By Gordon Williams

SamanthaThe goal of the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign is to reduce deaths from fire by installing smoke alarms in homes and apartments that need them. Since the Red Cross obviously can’t install smoke alarms in every U.S. home, how does it determine where they should go?

The answer comes from Samantha Harrison, a young volunteer with the South Sound Chapter of the Red Cross, headquartered in Tacoma and one of the seven chapters that make up the Northwest Region of the Red Cross. Using a computer-based mapping technology called GIS (for Geographic Information System), she turns masses of data into maps that help determine where smoke alarms are needed the most.



Samantha mines the data from many sources, from Google Maps to income data from the Census Bureau. Lower income communities, for instance, tend to have fewer working smoke alarms. Mobile home parks, similarly, often have large numbers of unprotected dwellings. Each stream of data adds a new layer to the map.

Once completed, the map created by GIS will provide the Red Cross with a great deal of useful information. It will pinpoint communities most in need of smoke alarms; show them to local fire departments and other organizations that can help install the alarms; and help locate meeting halls where installation teams can assemble and be briefed.

The Red Cross makes extensive use of GIS maps. They were widely used in managing the response to the three hurricanes that struck the U.S. in September. A local chapter might generate a map with one layer showing home fires and another showing where smoke alarms are in place.

For Samantha, creating GIS maps as a Red Cross volunteer is a perfect fit with her education and career plans. She is a recent graduate of Pacific Lutheran University, with a major in the geosciences. “That includes more than just geology,” she explains. In fact, it includes virtually all the sciences that deal with our earth.

Next came a stint with AmeriCorps, the government’s community service program.  As an AmeriCorps worker, Samantha helped tutor students at a Tacoma high school in math and science. When her term in the AmeriCorps program ended last August, she volunteered at the Red Cross chapter nearest her home, in University Place, WA.

IMG_2346_rc“Working with GIS at the Red Cross enables me to give back to the community using the skills that I possess,” she says. She sharpened those skills while in the AmeriCorps program by taking an online GIS certificate program from Eastern Washington University. At the Red Cross she is a local coordinator of the Home Fire Campaign. The first smoke alarms since she joined the Red Cross were installed on December 9.

Her career plans now involve finding a private sector job as an environmental consultant. “I want to spend a couple of years in the workforce and then go back to school and get an advanced degree,” she says.

In her view, volunteering at the Red Cross is benefitting her in two ways. First, she is honing the GIS skills she would expect to use as an environmental consultant. Second, she is gaining experience as a coordinator of the Home Fire Campaign. ‘“I am learning how to organize and manage a project from start to finish,” she says. “That should prove very valuable in my career.”’

Given all the Red  Cross has to offer her, Samantha expects to remain a volunteer as long as her career keeps her in the South Sound area.

What skill do you have that could be shared with the Red Cross? Help us make our communities more resilient and safe. Join us and become a volunteer today!




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