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How can you protect people who want to volunteer during the Corona-crisis?

The safety engineer of Wuppertal, Marina Bier, develops save guidelines for spontaneous volunteers.

During the largest pandemic of humanity in the modern times many people develop the wish to help whereever they can. But - volunteers need to be protected as well, because the Coronavirus infects all people that come too close to each other.

At this point Marina Bier intervenes. She is the director of a project that develops guidelines in order to assure safe operations of spontaneous volunteers.

Summer School of the University of Wuppertal leads to the the decision

Marina Bier was born in Düsseldorf and decided to study safety engineering at the University of Wuppertal due to the Summer School, which is offered every year for girls. The Summer School is an annual offering of the University of Wuppertal to increase the attractiveness of the subjects of mathematics, informatics, natural sciences and technology (MINT-subjects) for young women. "Of course they performed quite cleverly. They presented fire and explosion experiments. As a young person, you are very excited about this", she tells laughingly. She shortly sat in a course of occupational safety - this led to the clear decision to study at the University of Wuppertal. The active student came into contact with the subject of occupational safety already during her bachelor studies and hence worked as a student assistant. "I have worked on an occupational safety project for the German army", she tells, "and was then offered during my Master's to continue my work after my graduation."

WuKAS, the perfect combination of population and labour safeguarding

"This is the beauty of safety engineering", she raves of, "that you can integrate technically very interesting points of intersection to other topics of risk management." The new project is supposed to run for two years. It is a great attachment point with the possibility to use the data for a doctorate.

WuKAS (Knowledge and Competence Transfer in the Labour Protection of Spontaneous Volunteers) is the short title of the project which is funded by the BMBF where she works. "In cooperation with our project partner - the Malteser Assistence Service - we plan the procedure of the project, work out technical content and coordinate the tasks of the two academic assistants. This is my main task", she describes her work as a research assistant. Her work at the academic chair includes the assistence in lectures and the supervision of assignements as well.

In the course of this project, Bier worked out guidelines for spontaneous volunteers during the Corona-crisis.

"Spontaneous volunteers are the basic people of society", she explains, "meaning every volunteer, who is not from the fire service, THW or a relief organisation." The phenomenon of "spontaneous volunteers" became very obvious during the flood disaster 2013. Many volunteers coordinated themselves through social media and helped out without any expertise or working structure. WuKAS "deals with the question, how can we protect thousands of people that have no "blue light"-education?" It is not rare that volunteers - due to their inexperience - find themselves in dangerous situations and are not aware of the consequences, she emphasizes. "In our project, we try to provide the volunteers with knowledge. They than know how to behave correctly and the action force gets legal security in liability questions." Most of the previous spontaneous volunteers become familiar with the organisation and the coordination in dangerous situations, but not with the specific labour protection questions on site. "What do managers do on site, when they suddenly have one hundred un-known people in front of them? They have to decide whether they can mobilise them and where they are allowed to mobilise them. We want to give these managers reliability in their decisions", she firmly says. Spontaneous volunteers should not be apparent as troublemakers or danger for the action force. Even during the Corona-crises there are situations, in which this manpower is needed. But it can only be used, if qualified emergency personell function as specialists.

The beauty in a terrible situation

"We have many risk groups, meaning people with pre-existing conditions, who are fragile to the virus or who would suffer under serious courses" Bier says "relief organisations are not able to handle this all alone." Spontaneous volunteers could effect much at this point. "At the moment you can see a very nice movement - neighbourhood assistences that are formated in cities. People offer their help and call the attention through posters - they offer to do the shopping for someone else or to take a dog for a walk." Whether you want to call it solidarity or neighbourly help - every helping hand is needed due to the course of the pandemic. "We want this solidarity in the society. It is also called resilience. We want to ensure that the people of the society are able to help themselves, to be strong in such a crisis and we want to mediate through the guidelines we developed."

Which guidelines are available in the case of Corona?

There are two types of guidelines. On the one side, there are guidelines that offer general tips and advice to spontaneous volunteers. These include guidelines on going shopping for someone else or walking somebody else's dog. On the other side, there are guidelines that help organisations to maintain safety-relevant aspects.

Marina Bier empasizes that it is crucial that the organsations instruct the volunteers. "Inform your spontaneous volunteers and register the people, so that you know who was where", she demands. "Spontaneous volunteers usually have a social assurance because they work for the public welfare. Meaning when they work for an organisation or a commune, they are included in the social assurance. It helps the spontaneous volunteers to be registered in order to be able to make this authentic in front of the accident insurances. We also tell the organisations that they should pay attention to the PSNV (Psychosocial Emergency Care)." It has to be made evident to the action force that spontaneous volunteers are laymen that have no prior knowledge and structures.

Specifically, this means that people who do the shopping for others or take the dogs of others on a walk should not shake hands and keep the safety distance of two meters." Additionally, volunteers should consider "We advice to help only one household. Otherwise spontaneous helpers could spread the virus in the worst case." On the example of a foreign dog, the volunteers should clarify the following questions in advance: What does the dog need? How is his social behaviour? Does he have a hunting instinct? Does he bite? All of these questions serve the protection of the volunteer, who is suddenly all alone with a foreign animal.

Active citizens

Active citizens can engage in several ways. Many helping groups arise automatically, Bier says. "In almost every city there are neighbourhood assistence groups, often Facebook-groups. There are apps, nationally e.g. the "Quaranatine Heros" (Quarantäne Helden) or the "Shopping Heros" (Die Einkaufshelden), an initiative of the Young Union Germany. Cities or communes, relief organisations and diaconia often offer such help. Many different groups exist. The quickest way to find something where you can volunteer, is online."

You can find and use the guidelines for organisations and volunteers on the homepage of the academic chair of safety engineering www.arbsi.uni-wuppertal.de/de/handlungshilfen-covid19.html. The aid offerings of the University of Wuppertal can be shared with the Hashtag #sicherhelfen on social media.

Homeoffice: the working place of the future?

And how does the scientific working life looks like during the times of Corona? "Definetly strange", she says, "most of the colleagues work from home, our phones are redirected to our mobile phones."

And this will surely stay like this for some time.

Uwe Blass (Interview on 30.03.2020)


Marina Bier studied safety engineering during 2013 and 2019 at the University of Wuppertal and finished her Master's. She works as a research assistent and prepares her doctorate in the area of Safety Technology/ Occupational Safety - under the direction of Mrs. Prof. Dr. Anke Kahl.

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