How the Red Cross staffs disaster deployment teams

By Gordon Williams

Based on the latest count, more than two dozen Red Cross Northwest Region volunteers provided emergency assistance to victims of the most recent California wildfires. It was the region’s Workforce Engagement Team that ensured volunteers were trained and ready to deploy when the Red Cross was needed.

Anne Ricciardi, Disaster Cycle Services Workforce Engagement Manager for the Northwest Region, had been warned she would probably need to rush volunteers to the fire scene. Based on that warning, she assembled a standby team ready to take off for California.

The request came via email on a Saturday morning. By Saturday afternoon, the standby team was en route. That proved to be a challenge, with heavy traffic on flights bound for the fire zone. “Even so,” Ricciardi says, “we had people moving to California within six hours of being requested.”

There are lots of things people can do when they volunteer for the Red Cross. One choice is Disaster Cycle Services (DCS). The cycle includes teaching preparedness to avoid disasters, providing assistance at disasters and helping with post-disaster recovery.

Once volunteers have chosen to participate in Disaster Cycle Services, they will further be asked if they want to stay close to home or are willing to deploy to disaster scenes that could be as close as a county or two away or as distant as the other side of the country. Volunteers who do hope to deploy are told they must be trained in the skills they will need to use in the field; including how to work in a shelter. 

Workforce Engagement as a stand-alone Red Cross function is fairly new. Ricciardi says that until a few years ago, each chapter had its own way of screening and qualifying new recruits. “Workforce Engagement gives a more formalized structure to it,” she says.

Ricciardi says that in all, the Northwest Region has about 2,800 volunteers; of that total, 1,300 have signed up for DCS.

There is no predicting when and where Red Cross volunteers will be sent. There are quiet periods with no deployments, then there was the period in the fall of 2017 when hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria sent thousands of Red Cross volunteers to disasters thousands of miles away. Ricciardi says that in busy periods there have been as many as 100 volunteers from the Northwest Region deployed.

Ricciardi will often have some inkling of when volunteers are needed. Hurricanes give many days warning before they hit land. California officials knew quickly that the autumn 2019 wildfires were going to be brutal, and that outside help would likely be needed.

When she does have advance word, as she did with the California fires, Ricciardi polls her volunteers to see who would be willing to deploy, if asked. Those willing are placed on a standby list. “When you are on the standby list, you understand that if deployed, you have 24 hours from the time we ask until you’re on a plane,” she says.

When a call for volunteers comes in, Ricciardi can expect to spend hours on the telephone. “For every person we deploy, I can expect to make five to 10 telephone calls,” she says. It is easier to find shelter workers than to find managers skilled at mass feeding. Volunteers tend to favor distant disasters over something closer to home.

“Deploying just few miles away isn’t as glamorous as going to one of the major disasters they are seeing on TV,” she says. The Red Cross Pacific Division, of which our Northwest Region is a part, includes the Pacific Islands. So, volunteers from the region have deployed to such exotic locales as Guam and American Samoa.

One of the most difficult disasters to staff, she says, was an apartment house fire in Seattle. Volunteers were already deployed to other disasters, and it was a challenge finding enough people to keep the shelter open. “I really, really struggled to find the people,” she says.

Until two-and-a-half years ago, Ricciardi was herself a Red Cross volunteer who worked with other volunteers at the Kitsap & Olympic Peninsulas Chapter in Bremerton, WA. Then she was hired as Workforce Engagement Manager, and became a full-time Red Cross employee. Ricciardi says that as far back as high school, though, she found herself interested in disaster response.

Let’s say you do have an interest in deploying. If so, what should you do?

  • First, if you’re not already, become a Red Cross volunteer. Visit www.RedCross.org to get started.
  • Then, whether new or an existing volunteer, training is a critical part of the process. Sheltering, feeding, driving, and all disaster responder roles require up-to-date Red Cross training prior to deployment.
  • Finally, update your availability on the Volunteer Connection website (you’ll learn what that is when you become a volunteer) or respond when Workforce Engagement sends a phone or text message asking about availability,” Ricciardi says.

Ready to pack your bags?

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