Answering a Disaster Home Fire Call: “We’re Dealing with Fragile Human Beings”

DAT call, ceiling fan, Feb. 19, 2016

by Joseph Edwards, Director, California Safe Corps and Disaster Action Team Volunteer

The ceiling fans had melted from the heat. The blades had wilted to mirroring an upside down flower, with the petals pitch black heading toward the floor. It was a very striking image amongst the debris remaining from a fire hours earlier.

When training volunteers to be members of a Disaster Action Team (DAT) the Red Cross covers what to expect in terms of communicating with clients, assessing the scene and determining the type of assistance we can provide. But, for a trainee like myself, it’s easy to get caught up in the powerful destruction of fire and heat before returning your focus to where it should be: Helping those in need.

On the morning of Friday, Feb 19, a fire started at the Morningside United Church, located at Manchester and South Crenshaw Blvd, just a few blocks from The Forum in the heart of Inglewood. The modest church also provided assisted housing for individuals, three of whom were now displaced from the fire. One resident lost literally everything she owned.

I was a part of the DAT team deployed to meet with the residents later that afternoon. This was my fourth official DAT call since joining the Red Cross, but my first in over a year. I joined two volunteers, Grant Graves (the DAT Leader) and Alison Berglas (DAT Member), both seasoned pros. As the Trainee on the call my main role was to assist them where I could, and watch and learn.

Driving up to the scene is always tense. We have been given facts about the scene verified by the Fire Department, but what is the mood of the individuals? Are they calm, are they inconsolable, are they just happy to get help, or are they furious it took us so long to arrive? Some calls last 30 minutes, some can take hours and hours. One doesn’t know until we step out of the car. We arrived at the church a little after 3 p.m. The three of us pow-wowed and were soon ready to greet the clients.

The upstairs of the church functioned like a small dorm. There were small individual rooms, a common-space area with a TV and pool table, and a bathroom down the hall. The smoke damage and debris from the fire made the location inhabitable. Grant and I surveyed each unit then met with the clients in a downstairs room. (See Grant’s photo above.)

We interviewed the residents one-on-one. All were very patient, coherent and unscathed by the fire. For those who have not been on a DAT call, the action on the scene is fairly straight-forward. We interview, we determine the type of help we can give, we give it to them, we record all this down, and then we leave.

But what’s tough is the emotional intelligence. We are dealing with fragile human beings. An offhand comment or attempt at humor could really unsettle the scene and make it more difficult to give them aid. I was struck by the clients on this call and their calm demeanor. They were grateful to get help.

Each received a Client Assistance Card (CAC) and a comfort kit with small items like soap, toothbrush and toothpaste. For two of the clients we looked up nearby motels where they could lodge for several days and directions to the nearest US Bank where they could withdraw funds for immediate necessities. Leaving the scene is always bittersweet. I left with the hopeful feeling that we have helped three people get back on their feet. But frankly, I don’t know where they will be in a week or in a month.

The most fascinating moment was during the allocation of the assistance cards to the clients. We use a CAS system to enter data after which a case number is assigned to that client. The numbers are assigned

in chronological order by creation. In the fifteen minutes between issuing the cards, the case number ID increased in number by 70. So in that brief time, all across the country, 70 cases were being opened to help individuals. It is inspiring to think about the amount of work that happens each and every day by Red Cross volunteers and staff, and I felt so lucky to be just a small part of it.

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