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Oil-spill helpers galore, but limits on their use

When 58,000 gallons of oil spilled into the San Francisco Bay last Wednesday volunteers came out of the woodwork, but officials were unprepared for their help.

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When a shipping accident last week dumped 58,000 gallons of oil in San Francisco Bay, it washed onto shores that are home to a great concentration of America's environmentalists.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that volunteers poured forth to help – yet officials still seemed flummoxed when it happened.

Callers overwhelmed a volunteer hot line within an hour. Public meetings devolved at times into heated exchanges when officials told would-be volunteers essentially "Don't call us, we'll call you" if their help was needed. And other residents armed with rubber gloves and pooper-scoopers stormed the closed beaches, calling their oil cleanup work a form of "civil disobedience."

Officials want volunteers off beaches citing concerns about public health and the safety of frightened wildlife, but some residents question whether the extensive coastline can be cleaned quickly without more help. Partly a culture clash between a bottom-up, crowd-sourcing culture and a top-down, litigation-conscious government, it's also indicative of a national lack of planning for volunteers during crisis, say experts.

"People doing crisis-management planning who don't understand that there will be volunteers – they aren't doing crisis-management planning," says Susan Ellis, president of Energize Inc., a consulting and publishing firm specializing in volunteerism. "There's this strange feeling that somehow it's easy, or when volunteers come we'll deal with it. It's so complex that they oversimplify it."

The organizational blind spot showed during the Sept. 11 aftermath when emergency leaders in New York overlooked calling in experienced volunteer managers, instead tapping one volunteer to handle the others, says Ms. Ellis. Since Sept. 11, some community disaster plans have incorporated volunteer coordinators. However, it's still common even in major crises for the coordinator to be saddled with several other tasks as well, she says.

Authorities have their hands full with the Bay Area spill, from the oil-soaked birds to the coastline to the questions.

The Cosco Busan, a cargo ship bound for South Korea, hit the Bay Bridge amid fog on Wednesday morning. One of the ship's tanks ruptured, dumping thick fuel into the bay. The National Transportation Safety Board announced Sunday it was opening a criminal investigation.


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