By Gordon Williams
When Jamie Hill first joined the American Red Cross in 2010, her goal was to aid disaster victims — helping in those critical first hours after disaster strikes. A family friend was a deputy fire chief in Kittitas County WA, and Jamie found his stories of firefighters in action compelling.
“I wanted to do something that felt meaningful to me.”Jamie Hill, Red Cross Disaster Program Manager in King County
Looking back at Jamie’s record with the Red Cross over the past decade, you would have to say she has achieved that goal and then some.
Jamie has played a number of roles within the Red Cross Northwest Region. But every role has served the Red Cross mission of aiding the victims of fires and floods, storms, and earth slides. These days she is Disaster Program Manager (DPM) for the Red Cross King County chapter, headquartered in Seattle.
As King County DPM she oversees the chapter’s Disaster Action Teams (DAT) — Red Cross volunteers who leave home at all hours of the day and night to help those afflicted by disaster. Jamie says there are 50 or so DAT volunteers in King County. “We respond to disasters around 200 times a year,” she says.
Most responses are to fires — mostly in family homes but increasingly to apartment houses. A house fire can mean three or four people in need of help. An apartment house fire can produce dozens of individuals needing Red Cross assistance. “In 2021, we had seven apartment fires that moved up to a Level 2,” Jamie says. A Level 2 response will cost the Red Cross between $10,000 and $50,000 to provide all the aid needed.
DAT teams are made up entirely of volunteers. Major disasters will bring Red Cross professionals to the scene, but 90 percent of all Red Cross workers are volunteers drawn by the same desire to help that motivated Jamie Hill.
In King County, a DAT team of three or four volunteers will be on call for a full week, every six weeks. “They are on call from 5 pm to 8:30 am, every night for a week,” Jamie says. Team members would typically stay in their homes until called to respond. There is a separate team of daytime responders as well, ready to attend to events that occur when other DAT responders are at their daytime jobs. Some may be on call for as few as four hours a day.
Each King County DAT team has a Duty Officer — a virtual volunteer role that supports the DAT volunteers and requires more extensive Red Cross training.
Fire companies and other emergency services call the duty officer when a Red Cross response is indicated. The duty officer, Jamie says, “will receive the phone call, verify that the Red Cross is needed, and call out the members of the responding team.” There are ranks within the DAT teams. A newcomer will be a DAT trainee, then a DAT service associate, and finally a DAT supervisor. “Your level within DAT depends on experience and the classes you have taken,” Jamie says.
“Our DAT responders are some of the most compassionate and dedicated people I know, and I have every confidence in their ability to provide excellent service to our clients,” she adds.
While the number of Red Cross responses has stayed high through the COVID pandemic, the ranks of DAT responders have thinned considerably. Jamie would feel more comfortable if she had more trained responders to send into the field.
Anyone with time to give can volunteer as a DAT responder. Once you volunteer, the Red Cross will provide extensive training. You will then be sent out with more experienced responders to learn how things are done in the field. A trained responder will have taken as many as 10 Red Cross courses — learning how the Red Cross uses technology in disaster response.
What does Jamie look for in screening volunteers? “Compassion, because you will be helping people on possibly the worst day of their lives,” she says. “You must also be comfortable with Red Cross technology, and you must be willing to drop what you are doing during the day or get up in the middle of the night to respond.”
Hill concedes that disaster response is an acquired taste. Some volunteers find it compelling and keep responding year after year for decades. Some find the chaos and human drama of a disaster overwhelming and move to other Red Cross service lines (blood services, for instance, or Service to the Armed Forces). “Until you actually try it, you won’t know whether you love it or hate it,” Jamie says.
To learn more about volunteering for the Red Cross — as a DAT responder or in any other service role — go to the Red Cross website at redcross.org and click on “volunteer”.