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City wants citizens to enlist in Vancouver Volunteer Corps

The City of Vancouver is hoping their newly launched Vancouver Volunteer Corps will kill two volunteer-needs with one program, saying volunteers will help with both large public events and emergency services during and after "the Big One."

At a press conference outside of City Hall this morning, Mayor Gregor Robertson said the city has been looking for ways to capitalize on citizen volunteers since the success of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games "Blue Jacket" volunteers.

Since that time recommendations for a crew of citizen volunteers from both the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot report and a city staff trip to Christchurch, New Zealand after their major earthquake last year, cemented the creation of the Volunteer Corps.

"There's a huge desire from Vancouverites to contribute to our city in many different ways, but particularly around large events and potentially emergency disasters," says Robertson.

"We have a need for people to step up, but in particular for people to step up who have some training, who have some experience and can fill in key roles in times of crisis."

The initiative will capitalize on pre-existing programs like Emergency Social Services, which assists people evacuated from their homes in emergencies to find shelter; the Vancouver Emergency Community Telecommunications Organization, trained amateur radio operators who assist during times of emergency; Snow Angels, who help neighbours with shoveling after a heavy snowfall; and the Neighbourhood Emergency Preparedness Program, which offers workshops training people to prepare for disasters like earthquakes. Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services will train all volunteers.

One new initiative under the Volunteer Corps is the Vancouver Emergency Response Team (VERT), a select group of volunteers that will receive advanced training in community response, basic first aid, structure assessment, reception centre set up and radio communications to assist emergency services in the event of a disaster. They won't be trained to enter dangerous situations, however, like rescuing people from collapsed houses or other structures.

The city hopes to recruit 100 volunteers to VERT by the end of 2013, and 1,000-1,500 for the overall Volunteer Corps in the next three to five years.

"We operate on a very minimum amount, we can manage any major task that comes upon us at one time during the year. It's these major disasters that tax us out, that we are not able to get to the 10,000 events that may happen, that we've learned from the experiences of Japan, Chile, and New Zealand," says Deputy Chief Mark Engler of Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.

"(VERT) will be those advanced eyes and ears out there for us, that will be able to do those quick assessments, will be able to help the people in their own community and communicate back to us."

The city didn't disclose how much the initiative would cost, but did say it means hiring an extra staff member to Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services--a service they cut 20 positions from two years ago--and funds for purchasing vests, first aid kits, and other equipment for the volunteers.

The Volunteer Corps made their debut at the Celebration of Light in Vancouver's English Bay on Saturday, with 35 volunteers in place to act as ambassadors for the city, offering the public help with everything from contacting emergency services to finding the best route back home.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee.

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