Live recruiting of volunteers through phone calls and text messages

posted on: September 7, 2011

A month ago we started working with the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter, thanks to a grant that Cisco provided InSTEDD to customize or extend InSTEDD’s platform in ways that it would support Bay Area community resiliency.

The Approach

We spent some time working with the Red Cross to identify possible uses of technology to leverage and simplify their work. Together, we went through their workflows, had conversations with people in different roles and discussed their tasks and responsibilities in order to find a pressing need that we could support (it is an amazing thing that more than 99% of Red Cross staff in the Bay Area are volunteers).

We ended up deciding that something we could do was to help them reduce the workload of the recruiting process to respond to disasters of any scale.

The Problem

Currently, when an incident is reported, the DAT (Disaster Action Team) coordinator, needs to call volunteers one by one until they have enough people confirmed to staff the response. The coordinator uses a spreadsheet that contains a list of all the volunteers, with their time-shifts, the city they live and their contact phone numbers. For a small incident that requires 5 responders, an average of 20 calls to different volunteers need to be made. That means that the coordinator spends more than 2 hours making phone calls, just to put together the team that will respond.

The Goal

We set up to reduce that workload and automate the process as much as we could, while still keeping the DAT coordinator in control of the aspects of the recruiting process they needed to handle.


Over the last few weeks, we have designed and developed Watchfire, a web application that will automate the recruiting process. The application imports their spreadsheet and stores that in a database, including their location and landline and mobile phone numbers.

Administrators or volunteers can edit the information, including their contact information, location and availability. At any point they can import a new spreadsheet to update the information.

When the DAT coordinator needs to start the recruiting process, they enters the number of people to recruit, the category (team lead, volunteer, trainee, etc.) and the location of the event. The system then creates a calling list of the people that are closest to the event.

A circle around the area where the recruiting is happening will be shown, giving the user feedback about how far the volunteers might be coming from. The user can also block some of the people in the calling list to have the system skip them. When they’re ready, and clicks “Start recruiting”, Watchifre starts calling people in the list by order of proximity. The calls are made to the registered phones, and the receiver hears an automated message with the description of the event, asking them if they can respond. Text messages are also sent to volunteers that have texting plans (only 50% of the Red Cross volunteers do).

As volunteers start responding, the system refreshes to reflect the status of the recruiting process, giving the DAT coordinator a list of the people that have confirmed their availability.

Any number of recruiting processes can be run at the same time, each with it’s own calling list, location, category and description. The event screens allows the coordinator to monitor the status of each recruiting process as it happens.

Phone calls are made using Verboice, the voice service component of our platform, which enables applications to make and receive phone calls. Verboice supports an unlimited number of phone lines, so Watchfire can make as many simultaneous calls as lines are available, reducing the response time even further. We are using VOIP (Voice over IP) phone lines, at a $20/month national flat-rate.

Text Messages are sent through Nuntium, our messaging service.

Other uses

Needless to say, there are countless other uses for this tool besides staffing disaster responses:

  • Activism organizations could have their database of members and issue a call when they are having an event. People could RSVP their participation through the keypad or by replying a text message
  • Requests to sign petitions could be sent through phone calls or text messages and registered users of the tool could “sign” through their phones
  • Distributed working groups could be activated to respond to events
  • Meetings or event could be organized in the same way


We welcome your feedback, ideas, needs and suggestion to make this a tool that can help you with your work. Don’t hesitate in leaving your comments here. Thanks!

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