By Gordon Williams
Look at the big picture and you can see why utility company Avista and the American Red Cross fit so neatly together.
It is the Red Cross that must bring relief to victims of disasters. Avista, founded in 1889, must overcome all obstacles and deliver gas and electricity to over 400,000 customers in Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. Its headquarters is in Spokane WA.
When fire or storms knock out service, Avista’s customers must turn to the Red Cross for assistance. Those customers are concentrated within the boundaries of the Red Cross Northwest Region —Washington and North Idaho.
“Our service areas align well,” says Melanie Rose, regional business manager for Avista.
Not only do service areas align, but so do goals. Both share a common interest in minimizing the incidence of wildfires and in improving the way each responds to disaster. The Red Cross has a long-term interest in disaster prevention, removing wherever possible the cause of disasters. Rose, in turn, says that Avista “is very involved at the regional level in wildfire response and planning.”
Rose says Avista has become skilled at reading the warning signs that could indicate a fire risk. That means paying close attention to such predictors as red flag warnings — cautions that low humidity and high winds mean conditions are right for fires.
Rose explains that Avista has a 10-year wildfire resiliency plan, developed in 2020. “The goal is to better prepare the utility for coping with wildfires,” she says. In terms of supporting the Red Cross, Ryan Rodin, regional philanthropy officer for the organization, says Avista “has been a regular, generous donor.” Beyond that, he says, “the Red Cross just trained more than 20 Avista employees in sheltering fundamentals and we have been sharing expertise with them around community engagement related to power outages.”
Kristine Meyer, executive director of the Avista Foundation, says Avista has been a funding partner of the Red Cross for years. “We have long been a donor in times of disaster,” she says. Beyond that, Avista executives have played key leadership roles in the Red Cross. In years past Meyer was both board member and board chair of the Red Cross Greater Inland Northwest chapter based in Spokane. Avista manager Cody Lee currently sits on the chapter board.
Meyer says volunteerism is part of the culture at Avista. “We now have a policy that encourages employees to volunteer,” she says. That means that beyond the Avista employees trained to work in Red Cross shelters, future disasters are likely to bring out more workers to help in Red Cross shelters.
Given the commonality of interests, it makes sense that Avista and the Red Cross have worked together over the years. The partnership arrangement is something new and more formal. It grew out of a meeting Rose of Avista and Rodin of the Red Cross had last winter over a cup of coffee. “We discussed how a partnership might work,” Rose says. “We laid out the groundwork.”
Looking ahead, Avista and the Red Cross intend to build out their partnership further. Meyer and her associate community outreach program manager, Nicole Rumpel, intend to train another 30 Avista employees in shelter management this fall. Meyer says Avista further plans to open the training to company retirees to increase the number of volunteers who can respond to disasters.
Finally, Meyer says she is encouraging employees to get additional Red Cross training so they can support the Red Cross in other ways.
The Red Cross, in turn, has shown its appreciation to Avista. At an annual Red Cross volunteer appreciation event in June, Avista was honored with a Partners in Progress award, recognizing how the two organizations work together to predict disasters and respond to them.
“We are grateful to the Red Cross,” Kristine Meyer of the Avista Foundation says. “When organizations partner, we can provide the best class of service to our communities and customers.”