes clearly laid out policies and procedures. In addition, volunteers agree to follow them!

Just like the Good Samaritan Act, the VPA has limitations. Volunteers are covered if –

  • They are performing within their assigned job description.
  • They have whatever license or certification is required.
  • Their action in question is considered “ordinary negligence” and not “willful or criminal” or reckless.
  • They aren’t using a vehicle that requires a State-issued license and/or insurance.

The volunteer won’t get the benefit of the VPA if the volunteer commits a hate crime, denies someone’s civil rights, or is volunteering while drunk!

Note that the VPA protects the volunteer of a non-profit, but doesn’t protect the organization.

Part 3: What about Insurance Protection?

As you can imagine, insurance for managing risk for volunteers is detailed, confusing and can be expensive. Speak with a local expert (maybe several!) before making any decisions.

Here is a BRIEF list of different types of insurance that I have discovered. This discussion assumes your “organization” is a non-profit. If your emergency response group is affiliated with or sponsored by a city or a fire department, you are probably already covered by one or another. Find out which.

  • Liability coverage carried by the organization typically covers bills for accidents or damage caused by the organization. Volunteers can be added as “additional insured” to give them protection for a claim that arises while they are performing their assigned volunteer duties.
  • Professional liability insurance (also called Errors and Omissions or Malpractice insurance) protects the organization if it is charged with giving bad advice, making a mistake or failing to do something that was expected.
  • Directors and Officers insurance covers Board members from allegations of fraud or mismanagement, mostly involving the organization’s money. (This could include not having enough insurance!)
  • Volunteer Accident Insurance provides limited coverage for a volunteer who gets injured while on the job.

Every volunteer group runs some risk. Certainly, as you reach out to recruit more members, you may be asked about how you are managing risk for volunteers. You will want a good answer!

Today’s Call to Action

To repeat the same sentence we used at the beginning, every group is different. You can use this Advisory to start a discussion about where your volunteers’ actions could lead to problems. Make a list. Then, reach out for help from an expert who understands your community. You should probably talk to more than one expert (i.e.: insurance agent). Then you can decide what coverages your group needs – if any – and how best to pay for them.

We’re in the midst of reviewing our own situation. I’ll report on the decisions we come to!

Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

P.S. In the meanwhile, if you have good insurance stories or good insurance recommendations, please share them. The world of emergency preparedness is “a different animal” and we can all use pertinent information!