Disaster management - Volunteering

What physical therapists should consider before volunteering

Before volunteering to go into a disaster situation a physical therapist should ask themselves various questions.

Do I have the professional qualities to enter a hardship zone?

  • Am I committed to the aims and values of the organisation with whom I aim to work?
  • Do I have minimum amount of professional experience post-qualification (specified by the organisation)?
  • Do I have experience in supervising, training and managing others?
  • Have I demonstrated ability to work well as a part of a multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary team?
  • Can I organise, prioritise workload and use initiative?
  • Do I have relevant travel or work experience in indigenous/remote/developing/cross-cultural communities?
  • Am I available to work in the field for a minimum period (specified by the organisation)?

Do I have the personal qualities to enter a hardship zone?

  • Am I willing to work in potentially unstable environments?
  • Am I willing to live with less than ideal accommodation? Housing, water, electricity and food supplies may well be compromised in emergency situations.
  • Am I able to cope with stress?
  • Am I able to financially support myself for the period of the commission? There are usually commitments at home even if the organisation you volunteer with finances the commission.

Am I healthy and physically fit enough to cope?

  • Will I be able to cope with:
    • working long hours;
    • local food and restricted supplies;
    • poor sleeping conditions (eg in a tent);
    • using emergency toilet facilities;
    • coping without clean water or electricity?
  • Am I prepared for the possible physical and psychological effects, or even dying?

How physical therapists can plan ahead for volunteering

If you are committed to volunteer to help in disaster areas in the future, you can make some of the following preparations:

  • Seek advice and training;
  • Improve your professional expertise of praticing in an emergency situation by:
    • joining the global health special interest group in your physical therapy organisation if there is one;
    • joining a global campaign such as the One Million Safe Schools and Hospitals Initiative, which may provide opportunities to make people aware about safe schools and hospitals, to become a leader in emergency and disaster preparedness, or to become an advocate for risk reduction;
    • applying to join a pool of volunteers;
    • participating in online discussions to raise your own personal awareness;
    • volunteering at the local office of an NGO;
  • Learn another language: Medicine Sans Frontières recommends French and/or English, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Swahili or Portuguese1;
  • Undertake courses provided by governmental and non-governmental agencies;
  • Establish and maintain appropriate physical activity levels;Get the health checks and up-to-date vaccinations you might require.

Preparations physical therapists can make once they have volunteered

The preparations should continue once you have volunteered.

  • Ensure you have had the necessary health checks and vaccinations;
  • Write a will and prepare your affairs for the time of your absence, banking, bills memberships, registration etc.;
  • Attend information sessions provided by government and non-government agencies;
  • Learn about the physical, cultural and political context of the disaster zone.
  • Prepare for your return: consider your friends and family and plan for your career post mission. Maintain professional and personal contacts and your professional skills.

What physical therapists can do in a disaster zone after the emergency

Once the immediate emergency is over and the television cameras and journalists have moved on there is still much work physical therapists can do in disaster zones to build for the future.

  • Work with the community to plan and implement rehabilitation activities based on an assessment of unmet needs and available resources;
  • Deliver rehabilitation services;
  • If there is no professional organisation of physical therapists, work with local physical therapists to build a representative group with the potential to become a WCPT member;
  • Liaise with WCPT secretariat and regional officer for support in this endeavour.
  • Advocate, with the physical therapy professional association, for physical therapy services for those affected by disaster and assess the need for physical therapy services;
  • Work with the local professional association and government to develop physical therapist professional entry-level education programmes;
  • Deliver continuing professional development courses;
  • Work with the local professional association to develop education for physical therapy assistants and CBR workers, if appropriate;
  • Work with the community in planning and implementing the physical therapy and rehabilitation elements of emergency preparedness plans.

1Basic questions answered. http://www.msf.org/msfinternational/volunteer/  Accessed 16-04-10