Our volunteers rise to meet the COVID-19 challenge

INTEREST: Victoria SES chief officer Tim Wiebusch said the organisation has managed to attract interest from prospective new members despite the pandemic.
INTEREST: Victoria SES chief officer Tim Wiebusch said the organisation has managed to attract interest from prospective new members despite the pandemic.

Recognising the hard work of volunteers during National Volunteer Week is more important than ever, as organisations navigate their way through providing valuable services in the midst of a pandemic.

But while some groups have been forced to scale back volunteer numbers temporarily, others are experiencing a surge.

Victoria SES chief officer Tim Wiebusch said the organisation had managed to attract interest from prospective new members during the pandemic.

On the back of a horror fire season, Mr Wiebusch says the organisation had, toward the end of March, received 2100 new member inquiries.

Normally, he said, the SES would bring in prospective volunteers but, in light of social distancing, it conducted three online sessions instead, attracting 850 people.

"It shows that members of the public are still keen to be involved and are getting on board with the online technology," Mr Wiebusch said.

Providing an essential service, the SES is one of those organisations that has had no choice but to adapt.

READ MORE:

"We've been impressed with how our volunteers have adapted and shown flexibility in the current environment because we are now in our second busiest year on record," Mr Wiebusch said.

There have been some significant changes in day-to-day processes.

"Obviously, like all members of the community, we are actively encouraging practices like physical distancing wherever that's possible.

"We've had to really reinforce moving into separate teams to avoid cross-contamination and minimise exposure.

"In the past where we might have, particularly in some of our smaller units, been allowed to provide anyone who is available on the day we've really had to reinforce the need for our response to be team-based.

"So if there was an unfortunate scenario, and fortunately to date, we haven't had anyone in the SES confirmed with COVID-19 ... we are limiting the exposure to a smaller number of people."

SES volunteers are unable to avoid "close contact", so implementing additional personal protective clothing and equipment has been vital.

"So every time we are responding to road rescues, which we are the largest provider for, we are making sure we've got that extra PPE of masks etc on, which in some scenarios we wouldn't normally have to use."

Training has moved rapidly from face-to-face to online and video conferencing.

"Very quickly our volunteers have adapted and been innovative in the ways they are delivering training among themselves".

COVID-19 has seen an acceleration of online training programs that were already in development.

"The uptake by the volunteers has been fantastic. It's demonstrated that the volunteers are really up for that and that will serve us well not just for COVID-19 but into the future."

Volunteering Australia CEO Adrienne Picone said that in these challenging times it was important to continue to focus on the amazing contribution that volunteers made every day.

Organisations, Ms Picone said, were forced to adapt their programs swiftly to accommodate restrictions and safeguard volunteers.

"Many volunteers have had to stay home due to age or other vulnerabilities and organisations have recruited new volunteers, while still keeping their current volunteers engaged in other ways," Ms Picone said.

Unfortunately, for a large number of organisations, this has forced them into recess.

"As the restrictions are beginning to lift, organisations will be increasingly considering their options around re-starting programs and therefore re-engaging with volunteers."

Other groups, Ms Picone said, had looked at ways to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19.

"Many organisations have suspended volunteer programs due to COVID-19 and others have moved their services to a virtual format, where possible.

This National Volunteer Week, Volunteering Australia CEO Adrienne Picone is calling on all Australians to wave your appreciation for volunteers by sharing a photo waving their hand of thanks using the hashtags #NVW2020 and #waveforvolunteers.

This National Volunteer Week, Volunteering Australia CEO Adrienne Picone is calling on all Australians to wave your appreciation for volunteers by sharing a photo waving their hand of thanks using the hashtags #NVW2020 and #waveforvolunteers.

"Despite this, there are still a number of organisations who, now more than ever, deliver essential services that cannot be suspended and so these organisations continue to run these much-needed services, with adaptations to take into account social distancing, practising good hygiene and potentially decreased volunteer numbers."

Ms Picone urged people to think about giving up a little of their time to volunteer.

"Volunteers are a vital part of the response to the situation currently and into the future, and despite the restrictions currently in place, there are still volunteering roles available across the country," she said.

This story Volunteers rise to meet the COVID-19 challenge first appeared on The Canberra Times.