In Stark Contrast: From Red Cross Volunteer to Home Fire Victim

By: Keith Waterhouse, American Red Cross

As a life-long volunteer, Laurie Briggs personifies the meaning of giving. Whether she’s cooking meals for the homeless, coordinating a local sock drive, or responding to a fire in her role as a  Red Cross volunteer, it’s to help others in need.  Laurie’s passion for volunteering was passed down by her parents; both long-term volunteers and active in community service. After witnessing the appreciation of those they helped and her parents’ own gratification, she knew volunteering would become a part of her life. When Laurie had children of her own, she began her journey into volunteership. She participated in the local Girl and Boy Scout troops, her kids’ Parent/Teacher Organizations, the local Little League, and many other causes that benefit others.  Many years later, that spirit of giving continues as both her children and grandchildren actively participate in some of Laurie’s volunteer activities.

But it’s Laurie’s Red Cross history that’s most significant. Her first experience with the Red Cross was as an employee. For a short time, she was an Assistant Office Manager until an overseas move prompted her resignation. “It was fun. I worked out of a tiny building in New London,” said Laurie. It wasn’t until a few years later, however, when she returned home that her tenure would begin as a Red Cross volunteer. As a Disaster Action Team (DAT) member, Laurie’s comforted countless victims of disasters. She’s been

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Laurie Briggs in her home office, the room where she first smelled the smoke.

trained in disaster response, casework, client intake, follow-up work, and many other important facets that characterize a DAT member. Her dedication goes beyond the confines of the victim/responder relationship, too. Over the years, Laurie’s active participation in disaster response has allowed her to excel at the intake process; the initial encounter the victim has to the Red Cross.  It’s the critical juncture of connecting a fire victim to the Red Cross immediately following an event. But more than that, she’s learned to balance the job at hand with human emotion when dealing with victims. “Although the Red Cross volunteers have a job to do on-scene, it’s more than that,” says Laurie. “We are also there to comfort them. There have been many tender moments.” When prompted to reflect upon her first fire as a Red Cross volunteer, she responds: “It was a chaotic, multi-family fire with numerous families, the scene was likened to organized confusion,” as she recalls. “It was a little overwhelming the first time. But once you are there, no one is going to turn you away,” says Laurie.

With such a history of giving, you can imagine the irony when Laurie was no longer the volunteer, but the one needing assistance. April 3, 2016 was a typical Sunday in the Briggs’ Groton home. An active household of seven (Laurie shares the home with her daughter, son-in-law, and her four grandchildren), the family spent the day as  they’ve always had- Sunday services in the morning, abundant family time, and the entire household sharing dinner.

Around 9:30 p.m., with the family winding down for the night, the unmistakable scent of smoke alerted Laurie to the presence of an active fire in the home’s garage. Instinctively, she marshaled the entire family and made their way to their predetermined muster area at a neighboring home. With all accounted for and no injuries among them, Laurie pondered the good fortune of her situation. With no working smoke alarms in the home, she knew the outcome could have been much worse.

In her seventeen years as a Red Cross volunteer, she’s witnessed the devastation home fires cause and the many injures that can occur. In shock from the fire, even her extensive training as a volunteer and experience weren’t enough to overcome the emotional event. Although thankful for the work of the emergency responders and her supportive neighbors, it was the Red Cross that Laurie remembers most. They’re impartial service of helping anyone in need, regardless of their social background, is an awe-inspiring attribute to their mission. And that’s exactly how she felt when she was helped by the Red Cross. “When I became the victim and I saw the Red Cross people coming to help me, it was comforting,” recalls Laurie. The help she received as a fire victim was overwhelming and reinvigorated the appreciation for her volunteership, and of the many others who serve in the Red Cross.

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Laurie points out the area in the garage, below her office, where the fire started.

In the following days, and after regaining her composure, Laurie embarked on the monumental task of getting her life back together. Fortunately, between homeowner’s insurance and the assistance provided by the Red Cross, her displacement was manageable for the whole family.  After many months of living in temporary housing, Laurie and her family were allowed back into their home. Laurie was asked the simple question of: What is the Red Cross to you? Not surprisingly, she ardently responds, “Family.” Laurie’s now a proponent of having working smoke alarms in the home. “Fire was the furthest thing from my mind. I’m now an advocate for working smoke detectors and insurance,” says Laurie.

Home fires are more common than people may realize and being prepared is important. The most common disaster threat faced in the U.S. is actually home fire and according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), 60 percent of home fire deaths occur in homes with no working smoke alarms. Although Laurie’s fire didn’t result in any injuries or fatalities, these statistics are disheartening because of the simplicity of having working smoke alarms in an occupied home.

Laurie’s story may be unique among the teams of Red Cross volunteers, it’s all too common across the many communities in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Fire safety is a high-priority of the Red Cross and their home fire campaign is proof. Established in 2014 to reduce fire-related deaths and injuries by 25% by 2020, it’s an initiative that works. To date, over 702,060 smoke alarms have been installed, free of charge, across the US. As a result, 159 lives have been saved by early detection as reported by the media.

You can help make your home and family safer by scheduling a free home fire safety visit with the Red Cross. The Red Cross will visit your home, install free smoke alarms and educate you and your family on fire safety and help your family make an escape plan. To schedule and appointment visit: http://www.redcross.org/local/connecticut/home-fire-safety-visit or call 877-287-3327 and choose option 1.

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