Sunday, February 4, 2007

Tales of the Red Cross

Recently I have taken classes at the Red Cross to become part of their disaster response branch in greater New York. Yesterday I got to go out in the field with a team and get my hands dirty. First, of course, some background on what the Red Cross does in terms of disaster relief. While many people think of catastrophic natural disasters or terrorist attacks when the word "disaster" is said, the Red Cross responds to much smaller scale disasters. The Red Cross will send someone to a fire that has displaced a person and register them for temporary housing, clothing vouchers, food vouchers, or a debit card depending on their needs. If the fire is a three alarm or above, the Red Cross will send what's called an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) to the scene that is essentially a truck bigger than a box ambulance but smaller than a U-Haul that contains food, hot and cold refreshments, blankets, etc. for both the firefighters battling the blaze and any residents affected. If the fire is in a dwelling that houses a lot of people, the chapter will set up a temporary shelter until housing can be worked out for everyone. Fires are their most frequent responses, but they also go to plane crashes, train accidents, terrorist attacks, and so on and so forth.

So I show up to the chapter's Manhattan headquarters and my ID doesn't work in unlocking the turnstiles for me. Lovely. So once that got sorted out, I arrive upstairs and meet my partners and learn that two other teams have called out sick. It's 23 degrees out, so I don't blame them. After being there about an hour, the first call comes in for a two-alarm fire on 93rd and Columbus. Normally a person or two would go out in a van to the scene and determine the extent of the damage and those affected, but any two-alarm fire with a temperature of under 32 degrees out or above 85 degrees out, the ERV is dispatched. I went to the scene in a Suburban with a supervisor and the ERV showed up right after we did. Now I have never been to the scene of a major fire (even working 2 years as an EMT), especially in the middle of a busy street in New York City. By the time we got there the fire was knocked out and we were essentially there to support the firefighters (give them water, hot chocolate, whatever) because it was in a business. Red Cross does not deal with businesses in disaster relief. So we left and went back to headquarters. We were back at headquarters for about another hour when another call came in. This one was a two-alarm fire with people trapped in the house in Queens. When we got there, the fire was again knocked down, but the house was a complete loss. We went into the house next door because they were attached. We did a damage assessment and determined that the house was not uninhabitable.

I've never been through a fire and have never been inside a house that was on fire, but the destruction is incredible. We were not allowed in the unit that had been destroyed because the fire marshal was investigating, but even the unit next to it which was untouched by the flames had damage. I was unaware that the fire department will go into your house and knock out parts of the ceilings and walls to look for flames. The smell of smoke filled my nostrils as I walked through the three stories of the house examining the damage. It wasn't until I got home that night and read the news that I learned that the people trapped in the house jumped out of the windows to escape the fire, injuring themselves pretty well in the process. Another team showed up and dealt with the paperwork and ensuring shelter, clothes, and food for the victims.

From Ozone Park we went straight to another fire in East Harlem. We showed up and it was right across from the firehouse, so the fire had been knocked out and the firemen had already left. The super was sweeping up the broken glass in front of the building and directed us upstairs to the affected apartment. We went up there just as the tenant was leaving and looked through the apartment, seeing that the bathroom had been torn up pretty well, but everything else was intact. The tenant declined assistance, as they had somewhere to stay that night and damage affected only one small area of the apartment. With our job complete, we went back to headquarters, where I got shown around the building and then went home.

The one thing that has stuck with me for the past day is the upending properties of even a small fire in a residence. One minute these peoples' lives are relatively normal, they're going about their day, and the next there is a fire in their house or apartment and they need to rush out of the house, or try to put it out themselves (which some of the people I saw did and got hurt), and wait for the fire department to come and inspect the place for fire, which damages the house even more in the process. While some people were lucky and got out, others had to jump out of windows or got burned while escaping or fighting the flames in an FDNY uniform. While it may seem mundane or even unnecessary for the Red Cross to go out to these fires, for those affected the relief delivered to them - whether it is in the form of housing, clothes, food, or money - means the world and makes a tremendous difference. Additionally, having been out there at all these fires and seeing the firemen give their all to knock down the flames in these houses, some getting hurt in the process, my appreciation for these men and women has increased. For all of the sitting around, false alarms, and questionable firehouse antics that we see or hear about, when it comes down to it, these guys give 110% when a serious fire has erupted, especially with lives on the line. For all of the stories that point out what's wrong in society and how injustice is so prevalent in America and beyond, it's nice to post a story that shows the good in people and our culture. Peace.

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