When Disaster Strikes, Local Non-Profits Pitch In

By Robert “Bob” Lally, M.S., University Director, Homeland Security

CTU Homeland Security Degree - Local non-profits lend a hand after devastating Colorado wildfiresIn the summer of 2012, one of the most destructive wildfires in Colorado history erupted, ultimately destroying nearly 350 homes and claiming two lives. The Waldo Canyon Fire lasted 18 days and consumed more than 18,000 acres of land, leaving landscapes charred and homes in ashes. Colorado had survived other wildfires, but none, until the Black Forest fire a year later, matched the devastation of the Waldo Canyon Fire in terms of homes destroyed and lives lost.

As many around the country followed coverage of the wildfire from the comfort of their homes, over 32,000 residents of Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, Woodland Park and several small mountain communities were displaced, some with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. While most typically look to large organizations like FEMA and the American Red Cross to drive disaster recovery efforts and provide community support, there is a quiet, yet powerful, force found within local non-profit organizations.

Lending a Local Hand

Two days after the Waldo Canyon Fire started, Bob Cutter, founder and president of Colorado Springs Together, received a call from the Mayor Steve Bach. “The fire came out of nowhere,” Cutter recalls, “and realizing that local and state entities were focused in other areas, the mayor reached out to me with an idea to leverage the power of the private sector to help in the recovery effort.” That call became the catalyst for Colorado Springs Together, a non-profit, on a mission to restore the lives, homes and neighborhoods impacted by the fire.

Colorado Springs Together adopted a business approach to coordinating logistics and driving communication between federal, state and local entities to enhance recovery. Tapping into the resources found within local businesses and communities, Cutter discovered the passion of people ready to help in any way possible. “Over 10,000 local businesses and individuals volunteered to help,” says Cutter, “and that meant everyone had a line of sight. You could see exactly how one person’s effort helped another’s.”

Of course, the outpouring of support also created a new challenge – how to effectively manage the influx of volunteers willing to help, as well as the volume of food and goods donated.

Lynne Telford, President and CEO of Care and Share Food Bank recalls these challenges, “We typically receive about 500,000 pounds of food each year, but when the Waldo Canyon Fire struck, we received roughly 1.6 million pounds in just four weeks.” Fortunately, Care and Share had the logistics and warehousing expertise to support that increased volume in donations. The organization also leveraged the support of community volunteers who came to help sort food and place them in usable units that could be distributed to first responders and displaced residents.

Lessons Learned

“We had no idea how big the Waldo Canyon Fire would get or when it would be contained,” reflects Telford, “so although we had plenty of community support, we didn’t anticipate how the fire would affect our normal operations.” Care and Share, like all non-profit organizations, relies on fundraising to support their mission and maintain operations, so when their attention is diverted toward unexpected events, like the Waldo Canyon Fire, those areas can suffer. “When the Black Forest Fire struck less than a year later,” Telford explains, “we were better prepared and hired additional staff so we could support the disaster efforts and continue normal operations.”

Planning and preparation are central themes that came from both the Waldo Canyon Fire and the Black Forest Fire. President and CEO of Discover Goodwill of Colorado, Karla Grazier, recommends having a clear strategic plan that details unexpected and unwelcome disasters. This includes a plan to manage personnel, logistics, volunteers and key community partners.

Communication is also a key planning concern according to former FBI special agent and Executive Director of Colorado Emergency Preparedness Partnership (CEPP), John Mencer. CEPP facilitates collaboration between private and public entities in times of natural and human-caused disasters. Mencer was attending a conference in Idaho when he received a call, and then several calls, about the Waldo Canyon Fire. Fielding calls from donors and recipients, he quickly recognized the need for an improved communication system to connect the two more efficiently.

Opportunities in Emergency Management

The Waldo Canyon Fire and the Black Forest Fire introduced Colorado Springs to two of the most devastating natural disasters in the state’s history. Aside from unexpected natural disasters like these, every city must also be prepared for man-made or technological disasters. The people who work to plan and direct disaster response and crisis management activities often work alongside federal, state, local, non-profit and private entities to provide relief and recovery. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, careers in this field are expected to have average growth through 2022.

Cutter anticipates that opportunities in the emergency management field are ripe for those who have an interest in disaster recovery. “Emergency management and response is an untapped, underserved area,” says Cutter, “As populations grow and people move into places where they shouldn’t be, we can potentially see natural events affecting people in ways we never anticipated.”

In addition to earning a career-specific degree, gaining on the job experience is essential to building necessary skills for an emergency management career. “As a baseline, strong communication skills and technical proficiency are critical,” Mencer advises, “but emergency management is a broad field, so specializing in specific areas can help set you apart.” 

CTU Faculty - Bob LallyRobert “Bob” Lally, M.S., University Director of Homeland Security, is responsible for the strategic direction for all security university programs related to homeland. Now a retired naval captain his career spanned 28 years. Bob holds an M.S. in National Security from National War College and a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology. Connect with Bob on LinkedIn.

Image Credit: Flickr/Brokentaco