Schwarzenegger's Radical Volunteers

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Justin Sullivan / Getty

Volunteers wash an oil-soaked bird at the San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care Center November 16, 2007 in Cordelia, California.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did something radical on Feb. 26, 2008. He announced that he would create a cabinet-level post to manage California volunteers — elevating the head of his volunteerism commission to a prominent executive role in disaster planning and response.

Why is this radical? Because even though regular people do the majority of rescuing after almost every major disaster, they are the last people to be intelligently enrolled in the process. Emergency managers and professional responders do not trust the public as much as they should, nor do politicians. "The first responder community — fire and police — would like you to believe that, without them, you're not going to survive," says Eric Holdeman, who spent 11 years running emergency management operations in Seattle before leaving in 2007. "But the reality is that there are not enough of them to be able to respond to regional, large incidents."

California has learned the painful way. "Government can't do it alone, and that's why I think the governor's smart to elevate it — to say, this matters. Citizens have to be at the table," says Karen Baker, the head of California Volunteers, who is now the secretary for service and volunteering — the name of the governor's radical new post. "Everything I'm saying is obvious. That's why it's brilliant."

The talk of a revolution began during the wildfires that swept through Southern California in October 2007, destroying half a million acres of land. There, Schwarzenegger saw that he had a force multiplier in the legions of regular people who showed up to help. "He got to see at one of the shelters this incredible volunteer who was literally getting 100 senior citizens care on his own," Baker says. "He was on his phone, trying to find hospitals — there were seniors who were going to die because they couldn't get dialysis. The governor was blown away by this."

Then in November of 2007, Schwarzenegger found himself on the scene of another catastrophe, as California governors are wont to do. An oil spill in San Francisco Bay leaked 58,000 gallons of black oil into the water, killing at least 400 birds. Without being asked, thousands of locals showed up to help. Fishermen emptied out their boats and put on their gloves; families came with buckets and Kitty Litter spades. "Two thousand people showed up and said, we'll do hazardous waste removal," says Baker. But most of them were chased away. "All these federal and state agencies said, oh no, we don't need volunteers." Buddhist monks were arrested crossing police lines to help clean up the beach. (Click here for video of subversive citizen beach-cleaning.)

That's about the time when Schwarzenegger called Baker and told her to get up there. "He was there," she says. "He could see that we had this problem of what we call guerrilla volunteers. He said, Karen I need you to get down to Treasure Island, which is where incident command center was."

When she got there, Baker had a two-hour meeting with Schwarzenegger, which is, for the governor, exceptionally long. Then she started investigating the problems. She found a regulation requiring 24 hours of training for anyone doing hazardous waste material — which was a major barrier for volunteers. She got it down to four hours, and about 2,000 people got the shorter training. About 1,000 were deployed, and the rest will be ready to go next time.

Schwarzenegger plans to create a disaster corps of volunteers. Already, Baker has been getting calls from other agencies about how they can mobilize volunteers. "He's going to see that this resonates with the people, just like the green issues did." It helps that his wife, Maria Shriver, is the honorary chair of California Volunteers and a longtime champion of public service. Already, other states are paying attention. "I think it's a brilliant move. California is going to be in a great position to benefit," says Wendy Spencer, CEO of Volunteer Florida. "We'll all be watching with interest."

The Unthinkable, TIME staff writer Amanda Ripley's book on human behavior in disasters, is due out in June.