By Gordon Williams
There are American Red Cross volunteers who have deployed to disaster scenes three or four or even a dozen times over the years. And then there is Debbie Lutskas of Moses Lake WA who has deployed 38 times since she first joined the Red Cross in 2017. “From March to November 2020, there were only nine days when I was not on deployment,” she says.
It’s considerably more than a typical disaster volunteer workload, but Debbie welcomes and seeks out each opportunity to respond. And it’s not all she does for the Red Cross.
Every Red Cross chapter, including Debbie’s Greater Inland Northwest chapter, has Disaster Action Teams (DAT) which respond to incidents such as house fires. Debbie is both a DAT supervisor and a Duty Officer for her chapter. As Duty Officer, she fields calls for assistance and organizes the response by DAT units. As supervisor, she then directs the Red Cross response.
Her chapter’s DAT units are on-call 24-hours at a time, for as many shifts as they sign-up for each month. Once, when Red Cross resources were stretched thin, Debbie stayed on call every day, around-the-clock, for two months.
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She also serves on a regional Disability Integration Team, which supplies specialized equipment that Red Cross clients may need in a disaster response. “Maybe someone needs a wheelchair or there is a child with special needs,” she says. “We get them the equipment they need.”
Debbie’s commitment to serving others dates to her teenage years in Airway Heights WA, near Spokane. She was born in Maryland when her Air Force father was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base. She came to Washington in 1973 when her father’s last posting before retirement brought the family to the Spokane area.
When she was 18, she joined the Airway Heights volunteer fire company. “My dad had been a volunteer firefighter for several years, so I joined.” She was only the second female, and the youngest volunteer ever, to join the fire department. She also spent six years as an emergency medical technician and ambulance driver in Airway Heights.
After that, she turned to law enforcement. “I was a police dispatcher, a jail matron, a crime scene photographer, a bailiff and a court clerk,” she says. She also did whatever fingerprinting needed to be done.
She came to the Red Cross in 2017, just after Hurricane Harvey flooded Texas. She had been a candy-striper at a military hospital, but wanted to play a more active role in disaster response. “There was so much devastation from Harvey, and there were more hurricanes on the way,” she says. “I wanted to see what the Red Cross was all about.”
She attended a Red Cross recruiting session, liked what she saw and before long, was on a plane to Georgia to join the organization’s response to Hurricane Irma. “It took hours of driving around to find the shelter,” she says. “I made it just as the hurricane was hitting.”
Her first deployment in 2020 was to Texas after a tornado hit. After that she responded to tornadoes in Tennessee, flooding in Maryland, an explosion in Baltimore, wildfires in California (four different deployments to California in 2020) and more wildfires in Washington. “I also did a three-month virtual deployment to Michigan after a dam broke,” she says. Many deployments in 2020 were virtual, but some were “boots on the ground”.
On deployment, Debbie has worked in shelters, assessed damage at disaster scenes and provided site security. She is also a specialist in securing in-kind donations to the Red Cross. “Whatever they need, we find,” she explains.
As you would imagine, reflecting on her deployments in 2020 brings back many memories. One of the most vivid involves an incident that occurred while responding to a California wildfire. She was trying to reach a remote dwelling, high up a mountain, with only her vehicle’s GPS unit to guide her. “We were 5,000 feet up when I realized we couldn’t go any further,” she says. “The road was too narrow to turn around, so I had to back down a quarter mile on an old logging track before I had room to turn around.”
That is what Debbie Lutskas does for the Red Cross. She also talks about what the Red Cross has done for her.
“It has made me a better person. It lets me give back to the community by helping people whose lives have been totally destroyed.”Debbie Lutskas, American Red Cross volunteer