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Managing Volunteers in Disaster Response: Kumamoto Earthquake in Japan - Assessing the Value of A Volunteers' Coordination Platform

Author: Hitoshi Igarashi, CEMIJ & Hideki Nagayoshi, Associate Professor, Kokushikan University

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2016-06-13
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First rescue attempt in Mashiki Township on the day after the first quake (Source: Asahi Shinbun Press, 2016)

In the mid April, 2016, several large earthquakes rocked the Kumamoto region of Kyushu Island, Japan and left more than 100,000 people homeless at peak. Several dozen lives were lost, thousands of structures and transportation infrastructures were damaged, and landslides hampered the first responders’ attempts of immediate rescue operations.

 Although the total number of casualties and structures damaged have been relatively lower than those of the 3.11 event (the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, aka the Great East Japan earthquake, of March 11, 2011) due to the longer lasting aftershocks (more than 1000 shocks occurred within one month of the first jolt), people continued to stay outside of their residences or sought protection at the pre-designated evacuation centers. Several Japanese geologists believe that the earthquakes must have triggered a volcanic eruption of the Mt. Aso, which was fortunately a light eruption on April 16 and a further study has been underway. But, many of us involved in emergency response and support had strong fears that another eruption would occur at a large scale, complicating vital rescue and emergency relief operations.

The main focus on this article is a brief assessment on a volunteer’s coordination platform which has been developed by the social welfare agencies in Japan, integrating lessons learned from the 3.11. In previous large scale natural disasters in Japan, willing volunteers tended to come into the devastated areas without thinking of how their actions could cause another hindrance to well-managed immediate relief operations. Within an incident command organization, it is not so easy to control a large influx well-meaning citizens who come into the affected areas and keep their efforts coordinated within the incident objectives and safety protocols.


Left: Many wooden home structures did not withstand the quakes. Right: The Udo City EOC became inoperable after the quake (Both: Hitoshi Igarashi)

Until fairly recently, Japan did not have a coordination platform to orderly manage individual and grouped volunteers in the aftermath of calamities. We did not have a unified managing structure for various private sector organizations such as a Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD) in our country. We do not have a well-organized command and control platform such as an incident command system, though some governmental agencies for emergency responses are conducting its adaptability in the Japanese context. We still do not have a common management system that unifies everyone’s efforts within a single disaster management structure.

In order to mitigate further confusion and congestion that might be made by individual volunteers and grouped voluntary organizations at the affected disaster areas, a national social welfare agency (a private entity but funded by local governments) in Japan has developed a common management platform after its effectiveness was proven in the 3.11 operations. It is, in a way, unique that its branch offices are located every local government’s administrative jurisdiction and provide community-based social welfare services during the non-emergency period. But, once a large disaster occurs in one place, the social welfare agency responsible for that jurisdiction sets up a Volunteer Coordination Center where individuals and grouped volunteers can report to register and express their willingness of serving in various sectors, based on their skills and credentials on an ad-hoc basis.


A Volunteer Coordination Center established at Takeda City, Oita province (Source: Hitoshi Igarashi)

Thus, volunteers will even travel from all over Japan to the registration point (Coordination Center) to register as a recognized volunteer. At the same time, the center will gather information and from a local government emergency operations center (EOC) and implement hearings from the survivors for identifying types of support required after initial rescue operations. The coordination center then attempts to match the registered volunteers who are standing by with the community members who require specific support such as debris removal at their homes, clearing up residential roads, supplying extra manpower at the designated shelters, delivering drinking water, operating heavy machineries, and many other tasks required in a recovery phase.

The registered volunteers via the Coordination Center will have a volunteer’s insurance scheme associated with their service, permits to entering the controlled areas, transportation from the Coordination Center to their serving areas, and emergency contact numbers in case of obtaining immediate help. We have implemented participatory action assessment at the Takeda Social Welfare Agency Volunteer Coordination Center in Oita Province which provided average of 70 volunteers on daily basis in May, 2016 to help the survivors in the South Aso villages where the magnitude of devastation was relatively high. The Takeda Coordination Center was manned by the staff of social agency and volunteers from other social agencies all over Japan by taking one week rotation including the skilled volunteers such as the staff of Kokushikan University who train coordinators of a volunteer center.

 An incident commander was in place who is a local social agency manager, UHF Voice And Data Over Internet Protocol (V/DoIP) communications equipment [right] was provided by the provincial government as part of a mutual aid package, a Google map based application [left] for identifying locations of volunteer transporting buses via a UHF V/DoIP was established, necessary information was laid out on several whiteboards for instant sharing, and relief goods and equipment were managed at the center’s warehouse. Since a commercial cellular communications network did not sustain severe damages in the disaster areas after the first 2 days, the center was able to utilize a D/VoIP-based communications tool to coordinate voluntary groups who were away from the center. We’ve also learned that it is always better to have a “Plan B” for communications just in case of unexpected failure in a network due to another large aftershock in the region; redundancy in communications is a really key issue here as well.

Although the volunteer coordination platform was developed and has been used for the management of volunteers from private sectors in the Kumamoto earthquake incident for good purposes, it does not function under the direct control of local government EOC (a connection is made via a regular phone system only). Thus, the EOC may not have a common operational picture of what private volunteers do in the field. However, it seems to be a good start for Japan that finally provides a common platform for the willing citizens and voluntary groups to work in a coherent manner under one management structure provided by a social welfare agency.

Hopefully in the near future, the volunteer Coordination Center (a Command Post for Private Volunteers) will be fully integrated with a governmental field command post, allowing for more direct information sharing among various players in disaster response operations. Our next step is to introduce a mobile command, control, communications, and coordination vehicle (4Cs) to the volunteer Coordination Center as an alternative method of reestablish its function when actual buildings are not safe to utilize. Also, interoperability of communications between a private sector incident Coordination Center and a local government EOC should be addressed. We never know when the next one comes.

Above: Rehab area for the volunteers returning from duty sites (Source: Hitoshi Igarashi)

Hitoshi Igarashi serves as a manager, international programs, for the Community Emergency Management Institute Japan (CEMIJ).  Through the university research offices he associates with in Japan, Mr. Igarashi is attempting to introduce the effective use of mobile command and communication vehicles in disasters as one method to increase the use of incident command function for devastated areas. In addition, he is doing research to design command and communication vehicles for government agencies with fewer resources in developing countries. 

Hideki Nagayoshi is Deputy Director of Wellness Research Center, Kokushikan University, in Tama, Tokyo. He also teaches volunteer coordination courses for the staff of social services agencies in Tokyo.


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