Anatomy of an Emergency Response

House_fire_with_smokeIn any kind of emergency or disaster situation, local conditions will always influence the nature and intensity of the response. A structure fire will require a different kind of response and range of resources than a mass shooting or an earthquake. In the absence of a one-size-fits-all solution, emergency response organizations have developed training programs and response protocols that help them remain effective while being flexible.

Such thinking has shaped how the American Red Cross prepares its Disaster Action Teams (DAT). As Andrew Bogar, disaster program specialist for the Alaska Red Cross southeast region explains, “While all of the DATs go through the same training and share the same goal of helping people at their most vulnerable, each team is going to be organized and work a little differently.” A part of this is due to how each DAT is largely volunteer run, which makes the dynamic between DAT members, staff, and the community very fluid. This naturally influences how training is interpreted and implemented.”

Other factors that influence how a DAT responds includes the number of volunteers in an area plus the amount of training and experience they have had in responding to particular emergencies. In a region of the state like the southeast, where structure fires are relatively rare, Bogar says, “it’s difficult to stay sharp in how we respond to them. And as we are called to respond to a range of other emergencies, our team in Juneau operates in ways that might not happen with a team in Anchorage or Fairbanks.”

While no emergency will be the same as another, the groups of people that respond to one generally remain stable. There are the responders with clear duties—fire and police departments and emergency medical technicians—and members of the community like neighbors and news outlets whose roles are less defined. And in many situations there will be individuals in the red and white vests of the American Red Cross, whose role, aside from handing out blankets, is sometimes hard to determine.

Any description of how a Red Cross DAT fits into an emergency situation, like a house fire, will necessarily be more idealistic than realistic—but will always begin with a call to 9-1-1. From there, the 9-1-1 dispatcher contacts fire and police departments and a Red Cross volunteer (either a designated dispatcher or DAT captain) will contact other DAT team members to inform them how many families are likely to have been displaced. Often members of a DAT will meet at a designated location in order to organize their response and to arrive at the site all at once. From there, team members may take on a variety of roles from distributing food and blankets to offering Red Cross assistance and interacting with the public as a way to buffer displaced families and help fire fighters stay focused on their job.

One thing that gets less attention, however, is how the work of the Red Cross continues after the flames are out. In any Red Cross response, there is an invisible halo of volunteers and partner organizations that accompany any Red Cross disaster team. If a family accepts Red Cross assistance, a DAT member will immediately connect them with a Red Cross caseworker who can draw on the resources of the Red Cross and partner organizations to help them in their recovery process. The Red Cross will offer families some financial assistance and help in securing temporary housing as well as connecting  them with organizations like the Salvation Army to replace household items and furniture. There are also local organizations that can assist when situations exceed the on-the-ground resources of Red Cross volunteers. The Juneau Alliance for Mental Health, for example, has stepped in to help people whose trauma and grief exceeded the capacity for Red Cross volunteers. This network of relationships not only helps families recover more quickly, it also provides a way for whole communities to be more resilient and collaborative in the face of an emergency.

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