Large disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes and floods may grab the headlines, but the biggest disaster threat to American families is home fires. The instances of such fires have gone up sharply this year across the country, with Central Florida alone posting a 53 percent increase in Red Cross responses to home fires over the same time in 2017.
By January 29, Red Cross disaster volunteers had responded to 132 fires, compared to 86 the prior year. The number of individuals assisted in these cases rose from 369 to 548 – an increase of 48 percent.
After a home fire, Red Cross volunteers are often among the first on the scene. They offer the same compassionate care to our neighbors devastated by fire as they would for a natural disaster – that is, offering emotional support, helping those affected to find a place to stay and assisting with recovery.
Most people “have no clue -- they’re surprised” to see a Red Cross team arrive, night or day, at a local fire to help those affected in the immediate aftermath, said David Beck, a volunteer with the Tampa Bay Chapter since August. He went on nearly a dozen fire calls in the first three weeks of January.
“I met one man, a big guy … and he just broke down. The emotions of having the fire and having someone help out like that … it was just overwhelming for him,” he added.
David said he was expecting that unusually cold weather in Florida this January would prompt an increase in the use of space heaters and so result in more fires. But all of his calls were caused by something else, from air conditioners and a clothes dryer to a cat knocking over a candle, starting a blaze that destroyed four units in an apartment building.
Rick Nelson, a disaster volunteer in the Southwest Florida Chapter, says kitchen fires seemed to be the biggest problem in his area in January. They included short-circuited microwave oven and cases in which people were frying something on the stovetop and left it unattended.
Rick says it’s difficult to see people lose their homes, belongings and sometimes their family pets in these residential fires.
“It’s sad what you have to face on some of these calls, but it’s also very gratifying to be able to help people because they’re thankful that we’re there to provide immediate assistance,” Rick says. “I tell them ‘don’t thank me – the people to thank are the American people who donate to the Red Cross’ because they make all this possible.”
The responders say the spike in the number of fires is creating a much greater demand on them, the dispatchers who send them out, caseworkers who follow up with the clients and others down the line in the organization.
“I have actually lost count,” said Sandy Moyer of the Mid-Florida Chapter say of the number of times she went out in January, several times to electrical fires. “It’s unusual to be called out twice in one day and then day after day,” said the 10-year volunteer, “We’re tired.”
Patty Finlan, Sandy’s partner on their usual two-person response team noted they are eager to train additional responders to help manage the demand.
The Red Cross has many volunteer opportunities related to home fire preparedness and response. In addition to the disaster teams, dispatchers and caseworkers who respond after a fire, other volunteers make it their mission to help families and communities prepare for disasters through the Home Fire Campaign and youth Pillowcase Project. To learn more about volunteering with the Red Cross, go to www.redcross.org/volunteer.
You can also help people affected by disasters large and small by making a donation to Red Cross Disaster Relief. Visit www.redcross.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.