A new body of research recently released on the 2011 Rena disaster explores the resulting social, chemical, toxicological and ecological lessons of contamination and environmental recovery.

As part of the research published in the Royal Society's New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, Sarah Lockwood, a Tauranga-based University of Waikato PhD student, looked at Generation Y's volunteer response efforts during the Rena crisis.

The study addressed two key areas. How volunteering was conceptualised by youth volunteers involved in the Rena crisis and how the volunteers communicated and self-organised during the crisis.

The research findings illustrated the need to find ways to validate the contributions of youth volunteers in response to crises, and manage tensions between the Gen Y demographic group and official organisational responses.


"Youth volunteers often face a conundrum where commonly held negative associations of their age-group obscure the unique forms in which they might make a voluntary contribution to crisis events. Based on the findings, my plan is to remove negative connotations and archaic stereotypes often associated with youth volunteers and replace these with the proven, highly effective solutions, initiatives, and skills sets that youth volunteers offer during crisis events," said Ms Lockwood.

There was extremely limited research related to youth volunteers (aged 16-29) who engaged with crisis response so she hopes her findings will help demonstrate the high level organisational, communicative, and technical skills, intellect, and networking prowess youth volunteers offer.

Ms Lockwood said the self-organising behaviours of the youth volunteers during Rena emerged out of a resistance towards structured responses.

"After increasing public pressure from locals wanting to be involved in the clean-up, the official disaster response body decided to incorporate volunteers into its response plan. However, the 38 youth participants I interviewed as part of the research soon became frustrated with what they deemed as restrictive administrative processes hindering their ability to contribute. As a result, significant numbers of youth volunteers initiated their own self-organised volunteer efforts instead.

"These volunteer efforts ranged from informal gatherings of Facebook friends for beach cleans, surf groups rallying together and cleaning debris in acutely affected nearby islands, to more formal, organised fundraisers and the provision of support for under-resourced areas of the community."

Ultimately, both types of responses were successful in their own ways, she said.

"Self-organised efforts were particularly attractive among youth volunteers because they offered flexibility, required minimal administrative processes, and fostered an environment of innovation and creativity. The volunteers' youthful energy and technological aptitude additionally drove their self-organised responses."

Technology also played a significant role in the self-organising, as nearly all efforts were initiated via digital media.

The creation of both physical and virtual spaces provided youth volunteers with areas to communicate their feelings and actions about the crisis, without censorship from officials. It was also a digital space to congregate and discuss ways of how to get involved. A prime example of this was the Rena Kai Run Facebook page, she said.

"In response to a throwaway comment from a contract worker cleaning the beach that 'he hadn't eaten all day', an 18-year-old female created a Facebook page to draw attention to this issue. Within three days over 435 people had joined the page and were assisting efforts in collecting donated and purchased food from the community and delivering it to the hordes of hungry contract and volunteer workers."

Lockwood plans to use her research more widely to help inform policy and assist public and private sector organisations affected by crisis events so that communities can benefit from a far greater crisis response outcome.

Lockwood is in already in demand as a result of her research and presented at the International Communication Association Conference in Japan earlier this month. She also recently presented at the People in Disasters Conference in Christchurch, where she says, overwhelmingly the message was clear - "first responders, who are typically unskilled, volunteering public are incredibly important to the response outcome and their stories, experiences and processes need to be captured for future learning and integration."