By Thomas J. Kunicki, American Red Cross volunteer
As an American Red Cross volunteer, are you looking for something to keep you busy during the prolonged "blue sky" periods? For those who participate in a Disaster Action Team (DAT), the sky may still be blue, but the willingness to respond to disasters, from single-family home fires to multiple unit apartment evacuations, is a day-to-day preoccupation.
Red Cross DAT teams respond to the immediate needs of those affected by personal disasters, most often home fires. Disasters don’t stop during a pandemic. Since the onset of COVID-19, DAT volunteers have taken the lead in developing modified procedures through which teams can continue to provide help and hope after emergencies, and communicate virtually with affected individuals, providing emotional care as well as financial assistance to help them recover after a disaster.
In some Red Cross chapters, such as in Orange County, DAT responds by assembling ad hoc teams composed of volunteers drawn from a standby cohort of qualified candidates, who for each incident are the first to respond to a chapter-wide request for assistance. In other chapters, such as San Diego and Imperial Counties, volunteers are organized into pre-existing DAT teams that respond as a group according to a pre-determined shift schedule.
Steve Deal, a Red Cross volunteer for five years, is the DAT coordinator in San Diego and Imperial Counties and is a lead on one of the teams. Many will identify with the story of how Steve became a Red Cross volunteer. "It's kind of funny, I went to a business event that had a bunch of awards for non-profit people, and the moderator was the CEO of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Red Cross,” says Steve. “I didn't know anything about the Red Cross, but I liked him, and he seemed to have his stuff together. So I thought, what's that about? So I called the Red Cross, and they said come in and we'll tell you what it's all about. So I did, and I walked out with a badge and a code to the building alarm, and I'm driving home, thinking what just happened?''
Steve had already completed a 30-year career as the CEO of his own technology-oriented company, so he wasn't looking to get involved in a managerial position at the Red Cross. On the other hand, he was attracted to the action-oriented, frontline work afforded by DAT. "This was a new challenge for me,” he says. “When you go out on a DAT call, you have no idea what you're going to be dealing with, and you are working with people from every walk of life on a human level, without bias or preconceived judgments.”
Steve is also active in Disaster Preparedness presentations (an ounce of prevention...). The relationship to DAT is obvious. "I have worked somewhere between a hundred to a hundred fifty fires,” says Steve. “So, I can give examples from real experience, and that adds a lot of power to your presentation. Our goal is not to be merely entertaining. We want to stir the audience to take preventative action. Through examples, I can interject passion into my presentation, and I think that helps."
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on both DAT and Disaster Preparedness instruction.
In a virtual presentation, it's harder to read what the audience is doing, and without immediate feedback an instructor may not necessarily be sure that they are synchronized with the audience.
“I don't think there's any way that a virtual presentation can attain the same level of involvement as you achieve in a personal presentation,” says Steve. Still, there are many positives to virtual presentations. “Certainly, some people do attend who maybe couldn't attend otherwise. Perhaps we get some audience members that we wouldn't have gotten otherwise."
In the case of DAT, the transition to a virtual response was a team effort that required a new and innovative approach. “The transition to RCcare [online management tool] worked much better than I thought it would. We are getting the job done and maintaining the safety of our workers and clients through the new process. In some ways, it's actually better. We certainly respond faster. Sometimes we may respond too soon, too fast, because there's still ongoing action going at the fire. Everyone is tied up with the immediate reaction to the disaster, and there we are on the phone, trying to get their attention."
Virtual disaster responses have also presented other changes. "Another big concern is that we're missing things that you couldn't possibly know through a virtual response. Sometimes there are affected individuals, other than the spokesperson, who are having issues or problems, and you can't see them. In a physical DAT response, you'll often spot someone who needs health or mental health assistance….You don't see all of that on a virtual incident, so there's a higher risk to not really catch all of these collateral issues." Even with these new challenges, DAT volunteers continue to provide the vital services to people affected by disasters. This includes providing a variety of resources, including emergency housing assistance, health services, emotional support, recovery services, community partner referrals and more.
Steve has thoroughly enjoyed his Red Cross experience thus far. “The Red Cross is unique, in that there are so many different specialties, so many different ways to become involved,” he says. “If you're analytical or action-oriented, a numbers person or a people person, there's going to be place for you in the Red Cross. I like the Red Cross in part because of this diversity; if you can't find something you like to do in the Red Cross, you're just not looking."
The need for DAT members is critical, so if you too would like to volunteer for a frontline, action-oriented position that assists the members of your community on a daily basis, whether the sky is blue or not, then you should think about DAT.
To become a Red Cross volunteer or to learn more about what volunteer opportunities are available, visit redcross.org/volunteer.