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Duty officer Kathy Mellinger: 'This is why we do this'

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Kathy Mellinger was a new duty officer when a call came in that still sticks with her. Two disaster action team members were reporting in after returning from a late-night fire at a remote farm. Because of the intensity of the fire and at the direction of the fire chief, the women parked a long way from the fire and walked to the scene in the dark, encountering a canal filled with water and plenty of other obstacles.

When they arrived, they found five young men wearing nothing but their pajamas, shivering in the cold as they watched everything they owned, including their life savings, burn. The responders wrapped them in blankets and comforted them. The farm workers spoke only a few words of English and were in complete disbelief that someone would come all this way in the dark to find them. They fought off tears as they tried to thank those Red Cross volunteers.

“I was getting a little choked up when the DAT (responder) said in a tired but confident voice, ‘This is why we do this,’” Mellinger said. “And I thought, ‘Yes it is.’” 

Mellinger joined the Red Cross of Greater Idaho and Montana in 2016, already with decades of volunteerism under her belt. She’s been a camp counselor and literacy tutor, a children’s grief support facilitator and an equine-assisted therapy assistant. 

The Mellingers always planned to retire to Montana because of family ties and love of the outdoors. They bought property in the 2000s and built an off-grid home north of Dillon, where she retired after 30 years as a chemist with Battelle Toxicology Northwest in Richland, Wash. After the move, she began looking online for a new volunteer opportunity. That’s when she found information about the Red Cross.

“I had not intended to be a duty officer when I looked through the opportunities but have always believed that a volunteer should go where they are needed, and at that time, I was told our region really needed duty officers,” she said. 

As a duty officer, Mellinger takes calls from the field during disasters such as a house fire — calls that often come from fire departments or emergency dispatch, but sometimes directly from the families themselves. She finds a local team who can respond, coordinates that deployment, helps chart a roadmap for client assistance and verifies the disaster responders make it home safely. 

“No two calls are ever the same,” she said. “You have to get the basics and decide how best to deal with it. You can’t write everything in the manual.”

She’s hospice trained and has a background in grief support, which has helped prepare her for the emotional ups and downs that come with being a duty officer. She also works part time in registration at the local emergency room – another good training ground for those in the world of disaster.  

Though she has never met any of the Red Cross disaster responders in person, she has tremendous respect for what they do and why they do it.

“I speak to some of them several times and I think ‘man, do you ever sleep,’” Mellinger laughed. 

“It’s a calling, a passion for them. They are genuine and caring. They know that if they don’t do it, that person is standing out there in one of the worst times of their life wondering why no one is out there to help them.”

Mellinger works the 6 a.m. to noon shift mostly, backed by her support team – her husband Sean and their two dogs, Karma and Jick. Sean keeps the computer and phones working while Karma and Jick get her up in the morning and lay on the office couch while she reviews cases before her shift starts.

“Spend 10 hours volunteering with Red Cross and you will have a 100 percent different view of the organization,” she said. “When you stop and think of the enormity of this organization and how well it functions with the number of volunteers it has, it boggles my mind. It will change your heart.”

In 2017, Mellinger also became a duty officer coach.

“I consider it a privilege to be a tiny part of the American Red Cross team,” she said.

“A lot of times when someone is in pain people shy away from them. We at the Red Cross go toward that person.”