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Wildfire Story: How We Bring Relief to Those in Need

My work was, and chiefly has been to get timely supplies to those needing

“…My work was, and chiefly has been to get timely supplies to those needing,” said Clara Barton in an interview published in the New York Sun on January 10, 1908. “It has taught me the value of Things. They have lost all. They want food, clothing, shelter, medicines, and a few calm practical persons to administer them. This seems to have been my work.”

The early American Red Cross, under Clara Barton’s leadership, relied on wagons and ambulances drawn by horses and mules to deliver supplies and comfort to wounded Union soldiers in the US Civil War. Starting with a voluntary, independent relief organization to collect and distribute supplies to the wounded from the first battle of Bull Run, she was able to convince US Surgeon General William A. Hammond to issue her a general pass in July 1862 to travel with army ambulances “for the purpose of distributing comforts for the sick and wounded and nursing them.”

Barton collected some relief articles herself, appealed to the public for others, and learned how to store and distribute them. Besides supplies, Barton offered personal support to the men in hopes of keeping their spirits up: she read to them, wrote letters for them, listened to their personal problems, and prayed with them.

In the 150 years since the fledgling American Red Cross started providing relief to those in need, the mission has not changed but the methods and techniques have evolved with the times. Today the Red Cross responds to natural and man-made disasters with a fleet of Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) and trained relief workers. These red and white “box” trucks, emblazoned with the American Red Cross logo and “Disaster Relief”, are mobile feeding and supply vehicles that carry food, water, and cleanup supplies directly to residents in neighborhoods that have been affected by fires, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes. The disaster relief work being done following the most destructive wildfires that Colorado has ever seen that affected thousands of families and homes is a good example of the continuing work of the Red Cross first begun by Clara Barton.

Organizing the ERV Relief Effort

It takes a coordinated effort of many hands to field ERVs into the neighborhoods where they are needed for effective disaster relief. It begins with the call to assemble crews and deploy individual ERVs from their home chapters to the disaster scene, often many states away. Once in the disaster area, it takes the talent and organizing skills of someone like Todd Vesely to pull it all together.

“My job as the ERV manager on the Colorado wildfires operation is to see the jobs that need to be done and then get it done,” said Vesely.

Vesely is the key to assigning crews to individual ERVs, making assignments for their routes and the supplies that they will carry, organizing the stocking of each ERV and the movement of supplies from the warehouse to where they are needed, monitoring the maintenance and paperwork to keep the fleet of vehicles running, handling the personnel issues that are inevitable with a large crew of volunteers, and getting everything done on schedule. He also works with others at the Disaster Relief headquarters to coordinate assignments for outreach teams including client case workers, mental health workers and health workers who are also providing services to devastated neighborhoods. Vesely works with the Red Cross’ external partners to confirm which neighborhoods will be opened to returning residents and Red Cross crews.

Vesely has been a volunteer with the Nebraska chapter of the Red Cross for 1 ½ years, following his retirement after 20 years in the US Marine Corps. This is his fourth disaster deployment with the Red Cross.

“I started as an ERV driver and must have done something right,” said Vesely, “because they keep asking me to do more. I am now managing the ERV program here for the Colorado Springs wildfires.”

His motto for running an efficient, smooth operation? “A little praise goes a long way,” said Vesely. “Our volunteers are already motivated to help others – I just try to set the stage so that they can do their jobs, praise them when they do them right, and help point them in the right direction when there are problems. There are very few problems with our volunteers – they are a great bunch of people.”

He added that the Red Cross family reminds him in many ways of his service family – dedicated to getting the job done.

Clara Barton and her early American Red Cross workers would be proud of the work that Vesely and the other volunteers have been doing to provide relief in the aftermath of the devastating Colorado wildfires. It is, after all, the work that she chose to do, and which the Red Cross today continues.