George’s notes on the ride-a-long

February 26, 2010
By George_Bixby

I too will try not to post too much overlap but will give a brief synopsis of the experience and some things I noticed. I followed Nigel’s lead and bolded some words to help others find things of interest.

On Monday February 22nd I did my ride-a-long with the Red Cross disaster response team. I arrived at the RC headquarters at 9:00am and went through a brief introduction to the equipment that each responder carries out in the field. Around 12:00pm we responded to the report of a house fire in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The ride took about an hour (there is no direct highway route) and when we finally arrived the fire department had already put out the fire and left. There was a crowd of people outside who turned out to be mostly contractors who to get contracts cleaning and boarding up the house, and some insurance salesmen or adjusters. As was the case with Nigel, we were greeted with nods of recognition, which I took as a good thing in terms of the Red Cross’s reputation.

Our team leader for the day, Patrick, told us that it is often the case with daytime fires that the tenants are not at home. Inside we found only one actual tenant (there were four apartments all together) and she happened to have the only unaffected apartment. I believe others may have also mentioned this, but I was surprised that the responder wasn’t more forthcoming with the one the client we did speak to about what the Red Cross was there to do. However, since we only were able to locate one client, and she quickly assured us she didn’t need help, maybe I missed some of the usual protocol. We then went to each unit to check for tenants who might need help, and to assess and record the extent of the damage. There was great deal of damage caused both by the fire and the efforts to put it out. windows and walls were broken down or had collapsed, and the basement apartment had inches of water on the floor. The gas and electric to the building had also been turned off.

It was a shocking experience to be in these ruined homes, especially before the people who lived had a chance to return and see what has happened. We took the names of some relatives of the tenants who were there, and took notes on the condition of each apartment. We left stickers on each door notifying the tenants that the RC had been there and who to contact if they needed help. Back in the van the team leader entered information into the Seibel database. Remembering that some classmates had mentioned employees reporting problems with the database, I asked our team leader what his thoughts on the system were. Patrick told us that the RC wanted them to use their toughbook laptops to enter data directly in the field, but that it was too slow and buggy to do so. Instead he carried a clipboard, pad and pen to record info, and then entered that in the system upon returning to the van. Overall he thought the correct components were included in the system and it had the potential to be a great tool, but the usibility was a real issue.

The one thing that hit home during this whole experience that the Red Cross does fill a real void. Without them the tenants would arrive home and find they had no place to stay. The city had come and put out the fire, but left just as quickly leaving these people with no assistance in figuring out what to do next. The fact that there is no governmental service that parallels what the RC does was even more surprising after seeing just how necessary their work is. I’m not sure how they can go about this without it sounding negative toward government programs, but it seems like they should make the importance of their role more apparent. Possibly framing themselves along the lines of being not just helpful, but necessary.

I used the opportunity of the long car ride back to run some of my observations past our leader to hear his thoughts. I asked about the structure of the organization in terms volunteers, responders, and middle management and he had an interesting response which made me realize how personal preference plays an important role in how people decide to be involved in the organization. It was a legnthy conversation which I think would be better to get into in class rather than here.

Another issue that came up was the surge of interest in the organization that people have after a disaster (local, national & international) on both the volunteer and staff level. Figuring out how to decipher what motivated someone to approach the organization is apparently an issue, since they are looking for long term engagement which makes training volunteers and staff worthwhile. As I touched on in the last post, there seemed to be an issue with figuring out how to guide the enthusiasm of potential volunteers in the case that they arrived at the RC in order to help with a particular disaster, and making them long term volunteers interested in the greater cause rather than that singular event. This becomes even harder when that the structure of the RC prevents that person from directly engaging with the disaster response that inspired them to approach the Red Cross in the first place.

It was a great experience to be able to observe their field work first hand and I would like to go back again if I can fit it in.


2 Responses to “ George’s notes on the ride-a-long ”

  1. Nigel_Snoad on February 26, 2010 at 10:01 am

    George – I just wanted to clarify something – the responder I was with clearly communicated what he and the Red Cross could offer. It’s just that I think there’s an opportunity to do more. It’s not completely obvious how to do this when the priority is an assessment, or providing direct assistance, but I think that it’s a chance to not only provide help, but if done right, communicate a whole bunch more.

  2. Gloria Huang on February 26, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    Hi George,

    I work on social media for the National Headquarters for the Red Cross here in DC, and I love your post and the rest of the posts on this blog! If your team might be interested in talking further about what you’re doing, it would be great to write about you guys on our official blog. I think that you guys have a unique perspective and awesome insights to Red Cross operations at your local chapter.

    Please email me if you’d be interested in talking further – and thanks for the great read :)