The power of personal connections: Transitioning back to in-person disaster response

By Tim Poe, American Red Cross volunteer

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, many American Red Cross services are transitioning back to being in-person, especially in Disaster Response and Sheltering. While virtual response and other safety measures helped the Red Cross effectively respond to disasters during the height of the pandemic, in-person assistance was missed. As Mike Arthur, regional mass care and logistics manager for Northern Ohio, explained, the ability to provide hot coffee and a hug can mean a great deal.

In addition to Mike, I spoke with Tom Revolinsky, Red Cross disaster program manager for Northeast Ohio, and volunteer Mark Cline, whose many responsibilities include serving as lead for Disaster Action Team (DAT) and Sheltering Applications in Northern Ohio. Each spoke about how effective an in-person connection is for Red Cross responders and clients recovering from a disaster.

Red Cross volunteers respond to an apartment fire

Tom said the transition began a month ago and is going very well. The DAT team is ensuring volunteers are comfortable with the change, and it is safe. As we learn more, he said, we will adapt to ensure everyone’s safety.

Currently, 80% of disaster responses in our region are in-person. For the other 20%, virtual response remains the best option. Northern Ohio DAT has been highly active. Over the past two weekends they responded to 14 home fires, assisting 73 people.

Mark said an in-person meeting gives a chance to better connect with those in need of assistance, as it is much more personal. Similarly, Tom spoke of how meeting in-person better provides the opportunity to give hope, show someone cares and help with recovery. 

Tom recalled how after an exceptionally busy day, he received a late-night call to respond following a home fire. Upon arrival, he met a woman, in tears, sitting in front of her burned-out house. His being there greatly helped, provided comfort, and she soon moved from tears to smiles. Tom said it was empowering for him.

Disaster responder Jan Cooper assists resident Gabriella Asseff after a condo fire in Westlake

I had similar experiences during my time with DAT. The instances when I could see a person begin to recover, to smile and hope again, remain with me.

As for sheltering following a large disaster—fortunately not common in our region—Mike and Tom said congregate housing is now the first option. This will ensure enough space is available, as many hotels are currently near capacity. Safety protocols will be in place. Both Tom and Mike said the Red Cross remains flexible and adapts to each situation, and non-congregate housing remains an option.

Such adaptability has been a hallmark of the Red Cross. When the pandemic necessitated virtual responses to disasters, the DAT team responded. Additionally, technology implemented during the pandemic is also helping with in-person responses.

For many of us, the pandemic underscored the importance of personal connections, especially following a disaster. Thankfully, Northern Ohio DAT responders can provide that again, offering financial assistance along with comfort, hugs and hope.

Northern Ohio Region weekend disaster response report: July 17-18, 2021

Over the weekend, the American Red Cross was once again very active responding to calls across Northern Ohio and assisting residents who have suffered a local disaster.

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During the weekend of July 17-18, the Red Cross responded to 9 incidents across the region, including home fires and flooding. The disaster team assisted 15 adults and 11 children, and provided more than $5,5000 in immediate financial assistance.

While many of us hear “disaster” and think of large events like wildfires and hurricanes, local disasters are where much of our response happens. In fact, every 24 hours, on average, the Northern Ohio Red Cross responds to three home fires, as well as floods and severe storms. Red Cross volunteers are on call and ready to respond 24/7 when a disaster strikes. After emergency personnel, these individuals are often some of the first people to be on scene at a disaster. They assess the victims’ needs and ensure they have food, clothing, shelter and other services to help take the first steps to recovery.

The Red Cross is committed to helping our community prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergencies. We are able to make a difference in our local communities because of the generosity of our donors and support of our volunteers.

If you would like to provide a financial donation to assist the Red Cross’ efforts to support the residents of Northern Ohio, visit redcross.org/donate, call 1-800-RED CROSS or text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. If you cannot support the Red Cross monetarily but you are interested in making an impact in your local community, the Red Cross is always looking for volunteers. To volunteer, visit redcross.org/volunteer to learn more and sign up.

Wildfire season is upon us: What volunteers can expect if they deploy to help

By Doug Bardwell – American Red Cross volunteer

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there have already been 31,000 wildfires across the country, with more than 1.5 acres affected. As of July 4th, people have had to evacuate their homes for the Tennant, Salt and Lava wildfires in California. That means there will be a need to shelter and feed residents impacted, and more opportunities for American Red Cross volunteers. 

Volunteers often talk about how appreciative people are when offered water or buckets and rakes to assist their cleanup. Many I’ve spoken with mentioned that Red Cross trucks brought the first and only assistance they had encountered since the fire. It’s a privilege to serve those who’ve just lost most of their material possessions.

What can you expect if deployed to volunteer?

First, you won’t be anywhere near the flames. Shelters are selected in safe zone areas, so you can feel safe wherever they are located. Even if you are part of a Red Cross mobile feeding operation, you won’t be dispatched to burnt areas until the fire has been totally contained for a safe period of time.

There are three types of work most volunteers experience: sheltering, feeding or supply distribution.

Sheltering volunteers work to set up and maintain the sleeping/living areas for those displaced by the fire. After the setup and registering of incoming victims, just letting people tell their stories is very cathartic for those affected.

While deployed to the Camp Fire in California, I noticed most people just wanted someone to talk to. Not that they expected any earthshaking solutions, they just needed to verbalize their plight to a caring set of ears. Sometimes, just playing cards or a board game was a great distraction from their worries. 

November 17, 2018. Chico, California. At the Neighborhood Church shelter in Chico, California, Daniel Nieves grieves the loss of his friends, who perished in the Camp Fire. Red Cross volunteers Pamela Harris and Vicki Eichstaedt listen and offer comfort as Daniel remembers a special friendship. Photo by Daniel Cima/American Red Cross

Feeding volunteers help serve meals that are usually supplied by one of our Red Cross partners. Three meals a day are served to those affected. You might also be serving meals to first responders, cleaners and other service personnel involved around the shelter operation. 

In all the sheltering operations I’ve been involved with, there is always a 24/7 snack area for the shelter residents. Chips, cookies and snack bars are always available, along with coffee, tea, soft drinks and water.

Distribution volunteers are those who take cleanup tools and supplies out to the victims at the site of the fire after the “all clear” notice has been issued. 

Deploying on a national disaster usually requires a two-week commitment. However, local/regional events can be staffed on more flexible schedules. A limited amount of pretraining is necessary for either, but there are plenty of people ready to get you up to speed quickly. For more information on volunteer opportunities, visit redcross.org/volunteer and select DCS – Disaster Cycle Services – Responder, or contact Emily Probst, Disaster Workforce Engagement Manager, at emily.probst@redcross.org.

Edited by Glenda Bogar, American Red Cross volunteer


More than 50 people flee from fires, receive assistance over the weekend

24 children among those forced from their homes

American Red Cross disaster responders were busy throughout northern Ohio on Friday and Saturday, July 9th and 10th, responding to 8 home fires – including 5 multi-family home fires. 54 residents, including 30 adults and 24 children were affected by the fires.

Six of the fires occurred in Cuyahoga County.

The residents received more than $11,300 in immediate financial assistance, to help them find a safe place to stay, provide food for their families, replace lost clothing, or fulfill other immediate needs. That assistance, coming at such a critical time, is only available because of generous people who make financial donations to the Red Cross.

If you have a desire to help members of your community recover from disasters like home fires, visit redcross.org/donate or call 1-800 RED CROSS.

Trained Red Cross volunteers will continue to help the families during the recovery process, providing information, resources and referrals to community partners. If health or mental health services are required, Red Cross volunteers with professional certifications will offer their assistance.

Whether you are a certified health or mental health provider, or just have a heart to help your neighbors in their darkest hours, visit redcross.org.volunteer to become a Red Cross volunteer.

Celebrating World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day May 8

By: Tim Poe, American Red Cross volunteer

May 8th is World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, in which the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) collectively thanks its 13 million volunteers worldwide—about 2,000 of which are in Northern Ohio—for their dedication, bravery, kindness, and selflessness.

This day also coincides with Sound the Alarm, as American Red Cross volunteers and staff are helping area residents develop fire safety plans through doorstep visits. Please read this article for more information.

May 8th is the birthday of Henry Dunant, who was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1828, founded the IFRC, and received the first Nobel Peace Prize. After witnessing one of the bloodiest battles of the 19th century, Solferino, and assisting in its aftermath, Dunant wrote A Memory of Solferino, published in 1862. After detailing the horrors of the battle and describing efforts to care for the wounded, Dunant offered a plan that the world’s nations form relief societies and appeal to everyone to volunteer. The following year the Geneva Society for Public Welfare appointed Dunant and four others to examine putting the plan into action. This began the foundation of the Red Cross. More on Henry Dunant is here

It would take more than a century, two world wars, and the 1918 flu pandemic before a Red Cross day would be created, however. During that time, the need and effectiveness of Red Cross societies became even clearer. Following World War II, the Board of Governors of the League of Red Cross Societies requested the study of an International Red Cross Day. It was approved two year later, and May 8, 1948 became the first commemoration of what we now know as World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. Further details are here.

In 2021, the Red Cross’s mission and services are as needed as ever, and the resilience, dedication, flexibility, and selflessness of its volunteers and staff has continued during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the past year has been especially active. In the US, 2020 had the greatest number of billion-dollar disasters in a single year. Here in Northern Ohio, the Red Cross has continued to respond to disasters—including more than three home fires every 24 hours, on average—collect and distribute much needed blood, teach life-saving skills, assist members of the armed services and their families, and help educate the community on home fire safety, virtually and with doorstep visits during tomorrow’s Day of Action.

We recently profiled a few extraordinary volunteers during Volunteer Week. As a Red Cross volunteer, I have been privileged to see such caring and dedication firsthand and have been honored to work alongside some of the kindest, most effective, and remarkable people I have met. Please see here if you would like to join us.

On this World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, we celebrate those who put the Red Cross’s mission to prevent and alleviate human suffering into action, each day.

National Volunteer Week spotlight: Recovery Coordinator Debbie Ziss aids victims after disasters

By: Olivia Wyles, American Red Cross volunteer

Today we recognize Debbie Ziss, one of the American Red Cross recovery coordinators for the Northeast Ohio Region who also serves on the Disaster Action Team. The Disaster Action Team (DAT) is a group that is dedicated to helping their communities respond to the scene of disasters. The DAT does this not only by responding to the immediate needs of individuals after a disaster, but also by guiding them as they navigate what their life will look like post-disaster and assisting them in accessing resources they need. Debbie has been a volunteer with the Red Cross for about two years and typically manages the recovery for 50+ people every week.

“Debbie is a fearless advocate for the client in assisting them to find resources for overcoming barriers in their recovery,” said Tom Revolinsky, disaster program manager for the Red Cross of Northeast Ohio.

One of the common disasters that the DAT group responds to is home fires, and Debbie has recounted helping individuals who have experienced house fires, entire apartment fires and fires resulting in the unfortunate death of a family member. Although it is challenging to help individuals work through the experience of losing the most important things or people in their lives, Debbie feels that it is an honor to be able to help them through.

“Whether you work at the Red Cross or you’re a client of the Red Cross, you have a story,” Debbie said. “As a volunteer, I’ve learned to make their story my story as well.”

Debbie serves the DAT mostly through casework assignments. She is constantly looking to get things done as well as she can and take the lead in new cases. When asked about some of the skills needed as a DAT volunteer, Debbie said that it is important to pay close attention not only to what people are saying, but how they say it.

“Everyone handles trauma differently,” Debbie explained. She hopes to be able to make a difference in the lives of the individuals who she is able to work with.

Volunteers with an open heart and dedicated spirit like Debbie’s are crucial to the work of the Red Cross. We thank Debbie for her impactful work with us. If you would like more information on the Disaster Action Team and would like to assist the Red Cross advance its mission, visit: https://www.redcross.org/volunteer/disaster-action-team.html.

Edited by: Glenda Bogar, American Red Cross volunteer

Heartbreaking disaster, extraordinary response

The following account of a Red Cross response to a fatal home fire was written by Tom Revolinsky, disaster program manager for the American Red Cross of Northeast Ohio.

Tom Revolinsky

The fire occurred on January 24, 2021 on West 47th Place in Cleveland. The fire affected the house next door as well.   The Red Cross provided assistance to both families affected by the fire. 

Here is news coverage from Fox 8 showing three law enforcement officers rescuing the client and his mother from the fire.  

A mother and her adult son were admitted to the MetroHealth Burn Unit.  Dave Huey (Red Cross volunteer) did a remarkable job being in contact with the nurses at the burn unit as the son underwent multiple surgeries and was not in suitable condition to be interviewed. 

We did the initial intake on February 12th.   During that time, his mother died because of the injuries during the fire.    

At the son’s request we contacted Busch Funeral Home and with the help of the MetroHealth Social Worker all the necessary paperwork was completed.   We also worked with a social worker from Holy Family to deliver the financial assistance and pay for the funeral.    The son is extremely grateful that the Red Cross lifted this burden from him (his words). 

During the intake process we determined that the son lost his glasses during the fire.    We were able to locate a Walmart where he had recently gotten a new pair of glasses and ordered the same replacement glasses, paid for by the Red Cross at no cost.  (Senior Regional Disaster Program Manager) Renee Palagyi’s son in-law, who works at MetroHealth, was able to pick up the glasses and deliver them to the son (note:  because of Covid it is difficult to get into hospitals).   He has been released from the hospital in currently in rehab.   He is extremely grateful that he can now watch TV and read as he tries to recover and resume a normal life.     

He is a remarkable man as he was always had a positive outlook. We had some great conversations each time we spoke. 

He is extremely grateful to the Red Cross and wants to visit the Chapter office and meet everyone once he is able.   I would like to thank the following team members for their assistance in this case:   Regional Disaster Officer Tim O’Toole, Senior Regional Disaster Program Manager Renee Palagyi, Regional Recovery Manager Barb Thomas,  Disaster Program Specialist Jessi Graber, and disaster action team members (volunteers) Deb Ziss and Dave Huey. 

World Health Day 2021 focuses on health equity, which Red Cross works to address

By Tim Poe, American Red Cross volunteer

Today, April 7, is World Health Day, a day in which the World Health Organization (WHO) raises awareness of an important issue. This year’s theme is one the American Red Cross strives daily to address: health equity and “building a fairer, healthier world.”

This is an important issue for the Red Cross as humanity, impartiality and universality are among our fundamental principles. Each day in the Northern Ohio region, as everywhere, Red Cross volunteers and staff work to assist anyone in need of our lifesaving and emergency relief services. This commitment is conveyed in several personal perspectives on this webpage, including recent articles from Chris Chmura and Doug Bardwell.

As the WHO points out, the COVID-19 pandemic has more clearly shown how some have better access to health care and have healthier lives than others. In addition, the CDC states, “There is increasing evidence that some racial and ethnic minority groups are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19.” Ohio Department of Health COVID-19 demographics also indicate a disparity.

While many of us may feel limited in addressing the causes of health inequality, there are several ways we can have an impact. Assisting the Red Cross in its mission is among them, whether through volunteering, donating blood or providing financial support.

Volunteering with the Red Cross has helped me see the health inequality in our region, and I am honored to have taken part in helping those in need. If you are interested in volunteering, there are a variety of opportunities available in Northern Ohio, including in Disaster Response, Blood Services and Services to the Armed Forces.

Blood donations are critical. As this article states, the blood supply needs to be as diverse as our region. A diverse blood supply is necessary for treating diseases like sickle cell, which mostly affects those of African and Latino descent. As I reported last September, blood donations from African Americans are vital in treating sickle cell disease, as blood must be closely matched to reduce the risk of complications.

The Red Cross would not be able to provide so much assistance without the generous support of its donors. If you can provide financial support, any amount helps. 

Hopefully, we are approaching the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we cannot forget its difficult lessons. We must also continue to face other illnesses, health concerns and disasters. We need to work toward a better future with greater health equity. The Red Cross—with the support of its donors, volunteers and staff—will continue to honor its fundamental principles to assist all in need.

Edited by Glenda Bogar, American Red Cross volunteer

Weekend disasters touch several families in Northern Ohio

Red Cross assistance provided to help with immediate needs

More than 50 adults and children received assistance from the American Red Cross in Northern Ohio over the weekend, as disaster action team members responded to nearly a dozen home fires in six counties.

Red Cross disaster responder Doug Barwell took this photo upon arriving at the scene of a fatal apartment building fire in Garfield Heights early Monday morning.

Tragically, one of the fires claimed the life of a three-year old child.

When fatalities occur, the Red Cross offers the assistance of an Integrated Care and Condolence Team.

“The Red Cross began using the Integrated Care Condolence Team approach in 2011, following tornadoes in Alabama, to assist families of missing, injured or deceased,” said Renee Palagyi, Senior Disaster Program Manager for the Northern Ohio Region. “The team consists of specially trained staff from multiple disciplines- casework, disaster mental health, disaster spiritual care and disaster health services.  It is designed to provide an array of resources as a follow-up after the event- at a later time, convenient to the family.”

The team generally consists of two members and can include all four disciplines as needed. It is designed to protect the families from multiple contacts by providing comprehensive services with limited staff.

The Red Cross is able to provide such service thanks to volunteers – psychologists, counsellors, nurses and other trained professionals who provide the help people need. Visit redcross.org/volunteer to learn more about volunteer opportunities for licensed or certified health, mental health, and spiritual care professionals.

When the world stopped, the Red Cross didn’t

Reflections on the response to the pandemic on the one-year anniversary

By Doug Bardwell, American Red Cross volunteer

March 2020 would prove to be one of my most memorable volunteer months with the American Red Cross. Within weeks, the world began to see signs like this everywhere.

Everywhere, except at the Red Cross.

Let’s go back to March 1, 2020. This was the day the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the United States, in New York. By then, we had heard about the 400 Americans trapped on a ship in Japan, but we didn’t really consider that the virus was a U.S. problem at the time.

Two days later, everyone forgot about that story when multiple tornadoes ripped through central Tennessee, killing at least 25 people. I recall getting the call that morning and leaving immediately for Nashville to cover the details of the cleanup effort, the sheltering and feeding of hundreds of now homeless people and the mobilization of hundreds of truckloads of supplies.

As I drove home on March 10, New York Governor Cuomo had called on the National Guard to stop traffic around New Rochelle, where 108 cases had been discovered. COVID-19 was now a United States problem.

Just one day later, March 11, the WHO (World Health Organization) would declare this to be an official pandemic with more than 120,000 cases worldwide. That started a landslide of events, and before day’s end:

  • The NBA suspended the 2019-20 season until further notice
  • The NHL paused its 2019-20 season
  • The Dow Jones Industrial 30-day average plunged 20%, ending an 11-year bull market

But what didn’t come crashing to a stop…the Red Cross. 

That same day, President of the American Red Cross Gail McGovern, issued a long memo to all Red Cross volunteers.

In it, she detailed how we would be making all sorts of changes to our day-to-day operations, but what would not change, was our mission to deliver services to those in need.

Blood drives needed to be rescheduled as many businesses closed down, but the need for blood didn’t slow down. By finding larger venues where people could be scheduled and kept socially distanced, the flow of blood continued.

Fires and disasters didn’t stop, but our Humanitarian Services division devised new ways to house people in motels instead of congregate shelters, and our Disaster Action Teams learned to respond virtually using electronic funds transfers to get money quickly into the hands of those left homeless from fires and floods. 

As the rest of the world came to a virtual standstill one year ago today, the Red Cross quickly pivoted to maintain our services to those most in need. If you’d like to help, consider becoming a volunteer or make a contribution to the Red Cross to support our ongoing mission to alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies. 

Edited by Glenda Bogar, Red Cross Volunteer