George’s response to disaster volunteer training course (10/20/10)

February 21, 2010
By George_Bixby

This past Saturday I and a few others from our class took part in the Red Cross disaster volunteer training. It is a 8 hour training course held at the Red Cross Headquarters on 49th Street. I would estimate there were about 150 volunteers training that day. The training consisted of a few presentations, an interview and a background check. Included in the course was a brief overview of the Red Cross’s history and core principles, presentations explaining how the organization is structured on international, national and local levels, and another presentation on the ways that the Red Cross assists those in need at the time of a disaster. During interviews you are questioned as to how/why you are interested as well as what skills can you offer and how available you are for volunteering. By going through the training you are entered into their database of volunteers and they suggest that you take additional courses in the areas that interest you, such as advanced shelter management.

All in all the training was close to how I imagined it would be. I made two observations of things that I thought had the potential to be approved upon. One set of observations regards the training itself, and the other has to do with public perception- an issue I briefly mentioned in last Friday’s class as well.

I. Public perception

As Rhiannon mentioned in her post, there was a large number of Haitian Americans that attended the training. Most were part of a labor union of health care workers that came as a group. During the presentation and discussion, many of their questions were in regard to the response effort happening in Haiti right now, and many seemed eager to find a way to go to Haiti to help. The presenter said that we had to stay on topic and that Haiti couldn’t be addressed during this training, and at one point a semi-heated exchange with an audience member led to an unplanned break in the presentation, assumably so that he could address that audience member individually and get the presentation back on track. However, that break just caused more inter-table discussions to break out at which time I could hear some of the attendees issues first hand. At the end of the day, the presenter said that someone was waiting for those interested in discussing Haiti in another classroom. I headed over and thought it would be interesting to hear the conversation. I was surprised that the gentlemen who offered to speak to the group offered little further explanation in regard to their questions. Most questions fell into two categories:

A. Why couldn’t the Red Cross find a way for these willing and able people to help?
B. Why, despite the reports of the Red Cross receiving huge amounts of donations to assist Haiti, are the conditions in Haiti still so bad?

This brought to mind an issue that I brought up in class this Friday, regarding the public perception of the Red Cross in terms of who they are, and what exactly they do. As I mentioned my observation was based almost entirely off of personal experience and some recent conversations I’d had, not on any concrete findings. However, the problem that arose at the training where many people were left dissatisfied has made me more curious about this issue. From listening closely to the questions and comments, these seemed to be the major areas of confusion:

A. What are the RC’s capabilities and responsibilities?
B. Management of expectations- why hadn’t the RC done more in Haiti so far?
C. What have the Red Cross achieved/hope to achieve in Haiti?

I understand the situation in Haiti is of a magnitude that may be impossible to plan for, and that these are extremely complex problems that which can not be answered in any easy way. However, it seems like the RC needs be able to communicate quickly and succinctly answers to these questions on both a public level (advertising, website etc.) and on an individual level (at conferences and volunteer recruitments/trainings).

II.  Training
These comments may sound overly critical, but since this training is the first first face-to-face contact that most people will have with the Red Cross, it needs to be as engaging as possible.  Here are two examples of things I thought could use improvement:

A. The training video seemed somewhat out-of-date, and because most of it was filmed in sub-urban or rural settings, I had a hard time relating what was happening on screen to things I’d imagine a NYC volunteer to do.

B. Terminology- I noticed that a few of the RC terms used mort often could possibly be reconsidered. Here are a few brief examples:
1. People that the RC helps are called “clients”. When I heard this I noted that the term suggests some sort of exchange of money for services, and soon after another trainee actually asked if the the clients are expected to pay.
2. The other term I didn’t feel was effective was “worker” which is used to describe someone who works or volunteers for the Red Cross. It seems overly generic, whereas I think it can be looked at as an opportunity to differentiate the nature of the work that RC staff and volunteers undertake.

Tomorrow I am going on my ride-a-long and hope to have more observations to report on at that time.

2 Responses to “ George’s response to disaster volunteer training course (10/20/10) ”

  1. Mathan_Ratinam on February 22, 2010 at 10:07 am

    George, thanks for your insight into the weekend of training. From your comments and Rhiannons I understand two things. One, that the RC ran what seems to be a regular day of intensive training, which to them (I’m guessing) must be a highly structured 8 hours of information and demonstrations that they’ve given a lot of thought to. Two, that perhaps what upset people at the training was that their particular interests (Haiti) weren’t being heard/discussed. So perhaps with such training sessions where there is a large contingent of a particular population someone from the RC could have come out first to address the group and their specific issues explaining the RC’s position on such matters. Then I think people might have clearer idea of what to expect for the day and the near future. Perhaps you could reach out to the RC trainers directly and give them your feedback?

  2. Maya_Sariahmed on February 25, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    I really liked your comment about the word “clients” George. I just noticed that when I was reading my posts, that I kept referring to the woman we visited as the “client” which seemed strange…The language that’s used is an interesting topic to tackle. That came up a lot when we were working on the Senegal game: how do people interpret terminology, jargon, things like that. I think it’s funny because I understand that the Red Cross needs to have an understood system of language in place to make interactions more efficient, but to me there’s such a thing as being efficient to a fault.