The United Way of Santa Rosa County will take over ownership of Emergency Support Function 15 – volunteers and donations, said Kyle Holley, the director of development for the organization.

That means the county’s United Way will have a bigger role in local emergency response in the event of hurricane, tornado, terrorist attack or other disaster.

The United Way of Santa Rosa County is working with the Santa Rosa County Emergency Management Agency and the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, to help increase capacity for managing volunteers and donations after disasters to effectively and efficiently meet the needs of the impacted area within the county.

“So if something happened here, we would open as a disaster relief hub and people across the country would send supplies here,” Holley said. “It’s exciting that they’ve asked our local United Way to provide that link. It’s a really big function and we’re just really excited to get it.”

New responsibilities include collecting, organizing and distributing food, supplies, money, and volunteers on the ground in a disaster’s aftermath. Holley posed a hypothetical hurricane disaster scenario as an example. If a group from the Southern Baptist Convention arrives to do debris removal, the United Way would receive the volunteers at its headquarters, direct them to a site to begin working, assign sleeping quarters, and organize mealtimes, as well as coordinate with other volunteers to provide meals.

“Those kinds of volunteers can come into town, get processed, and get a job,” Holley said.

The State Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan requires local emergency management to work with county managements, and encourages public—private partnerships. Holley said that’s what drove the discussion. That, and hurricane season’s start date of June1.

A manifestation of public—private partnerships can be seen locally as the United Way’s new role includes a spot in the Emergency Operations Center operated in the Santa Rosa County Emergency Management Agency’s building following a disaster. That gives the United Way access to government data about viable roads, bridge safety and power capabilities after a disaster. It will have first-hand access to what needs to be done and can allocate incoming volunteers accordingly.

“Their capacity and internal networking will allow for a broader outreach for the community to set up and organize volunteer reception centers,” said Daniel Hahn, the plans chief for the county’s Emergency Management Agency. “It’s really a big deal.”

It’s also better for local taxpayers. After a disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, covers the majority of the cost of disaster relief. The state picks up the rest of the tab, assigning the county about 12.5 percent of the cost. But even that low percentage can quickly run into millions of dollars. Volunteer hours count toward the county’s share of the cost. With the United Way in charge of logging volunteer hours, more of the volunteer work being done can be recorded and submitted on behalf of the county’s financial contribution. 

Hahn said the United Way is a good fit for its new role because the organization is used to being a call center for people in need, as seen in the program First Call for Help. That’s a hotline to meet people needs, like food or diapers.

“It’s not a stretch to take that experience and transfer that to, ‘I need a tarp on my roof,’” Hahn said. “There’s a connection there. They take their daily function and transfer it into a response role. They’re going to be able to take that call for help and the way they do business daily, and transfer that into a recovery role.” 

The RSVP was previously in charge of Emergency Support Function 15 and will now move into a supporting and mentoring role. Holley said he’s excited about the collaboration.

“I just haven’t seen that kind of teamwork in a long time,” he said. “This is one of those things where we all become community partners. We’re very humbled and thankful for that.” 

Want to volunteer? The United Way of Santa Rosa County needs people to make donations, answer phone calls, and help with organization. Volunteers are also needed to meet community needs and distribute supplies from county distribution centers to people in need after a disaster. Contact the United Way Santa Rosa at (850) 623-4507. For more information about the Emergency Support Function 15, go to