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American Red Cross Southeastern PA Emergency Services Director Leo Pratte helps coordinate the Red Cross response to Philadelphia building collapse

The building collapse at the Salvation Army Thrift Store just around the corner from our American Red Cross office is a terrible tragedy. Because it happened to the Salvation Army, one of our long standing friends and partners in times of disaster, it hits extra close to home.

When tragedies like what happened Wednesday happen, the first question I get from the media is “What’s the Red Cross doing?”

Because no homes were affected and there weren’t any evacuations, my initial instinct was to say “Nothing yet.” I ultimately didn’t say that, but I should know better than to even think it. That’s because the Red Cross did do and is doing a lot.

Yes, it’s not the traditional role you think of when you think of the Red Cross responding. We didn’t set up a shelter and feed dozens of people displaced by a fire or hurricane or flood. We weren’t explaining how to prepare for an impending emergency. What we were doing, though, was equally as vital and something the Red Cross has always done and done well; we supported the first responders and provided emotional comfort to those immediately affected by the disaster. In the case of the building collapse, that involved giving water, food, and a place to rest for the firefighters and other search and rescuers.

Search crews at the scene of the building collapse in Philadelphia take a lunch break at the American Red Cross comfort station.

The Red Cross even provided a much deserved water break for one of the rescue dogs.

Phoenix, one of two rescue dogs working the scene of the Philadelphia building collapse gets a much deserved water break thanks to the American Red Cross.

For members of the Salvation Army dealing with the loss of friends, co-workers and customers, we provided arms to hugs, shoulders to cry on, and ears to listen. To the community at-large, we offered counseling for those having trouble coping with the tragedy.

The Red Cross chips in wherever and whenever needed. No two disasters are the same. Needs are never the same. What makes the Red Cross so good at what it does is its unending ability to meet the needs at that particular moment and change when the needs change.

As a communications person with the job of telling the Red Cross story, explaining how we are feeding and sheltering people is more high profile. It generates greater media interest. Explaining “canteening” and emotional support is more nuanced and less flashy, but critical just the same. Sometimes I need to be reminded of that.

If I always remember that, whenever I’m asked “What’s the Red Cross doing,” I’ll never again be tempted to say “nothing yet.”

photoMy 12 year old son is currently obsessed with Mythbusters, the show on the Discovery Channel where two crazy special effects guys blow stuff up in the name of scientific analysis. The other day, we were watching a show from the second or maybe third season about combustible Christmas trees.  We learned that when a spark from an overloaded wall socket hits a dry tree Christmas tree, the ensuing blaze is incredibly cool to watch – on television.  As a homeowner about to set up our own tree for the season, I was appalled. According to my son, I shouted something at the TV that wasn’t very parentally responsible. I maintain I said “Holy Cow!”  Never mind, I’m here to tell you that a Christmas tree fire is a potential four alarm affair. No kidding.

Luckily, the Red Cross has some great advice about setting up Christmas trees while taking fire safety into account. Please consider the following suggestions:

  • Purchase flame retardant metallic or artificial trees.
  • Give a live Christmas tree plenty of water to keep it moist and fresh.
  • Keep trees at least three feet away from heat sources like fireplaces or radiators.
  • Never put a candle on a Christmas tree.
  • Make sure lights are in good condition.
  • Safely dispose of trees as they become dry and needles begin to drop.
  • Don’t let old dried out trees hang around! Dispose of trees through recycling centers or community pick-up services.
  • Always unplug tree and holiday lights before leaving home or going to bed.
  • Avoid overloading electrical outlets by not linking more than three light strands.
  • Use decorations that are flame-resistant or flame-retardant

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to embrace the “metallic” Christmas tree, but I’m a firm believer in keeping the tree away from heat, not overloading the lights and turning it off for bedtimes and departures. The idea of Christmas lights getting hotter and hotter on my tree as I’m sleeping holds no appeal whatsoever.

Don’t believe us? Here’s a recent tweet from the Philadelphia fire department with some of the same ideas attached.

Of course, it’s not only the tree. We have a tendency to burn more things this time of year!

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We open up our fireplaces and wood stoves. We get out our candles and oil lamps. It is our natural and human instinct to bring light to these darkest days near the winter solstice. And there is no more beautiful light than firelight. The Red Cross has a whole list of safety tips regarding these activities. Please follow this link to learn more.

We give you joy of the season. Please be so, so, so careful with your lights and flames.

— Posted by Communications Volunteer Sarah Peterson

Working for the Red Cross you get used to a lot of uncertainty. A lot of Plan Bs and Plan Cs. A lot of schedule rearranging. It’s the nature of working for an organization that responds to disasters.

But Monday (April 9th) was easily unprecedented, not only for me and my 2 ½ year Red Cross career as Director of Communications, but also for the organization overall.

It all started with a phone call I didn’t hear. The call from our chapter’s Chief Operating Officer at about 5 a.m. to say there was a massive 5-alarm warehouse fire in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Trust me, not hearing a call like that is not a good way to start your day.

But finally I did hear the call. So I threw on a Red Cross hat and pullover and headed to the scene. No breakfast. No shower. (That last part will be important later.)

We were caring for about 25 people displaced from their homes because of the fire.ImageI was with those residents when word came that two firefighters died. It deepened the sadness everyone was already feeling.

At the fire scene, I recorded and posted to social media a message of condolence to the fire department and the firefighters families from our CEO. Our hearts go out to them. It’s painful.  The Red Cross and fire departments have a special relationship. We rely on each other. After they save people, we feed them, we house, them, we clothe them.

I went into the office to tend to a few other things, including preparing for a visit from our national CEO the next day.

But I was called out to the scene again to manage some media interviews. While there, our  Director of Recovery and Red Cross House and I met with the families whose homes were destroyed by the fire. ImageThey were distraught. They were scared.  But our volunteers made them feel better and reassured them they wouldn’t have to go through this alone.

I had been awake for only a few hours, but I felt like I had been up all day. But as it turned out, my day was only beginning.

While in Kensington I got word that there were two big apartment complex fires to which the Red Cross was responding. One in Bucks County and one in Montgomery County. I headed to Montgomery County. A fire had ripped through a building at Abrams Run apartments.ImageAbout a dozen families, 23 people were displaced, including Ahmet, a little boy I met who was wrapped in a Red Cross blanket to help keep him warm.

ImageI spent some time at Abrams Run before heading home, thinking my day was over.

I only had a few moments to pick up my kids and drop off my stuff before going to my weekly basketball game. But while playing basketball, I got another call that the Red Cross was opening a shelter in Chester County for more than 150 firefighters battling a wildfire in Berks County. The Red Cross was supplying the cots, blankets, food, and some volunteers. It was an hour drive, but off I went, keeping in my mind that I still hadn’t showered from this morning.  I didn’t have a dry shirt. I was wearing shorts on a cold night. I didn’t have my camera or even a pencil.

But the Red Cross way is to figure something out. So I met up with a colleague half way to the shelter to get a Red Cross shirt. I borrowed an iPhone from one of our volunteers at the shelter so I could take pictures and video. We sweet-talked someone into giving us the Wifi password and access to a computer.

But while there, I was overwhelmed with pride as our volunteers methodically and quickly unloaded and set up dozens and dozens of cots. They arranged to make the place as homey as possible. The firefighters were gracious and grateful. But it’s us who should be grateful. Setting up those cots was the least we  could do. ImageEarlier that day two firefighters died protecting us. The 150 plus firefighters I was with at the shelter were risking their lives protecting us.  So I had to curb any notion I had to complain about how tired I was or how much I wanted a shower.

I spent several hours at the shelter shooting videos and pictures and uploading to twitter and facebook, getting the word out about what the Red Cross is doing, all the while marveling at the bravery of the firefighters and the compassion of our volunteers.

I’m happy to say all the firefighters made it back alive. No one was killed and the wildfire is out.

In one day, in one 24 hour span, with the help of 40+ volunteers the Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania responded to 13 disasters, at least one in each of our five counties. ImageThe disasters included a wildfire, two apartment complex fires, a 5-alarm warehouse fire, a brush fire, and eight house fires. We helped 256 people. We provided lodging at a motel or at Red Cross House for 123 people. It was one disaster shy of our one day record of 14. But I can proudly say each and every person we helped got the same high quality of care, care that without the Red Cross, they would not have gotten.

I hope you are as proud as I am of the work that was achieved. We are after all, your local Red Cross. Since we are primarily volunteers, it’s your neighbors, your friends, and your co-workers that make up our workforce. We are funded solely by your generosity. So when we succeed, you succeed. So thank you. It is because of you that we were able to respond to 13 disasters in 24 hours.