By Gordon Williams
American Red Cross chapters serve their communities in many ways — from teaching CPR and first aid to keeping hospitals stocked with human blood. But nowhere is the contact more hands on and personal than the aid Red Cross volunteers deliver to disaster victims.
Every Red Cross chapter has volunteer Disaster Action Teams (DAT) who rush to disaster scenes, day or night, to assist the victims of fires and floods, earthquakes and mudslides. DAT responders are often the first to bring comfort to people who are experiencing the worst day of their lives.
Of all the ways volunteers can serve their communities, few are as vital or as gratifying as serving as a Red Cross disaster responder. The Red Cross responds to nearly 70,000 disasters a year around the United States — home fires most often. Members of DAT teams leave their own homes to travel to disaster scenes. They can expect to find victims huddled outside a fire-gutted home where the dwelling and most of what was in it destroyed.
If being a Red Cross responder sounds like something I have experienced first-hand, it is. I have been a Red Cross volunteer since 2005, many of those years as a DAT responder in New York City. The Greater New York Region is the busiest among all Red Cross regions, responding to disasters more than 4,000 times a year.
I have personally worked at perhaps 1,000 fires plus storms, blackouts, building collapses and a gas explosion that obliterated two large apartment houses. I know what it is like to deliver Red Cross services to those who need them the most — when they need them the most.
Home fires are most frequent in winter, when furnaces, fireplaces and space heaters are in use. The Covid-19 pandemic has made things worse. We are home more, and more meals are cooked at home, with kitchens being the most fire-prone room in the house. It isn’t a question of whether Red Cross responders will be called to fire scenes, but when and how often.
Because the need for disaster responders is so great today, the Red Cross is putting special emphasis on recruiting and training more volunteers for the job.
During COVID-19, DAT volunteers deliver this support virtually, by working with the local fire department to connect with affected residents by phone or video call.
To get an idea of why the need for DAT responders is so great, consider that the U.S. has around 350,000 home fires a year. Those fires kill over 2,000 people a year, injure 11,000 and do over $7 billion in damage.
Unless you have experienced one, you can’t imagine how destructive a fire in the home can be.
A fire doubles in size every 30 seconds. As it spreads, it consumes everything in its path. I’ve been in burned-out homes where not a single piece of furniture was recognizable as such. What little that remained intact — clothing, a mattress, a child’s beloved toy — was soaking wet and reeking of smoke.
Here are just a few of the scenes I recall from my years as a DAT responder:
- An elderly couple, comforting each other as our Red Cross van pulled up. The husband had carried his disabled wife to safety but all they had accumulated over a lifetime —even the wife’s wheelchair — was destroyed.
- A fire that destroyed an apartment house and sent dozens of residents into the street on a bitter cold night — the survivors huddled under Red Cross blankets and clutching what they could save from the flames.
- A family with small children sitting in a kitchen — the only room in the house not destroyed by fire. One child clutched a Mickey Mouse doll given to her by a Red Cross responder from supplies typically carried in a Red Cross van.
The Red Cross works to save lives through its Home Fire campaign, launched in 2014. The goal of the campaign is to reduce home fire deaths and injuries by installing free smoke alarms in dwellings that don’t have them. But even this campaign can’t hope to eliminate home fires, and so there is a constant need for Red Cross DAT responders trained and ready to respond.
How does the Red Cross help disaster victims? Obviously, it can’t restore what was lost in a disaster. But Red Cross DAT teams can — and do — help people manage the critical first hours after disaster strikes.
The teams provide meals, clothing, emergency financial assistance and a safe place to sleep. They help victims deal with physical and mental health issues. Finally, Red Cross caseworkers can help victims make longer-term plans to get their lives back on track. The help is free to all who need it. It is paid for by gifts from donors big and small, from every walk of life.
If the idea of helping others when they need help the most appeals to you, go to redcross.org/volunteer for instructions on becoming a Red Cross volunteer. You will be trained and equipped to serve your community in ways that are both essential and deeply gratifying.