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The Role of Shelters in Disaster Response & Emergency Relief

Woman embracing baby while outside in cold weather.


Think for a moment about what you would do if you were forced to flee your home. It’s hard to even imagine.


Unfortunately, this is the harsh reality for over 1% of the global population right now, 42% of whom are women and children


Disasters, whether natural or human-made, have a devastating impact on people’s lives. Lives are lost, homes are damaged or destroyed, and families find themselves without a place to call their own.  


In these trying times, shelters are more than just a roof over your head. While the first priority is to save lives, especially those at risk during the initial aftermath of a disaster, shelters also offer a space for people to find dignity, privacy, and, eventually, a path toward recovery


In this article, we’ll explore the role of shelters in disaster response and emergency relief. 


At ShiftLink, we know your time matters. We know your work matters. Interrupting your focus on caring for others to perform the time-consuming task of filling shifts in a pinch is frustrating at best. ShiftLink is not a band-aid fix. It is a response to your deepest need — to spend more time on what truly matters. We have created a software that will ease every pain point related to shift scheduling. Request a demo today or send us an email to learn more.   



Disaster Can Strike Anywhere 

Shelters provide safety and support to people around the world. But when we think about people being displaced from their homes, we often picture far-off places we see in the news.  


It's important to recognize that the need for shelter is very much a reality closer to home as well.  


Take, for example, the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire. This devastating fire led to the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta's history, with over 88,000 people forced to leave their homes.  


In response, shelters in Edmonton and other cities opened their doors, offering refuge and support to thousands of evacuees. Many found shelter with family and friends or in reception centers like the Expo Centre in Edmonton. 


Shelters have also played a prominent role in the aftermath of natural disasters like hurricanes. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey forced over 33,800 people to seek refuge in shelters across Texas and Louisiana. These shelters, many set up by the American Red Cross, gave people a place to stay and important resources in their time of need. 


And it's not just natural disasters that call for the support of shelters, but human-made disasters as well. A mandatory evacuation was ordered in response to the 2023 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, with two emergency evacuation stations providing shelter and assistance to people living near the incident. 


Events like these are important reminders that the need for shelter support is not a distant issue, but one that can touch any community at any time, even our own backyards.  



Deploying Shelter in the Wake of a Disaster 

Shelters don’t appear out of thin air. Providing shelter requires quick action, resources, and most importantly, people working together. 



When and Where is Shelter Set Up? 


Many situations can lead to an urgent need for shelter, including: 


  • Severe weather events like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and extreme temperatures 

  • Natural disasters like earthquakes and wildfires 

  • Public health crises such as pandemics 

  • Human-made emergencies such as acts of war, terrorism, or industrial accidents 


Following such an event, a network of emergency management teams at local, state, or federal levels often work together to open a shelter. Authorities assess the extent of damage, the number of people in need, and the specific needs of the community. 


Ideally, shelters are located near the affected area for ease of access, but this must be weighed against any dangers that still exist in the area. 



Who is Involved in Setting Up Shelter? 


In the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) plays a big part in coordinating federal assistance during major disasters, but it’s usually smaller, local agencies responsible for organizing and operating shelters. These agencies collaborate with first responders and law enforcement to ensure these shelters are well-equipped and staffed.  


There is no direct federal equivalent to FEMA in Canada. However, the federal government provides financial assistance for disaster relief, often supporting provincial, territorial, and Indigenous organizations. 


Non-profit organizations are also important in disaster response and emergency relief. The American and Canadian Red Cross, along with other non-profits like the Salvation Army and various faith-based groups, often manage and operate emergency shelters and services as well. 


Sometimes, shelters are created in a more informal manner. In smaller emergencies or community-led responses, neighbours may open their homes, community centres might transform into shelters, and religious institutions could offer temporary refuge.  



The People at the Heart of Disaster Response and Emergency Relief 

In times of crisis, emergency shelters become hubs of hope and support thanks to the dedicated efforts of various professionals and volunteers.  


Unhoused people sitting in hallway.


So many people come together in different ways to turn a space into a shelter during a disaster. The specific roles and responsibilities aren’t set in stone since every disaster is different and each community has unique needs.  


The following are some of the key people who might be called upon for help in a disaster response and emergency relief shelter: 


  • At the heart of every shelter are the Shelter Managers and Coordinators, who oversee the shelter's operations from staffing to resource allocation. They work tirelessly to ensure the shelter runs smoothly. 

  • Emergency management personnel, including managers and planners, work closely with government agencies and non-profits to manage resources and respond to the evolving needs of the situation. 

  • Medical professionals, such as doctors, nurses, and paramedics, provide medical care and first aid, treating injuries, illnesses, and any medical emergencies that shelter residents may have. 

  • Mental health and crisis counsellors provide psychological support to people coping with trauma and emotional distress in the aftermath of the disaster, helping them navigate these challenging times with empathy and understanding. 

  • Social workers assess the needs of shelter residents, connecting them with social services like housing assistance, food assistance, and case management to help begin the process of rebuilding their lives. 

  • Security staff are on hand to keep shelter residents, staff, and volunteers safe.  

  • Case managers work closely with residents to help them develop plans for recovery and long-term assistance. These workers are the bridge between immediate relief and future stability. 

  • Logistics and support staff are the backbone of shelter operations, managing and distributing resources and maintaining the physical infrastructure of the shelter. 

  • In multicultural communities, language interpreters play an important role in bridging communication gaps between staff, volunteers, and residents, ensuring that everyone's needs are understood and met. 

  • Administrative and data entry staff keep track of shelter residents and their needs through detailed documentation. 

  • IT and communications specialists keep communication systems within the shelter up and running. 

  • Lawyers may also be present to address any legal issues or rights of the shelter residents, ensuring that their legal needs are not overlooked. 



Challenges Facing Shelter Residents, Staff, and Volunteers 

Life in an emergency shelter can be challenging.  


The people living there are not only coping with being displaced from their homes (and possibly being unable to return there) but also the physical and psychological trauma of living through a disaster. Shelter staff and volunteers work tirelessly to ease these burdens, providing support and resources to help residents manage their immediate needs and get back on their feet. 


But it's not just the residents who face hardships — shelter workers face their own challenges. Their work is both tremendously important and often extremely stressful. Among the difficulties faced by shelter workers are: 


  • Emotional and Psychological Stress: Working in a shelter means being constantly exposed to the trauma and distress of others. Seeing the grief, anxiety, and suffering of residents can take a toll on one's emotional well-being. 

  • Long Hours and Fatigue: Disaster response often requires long, gruelling hours. Shelter staff may work around the clock, leading to physical and mental exhaustion. 

  • Health Risks: Particularly during public health emergencies, shelter workers face exposure to health risks. 

  • Personal Sacrifices: Being part of disaster response can mean spending extended periods away from family and home, a sacrifice that weighs heavily on many. 

  • Compassion Fatigue: Repeated exposure to the suffering of others can lead to compassion fatigue, where one becomes emotionally drained and less empathetic. 


Without adequate support, this constant strain and the emotionally taxing nature of the work can lead to burnout.  



ShiftLink Can Help 

Identifying and addressing the challenges shelter workers face is key to the well-being and effectiveness of shelter operations.  


4 shelter volunteers/workers smiling and embracing.


By streamlining scheduling processes, ensuring fair workload distribution, and improving communication, ShiftLink can help staff and volunteers provide the care and support that residents deserve in these critical times. 


  • Streamlined Shift Management: During disasters, the need for quick and efficient staffing is critical. ShiftLink significantly reduces the time and manual effort required for scheduling, allowing staff to focus more on providing care rather than on administrative tasks. 

  • Equitable Shift Distribution: The Custom Shift Post Expiry and Seniority Module can help alleviate the stress on staff by ensuring that workloads are distributed equitably, preventing one person or another from being overburdened. 

  • Effective Communication: In disaster scenarios, communication is key. ShiftLink’s Easy and Efficient Staff Notifications and Code Orange emergency broadcast option can ensure that all staff members are promptly and effectively informed about shift changes or emergency situations.  

  • Data Management and Reporting: By having detailed records and reports, shelter managers can make informed decisions about staffing needs, which can contribute to better care for residents. 

  • Adaptability in Dynamic Situations: Disaster response situations are dynamic and require quick adjustments. The flexibility of ShiftLink in managing and adjusting schedules in real time can be invaluable. 


At ShiftLink, we know your time matters. We know your work matters. Interrupting your focus on caring for others to perform the time-consuming task of filling shifts in a pinch is frustrating at best. ShiftLink is not a band-aid fix. It is a response to your deepest need — to spend more time on what truly matters. We have created a software that will ease every pain point related to shift scheduling. Request a demo today or send us an email to learn more.   




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