Despite Social Distancing Measures, Red Cross Volunteers Still Deliver Help and Hope to the Community
By Jonathan Sandstrom, American Red Cross
These are trying times in the United States and across the globe.
The world has changed dramatically as we try to halt the spread of COVID-19. One of the things left unchanged is the need for the Red Cross to respond to disasters. Unfortunately, home fires continue while we are quarantining at home. Home fires and disasters are still occurring, and the Red Cross is still responding, albeit in a different way.
On average, the Red Cross in Connecticut and Rhode Island responds to about 1,000 disasters each year, the majority of which are home fires. Before COVID-19, a typical Disaster Action Team (DAT) response to a home fire would necessitate the following protocol: An on-call Red Cross Disaster Duty Officer (DDO) would receive a request to help families after a home fire. The DDO would validate the request for assistance through Incident Command with the on-scene fire department. Then a Disaster Action Team would be dispatched to the scene of the fire.
Once there, the DAT team would conduct a damage assessment, interview the families
impacted, provide emotional support and comfort through both words and items including blankets, personal care items and stuffed animals for any children involved. The team would also provide financial assistance, so residents would have a place to stay for a few nights, would replace prescription medications and provide a recovery envelope with necessary information and community resources to help on the road to recovery. About 48 hours after the fire, a Red Cross volunteer caseworker would call the families to follow up on their recovery progress and see if they could help provide additional referrals or support.
Changing Times Call For a Dynamic Response
In this new operating environment, nearly all of these steps are done virtually, according to Steve Skolnick, Regional Red Cross Disaster Action Team Coordinator. “Now, our teams
rely on information provided by Incident Command,” Skolnick said. “The Duty Officer receives information on the number of people impacted, on the livability of the property and contact information for those affected. The Duty Officer provides this information to the Disaster Action Team who then calls the families, using video chat where available, and establishes a location where the financial assistance and recovery envelopes can be delivered using social distancing measures, and sometimes even utilizing FedEx for delivery.”
While this is not the ideal way to provide help and hope after a family has lost everything, the important thing to realize is the Red Cross is still able to provide comfort, just in a different way.
“I feel proud we are continuing to provide the much-needed assistance to those who need it,” said Steve. “This is an extremely difficult time, it is challenging to comfort the fire victims over the phone, but we are doing the best we can and those impacted understand this. I believe we will discover some of the tactics we have developed under this environment may be used in the future to more efficiently serve impacted residents.”
Disaster Action Team Coordinator and all-around DAT extraordinaire, Amy Thomas, who volunteers in Western Connecticut, agrees. “We’re still offering and delivering the same service, appropriate funds, referrals, follow-up casework and hope. It’s just done in a different way,” Amy said. “I feel what makes the virtual plan work is there is a plan, communication and we stress calmness.”
Essentially, the process for our virtual home fire response is the same as what Amy has experienced working as a virtual caseworker when responding to a large-scale national disaster. “The key is good communication and a well thought out procedure on how to help the clients. With those key components in play, it doesn’t matter if I’m sitting at my kitchen table helping someone in Waterbury, Connecticut or Houston, Texas.”
Adapting to change
Each day, sometimes each hour, it seems as though something changes as the world continues to evolve, adapt and respond to COVID-19. Red Crossers continue to review and refine our response protocols to align with our communities and to meet the needs of those who need us most. Jamie Lynch, a Disaster Action Team Leader in Rhode Island, has responded to home fires in this new COVID-19 operating environment. “Recently, we had a large fire of 15 units in Providence,” Jamie said. “With our procedures, we interviewed all the residents by phone and dropped off a client assistance card to each of them. The successful component to all of this is the team we created for this process. We had multiple virtual caseworkers with multiple phone numbers so each resident could be helped all at the same time.”
While teamwork and flexibility are key components to the success of the virtual disaster response, one signature component is hard to part with: “The Red Cross Hug.” “With our
traditional response to home fires myself and other volunteers love to give hugs and comfort the residents as best as we can during this tragic moment in their life,” Lynch said. “Now, with the pandemic we must social distance ourselves from those residents, but still provide comfort in many other ways. It can be hard for some of us to not to give hugs and show comfort for those residents, but I can surely say even with social distancing we still provide our services and mission to our clients and they are very understanding.”
In addition to continuing to provide comfort and hope to those who need it most, safety is of the utmost importance for Red Cross volunteers and those we serve. Bob Partington, Disaster Response Team Leader and facilities volunteer in Rhode Island, helps to keep our volunteers safe as they respond in the COVID-19 environment, making sure equipment is wiped down and properly sanitized after a response. “You have to make sure the teams are kept safe by keeping the distance and all the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are being used appropriately,” Partington said. Steve echoes the importance of DAT responder safety. “The Red Cross has been working well together across the country to maintain our delivery of services while doing everything we can to keep the responders and clients as safe as possible. Safety First – Mission Always.”
Despite all the changes and challenges, Red Cross volunteers are out there every day. From March 1 – April 15, 2020 the Red Cross in Connecticut and Rhode Island has responded to nearly 150 home fires and will continue to answer the call, changing and adapting along the way to deliver the mission.
“I am humbled by the willingness of Red Cross volunteers to always help those in need,” Amy said. “I continuously hear ‘I will do what I can, let me know how I can help’. I am proud to stand beside and work with other Red Cross volunteers, continuing to do what we do best: helping to alleviate pain to those in need and offering hope for tomorrow as we help them along the road to recovery.”
For more information on how you can bring comfort and hope to those in need through the Red Cross visit RedCross.org/Volunteer.