Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Junior VOST: Guidelines for an Under 18 Program

These guidelines were recently posted to the Virtual Operations Support Group site.  
The COVOST supports these guidelines. 
This post has been reprinted with permission.
vosg-banner-center-960x100.png Recently, the #SMEM and #VOST communities were presented with a new VOST Volunteer initiative for under 18s, a wonderfully innovative idea, but one that raises concerns about involving children in supporting official response agencies during all phases of the disaster life cycle. Research clearly shows risks to children and teens from exposure to visual materials that can trigger a strong visceral reaction, yet Virtual Operations Support Teams routinely tasked with monitoring social media in an emergency or disaster situation cannot control the material to which they are exposed in the live stream. Once something is seen, it can’t be unseen. This paper aims to:
  1. help agencies and organizations address key issues related to the participation of youth and children in VOST missions, including monitoring social media accounts.
  2. raise awareness of the science and research about the risks to children, and
  3. establish responsible and safe VOST policy guidelines to recommend to those considering a Junior VOST or community youth volunteer program as part of their social media emergency management strategy.

The Science

Carol Dunn is a Disaster Risk Reduction Specialist who specializes in raising awareness of the implications of current findings related to cognitive neurology and how organizations deal with and communicate risk. She has put together the following collection of research work and articles to assist planning decisions:
From the moment you see the first image you are changed for good .… But where law enforcement has developed specialized programs and hires experienced mental health professionals …. many tech companies have yet to grasp the seriousness of the problem.
  • Previous exposure to traumatic situations has been found to increase risk of long term brain changes, so even if individuals don’t respond negatively in the short term, the situations they are exposed to today can play a role in later trauma. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2816923/

Potential Benefits of Junior VOST

We also recognize that volunteering at a young age has been found to: promote a healthy lifestyle and choices, enhance development, teach life skills, improve the community, and encourage a lifelong service ethic. (source) Therefore, it is not our intention to squelch student VOSTs, but to ensure that programs operate with full awareness of the risks.
The same good management techniques apply to children as to adults. However, they may need to be modified or adapted to appropriately relate to children.
The VOSG seeks to ensure the highest standards of safety to everyone under any program we are asked to endorse or recommend. With this in mind, we have outlined a suggested program that we think would provide a good model for how to incorporate student volunteers appropriately within a Virtual Operations Support Team. Examples given are for guidance purposes only; responsibility lies with the Agency or Organization managing the VOST or student program.

Example Junior VOST Program Outline

The team’s purpose, objectives and goals are outlined in an age appropriate way to maximize youth opportunities and the community vision for team growth and progression towards joining a professional team when old enough (18+). This program is designed to mitigate risk to children by aligning the Junior VOST more closely with a “Preparedness VOST” than any other phase in the disaster life cycle, with some activities and tasks explicitly excluded that a fully operational VOST would engage in when deployed during a disaster to support an overwhelmed or under resourced agency. Team members may not be placed in a situation where they could be exposed to the risks and stress that even hardened digital first responders often find challenging, such as a situation with fatalities. Students are encouraged to participate in live VOST Exercises using benign events, such as a sports game, to become familiar with how to use social media and to communicate with authorities should a real live emergency be presented to them during their day-to-day activities or as a survivor of an incident in which they are directly impacted. With this in mind, we strongly recommend any mission that includes minors explicitly excludes monitoring the live stream in a real emergency or disaster situation, allocating such tasks only to a professional social media monitoring team or VOST comprising adults with more advanced training. To manage risk, Junior VOST missions and tasks are classified prior to activation using a common rating system and re-evaluated during operations should unforeseen escalations occur. Parents and guardians are asked to sign a waiver and are given information about what is involved.

Example Junior VOST Program Values

  • Educating and acquainting the student with a modified, age-appropriate VOST environment, encouraging an interest in using social media for emergency management (SMEM) and fostering future leadership.
  • Recognizing that service of Junior VOST volunteers is both needed and appreciated.
  • Recognizing that serving as a VOST volunteer is a privilege and carries great responsibility.
  • Acknowledging that a Junior VOST cannot replace or replicate an adult team.
  • Encouraging students who are responsible, dependable, caring, have the ability to follow direction, and who can provide high quality support service to our professional teams, and eventually, join them.

Example Mission Rating System

  • G: General - All Ages
  • PG: Adult Supervision and Guidance Suggested. Some Material May Not Be Suitable For Children.
  • PG-13: Adult Supervision and Guidance Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13.
  • R: Restricted. Under 18 Requires Adult Supervision and Guidance.
  • NC-18: No One Under 18 Authorized To Support Mission
Children are closely supervised and any escalation that presents during an activation triggers re-evaluation of the mission for appropriateness to the age group.

Example Junior VOST Tasks

Selected tasks that might be safely allocated to a Junior VOST team, grouped by phase. Each task would be rated for age appropriateness.


  • Create VOST workbook templates and populate with search strings, key websites and resources, ready for use.
  • Create “Lay of the Land” lists of official social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc.
  • Create or source local community maps to mark emergency related resources - shelter locations, hospitals, school etc.
  • Monitor app use in the local community and keep the Agency informed of new apps and trends of interest, especially in use amongst youth.
  • Assist and support Preparedness Messaging: Junior VOST could pull together fact sheets on all-hazards events and possibly assist in breaking those down into social media messages to be available for PIOs to use. This age group might also assist with official preparedness accounts such as @READYColorado messaging or monitoring instead of the operational @COEmergency side of the house.
  • Help build Community Resilience by promoting the use of SMS alerts, Code Red, etc.
  • Tech support: Help professional EM staff gain a better understanding of the world of social media, set up systems and troubleshoot tech issues.
  • Prepare a coordination summary for Junior VOST reporting of 911 type issues.

Response and Recovery:

  • Junior VOSTs are not engaged during the response phase of an emergency or disaster situation due to high stress levels and risk of trauma involved in routine VOST monitoring activities.
  • A Junior VOST may be able to assist with some limited recovery tasks where pre-filtered feeds can be determined as suitable content, such as sorting, categorizing, or mapping, including identifying volunteer opportunities.
  • At no time should a Junior VOST member be asked to monitor live unfiltered feeds while an emergency response is ongoing, neither to help identify 911 issues on social media, nor prepare official reports.
Important issues that also need careful consideration, but have not been addressed here for reasons of length, include liability and accountability. Authors and Contributors: Joanna Lane, Carol Dunn, Kim Stephens, Caroline Milligan, Nathan Hunerwadel, Micki Trost.

 Junior VOST - Guidelines for an Under 18 Program by The Virtual Operations Support Group is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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