By Gordon Williams
When Cameron Birge first volunteered for the American Red Cross early in 2016, it was to help put down roots in a city that was new to him and to rebuild ties to a country where he had not lived in close to 20 years.
These days Cameron is a volunteer disaster responder in the King County Chapter of the Red Cross, in Seattle. He also serves on the board of the chapter—one of the seven that make up the Red Cross Northwest Region. When he has some spare time he also makes preparedness presentations to Seattle area groups.
Given the demands of his day job, Cameron finds spare time hard to come by. A family situation brought him to Seattle. He found a job working for Microsoft. If you only think of software and internet browsers when you think of Microsoft, you aren’t thinking broadly enough. The company has a strong philanthropic side to it—using its wealth and its technology to aid victims of what are known as “sudden onset humanitarian disasters.” Hurricane Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico and left nearly 3,000 people dead in 2017, would be a classic example of such an event.
Such responses are complex, costly and stressful and it is Cameron’s job to manage them for Microsoft.
So what can Microsoft do when a humanitarian disaster strikes? After all it doesn’t have teams of trained disaster responders to send into the field. Well, being one of America’s wealthiest companies, it can help support the relief efforts of such responding agencies as the Red Cross. Beyond that, Cameron says, Microsoft has an employee giving program. “Employee contributions are matched dollar-for-dollar by the company,” he says.
Perhaps most importantly, is the advanced technology Microsoft can provide to help hard-hit areas manage their response to disaster. “What we can provide,” Cameron says, “is access to our people and our skill set.” Maria caused so much devastation in Puerto Rico that it took someone with the people and skills of Microsoft to create a program able to help the government keep track of recovery efforts.
Cameron did not start out with his eye set on aiding disaster victims. Born in Houston, he studied economics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
He went into the Army in 2000 as an infantry officer—serving tours in both Korea and Iraq. While his service branch was infantry, what really caught his interest was logistics. That is the art and science of getting critical supplies to where they are needed most when they are needed most. “During my time in the Army, I became a specialist in logistics,” he says. “It really appealed to me and I was successful at it.”
His masters degree, from Cranfield University in England, is in supply chain management—the supply chain being the flow of stuff from raw materials to finished product.
He left the Army in 2005 and began a 10-year hitch as an aid worker with the United Nations. He served in Jordan, Kenya and Mozambique. Most of his time, he says, was in South Sudan—a desperately poor East African country, torn by civil war. He did a bit of everything there—building roads, developing programs for feeding refugees. But his primary focus there was on logistics—actually getting the food to people who needed it desperately.
Food was delivered by whatever means needed—often air-dropped from planes or helicopters. Whatever it took. Cameron and his fellow aid workers had to keep the flow of food going.
Cameron left the United Nations after 10 years to join Microsoft. Volunteering at the Red Cross was a natural fit, after working with Red Cross aid workers at disaster scenes around the world. “I was officially a local so I felt I should be part of my local community’s emergency response,” he says.
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With the Red Cross in Seattle, Cameron is a member of a disaster action team (DAT). Those are teams of responders who provide assistance to victims at disaster scenes. Teams work in rotation. When his shift rolls around , Cameron will be on call for a full week—round the clock on weekends and from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. on weekdays. “We will usually go out to a fire or other disaster two or three times each week I am on duty,” he says.
Most of these events are small scale and local—nothing that would qualify as a humanitarian disaster. Even so, Cameron and his team are there to bring relief to where it Is needed. “We find people who have just barely escaped and they are unsure of how to take the next steps,” he says, “It is gratifying to be able to be there and help people take the first step toward recovery.”
Cameron enjoys teaching disaster preparedness but doesn’t have enough free time to do that as often as he would like.
When he can get free, Cameron likes to spend time on the hobby he loves most—scuba diving. He dives and helps teach others how to dive. Both his day job at Microsoft and his volunteer work with the Red Cross are stressful. “Diving gives me a break from everything ,” he says.