Friday, September 06, 2002

Rallying volunteers would cost county an estimated $200,000

By Dan Klepal,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune would like to spend taxpayer money to convince taxpayers they should volunteer to make their community a better — and safer — place to live.

        Mr. Portune said he will recommend the creation of a countywide “citizen corps,” similar to the nationwide citizen corps that President Bush has called for.

        The idea is that the county would print literature and other materials to encourage people to volunteer for neighborhood watch programs, the Red Cross, local police and fire departments or the Greater Cincinnati Hazardous Materials Unit, among others.

        A strong citizen corps, Mr. Portune believes, will make the area more secure against terrorist attacks, more ready to respond to natural disasters and a better place to live.

        The idea could cost upwards of $200,000, he said, if the county adds a person or two to run the program.

        “The structures are in place in most jurisdictions, so we don't have to reinvent the wheel,” Mr. Portune said. “It's up to them to identify their needs. We just need people to get involved in those activities.”

        With the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks anniversary fast approaching, Mr. Portune says the time is right to launch such an effort.

        “People will be pausing to reflect and remember, and that's good,” Mr. Portune said. “But we need to do more to fulfill our civic duties.”

        Two of the three county commissioners would have to vote in favor of the plan before it could be implemented. Commissioner Tom Neyer said he thinks it's right for government to encourage volunteerism. After all, the county uses dozens of volunteers to perform public service.

        “Volunteerism certainly is an important component of effective government,” Mr. Neyer said. “But I would have to understand the cost of the plan before endorsing it.”

        Mr. Portune has already printed up mock stationary and questionnaires — complete with the Hamilton County flag logo and the phrase “Resolve to get Involved.” They have a place for people to write their name and address, and an area to check the organization they would most like to help.

        Patricia Walton, volunteer recruitment and training specialist for the Cincinnati area chapter of the American Red Cross, said nearly all the services her organization offers are performed by volunteers. She said county involvement could mean a great deal and help nudge people in the direction of volunteerism.

        The local chapter of the Red Cross has about 4,000 volunteers, she said.

        “It's important that we're prepared for the big disaster before it happens,” Ms. Walton said. “It takes training and preparedness to be one of the people who can respond to a disaster. So we need trained people in the field before it happens.”

        Volunteers help rebuild lives after a disaster, said B.J. Jetter, who is chief of the Sycamore Township Fire Department, deputy commissioner of the Urban Search and Rescue Team and a board member of the HazMat Unit. Mr. Jetter said he supports the idea of a citizen corps so that volunteers are prepared before a disaster.

        “One of the problems when you don't get people involved on the front end, before a disaster, is that things become chaotic,” Mr. Jetter said. “You're already dealing with a chaotic situation, so you don't want to add to it.”

        Mr. Jetter said the HazMat Unit's need for volunteers is a little more specialized. For example, a chemist or someone with a facilities plant management background could be an advisor. The hazardous materials team also needs people to set up its decontamination tents during emergencies.

        Don Maccarone, director of the county's Emergency Management Agency, said there are new areas available to volunteers since Sept. 11, such as medical assistance teams and volunteers to help first responders such as HazMat units and fire departments.

        “If you look at the whole federal initiative, and the whole concept of volunteerism, the intent is to give the general public and individuals the opportunity to assist,” Mr. Maccarone said. “We're trying to build on that whole premise. But in having the process move forward, there is a lot of discussion that needs to take place. It's yet to be determined how that would be applicable in a countywide situation.”

        Mr. Portune agrees that there are still many details to work out.

        “But there is a need,” he said. “And I think it's irresponsible to just sit back and not do anything until (the federal government) tells us how.”


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