Red Cross transitions to virtual response because of COVID-19

For twelve years, Dave Burns has been helping neighbors who’ve suffered the devastation of a home fire through his work as a volunteer with the American Red Cross.

Dave Burns Florence (3)
Red Cross volunteer Dave Burns assisting clients virtually. Credit: Red Cross

The West Carrolton, Ohio, resident is a dedicated member of the Disaster Action Team (DAT), and has a gift for lending a sympathetic ear and a comforting hug while helping to provide for the immediate needs of his clients who’ve suffered loss.

Recently, because of the social distancing practices required due to COVID-19, Burns, and the rest of the Red Cross, has had to change the way their responses to home fires and other local disasters are conducted by providing help virtually.

“It’s a little bit rough for our people because they’re so used to being face to face with our clients so there is an additional set of emotions, but as far as being able to accomplish it, it’s been more comfortable than expected,” Burns said of the transition to virtual disaster response.

Since April 1, 2020, nearly 92% of all disaster responses in the Central & Southern Ohio Region of the American Red Cross have been conducted virtually. There have been 283 unique disaster events in the 47-county region, and of those, 261 cases were handled virtually.

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Randy Sprague, a Disaster Action Team (DAT) Coordinator, for the Red Cross. Credit: Red Cross

“The good thing is we are still able to take care of people and not compromise our or their health,” Randy Sprague, a Disaster Action Team (DAT) coordinator who lives in Batavia, Ohio, said.

During a virtual disaster response, the first contact from the Red Cross is via technology, rather than having a team of two or three volunteers going to the scene in person.

“We first determine if the client has a capability of having a virtual response, either through Zoom, FaceTime, or any of the other visual communication platforms,” Burns said. “From there, it’s the same kind of process that we do on scene such as gathering information about the client so we can provide for their immediate needs.”

Based on the needs of the client the Red Cross focuses on providing safe shelter, food, emergency relief supplies, emotional support, health services and recovery assistance.

According to Ryan Yu, a Red Cross volunteer from Lewis Center, Ohio, those receiving Red Cross services in the era of COVID-19 understand the different approach that’s being taken to meet their needs.

Ryan Yu (1)
Red Cross volunteer Ryan Yu. Credit: Red Cross

“I feel they understand why we are doing virtual responses, especially with the pandemic. They appreciate the efforts being put into virtual responses,” Yu said.

Once a case is opened, after the initial virtual connection and interviewing process, there is some face-to-face contact, albeit socially distant. The virtual responder notifies the duty officer that a case has been opened and arrangements are made to deliver to the client a Client Assistance Card (CAC), which acts as a debit card. Sprague is one of the volunteers who travels, with his face covering and gloves, to deliver the CACs, either to the client’s home or to a neutral location.

According to Sprague, having to maintain that “distance” is a struggle for Red Cross volunteers.

“The process it’s a two edged sword, we are still able to take care of people, but having to stay away from people when they are going through the worst day of their life and not being able to see people face to face and encourage them has been difficult.” ~Marita Salkowski, Regional Communications and Marketing Director for the Central & Southern Region of the Red Cross.

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