Volunteers prepared to respond at any time

Sean Joseph

Firemen and police officers are not the only people prepared to respond to an emergency in the middle of the night. Ordinary people can be an important link in the chain of events after an emergency.

American Red Cross Disaster Action Team members are on call every night of the week, said Crystal Wagner, volunteer coordinator for the Portage County Red Cross. Two or three volunteers are always on call from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. Other volunteers who do not work are on call during the day.

After receiving a call about a fire or other emergency, police or fire department dispatchers call the DAT team leader, who has two hours to call other volunteers, get to headquarters and respond to the scene, said team leader Ida Hamilton.

After Red Cross volunteers in Portage County are notified about an emergency they go to their headquarters in Ravenna to pick up supplies that were prepared ahead of time, Hamilton said.

At the scene they take care of the fire victims, whom they refer to as clients. After providing necessary health care, the Red Cross provides emergency food, a change of clothing and shelter for a few nights if their clients can’t return to their homes, Wagner said.

Depending on their needs, Red Cross clients can be eligible to receive up to one month’s rent and vouchers for groceries, restaurants and clothes.

Winter is the busiest time of year for the volunteers because of faulty space heaters, more people smoking inside and electrical problems, Wagner said. Volunteers are normally called out five or six times a month during winter months, compared to two or three times during warmer weather. However, the teams see an increase in HAZMAT spills during the summer.

One of the latest emergencies Wagner said she responded to was a fire that completely destroyed one side of a duplex. The Red Cross put that family up in a hotel for three nights and gave them new clothes.

Even though the other side of the duplex was not on fire, it suffered smoke damage and had no utilities, Wagner said. The tenants were also given a hotel room for a night. DAT teams also respond to situations that have no victims to help the emergency crews, Wagner said. Volunteers set up canteens at scenes that several fire departments and agencies were dispatched to, like HAZMAT spills.

“It was so hot and humid, and the firemen had to wear all their protective gear,” Hamilton said. “It’s not just a courtesy service, it’s a necessity that these workers stay hydrated.”

The volunteers stay “in the rear with the gear” and provide coffee and hot chocolate when it’s cold and water and juice when it’s hot, said Lt. Dave Manthey of the Kent Fire Department.

“The Red Cross provides great services, not only for our guys, but the public too. They are always there for the victims,” Manthey said.

If Red Cross volunteers don’t show up, most fire departments have personnel to provide services to the victims, but the DAT teams are a good auxiliary resource, Manthey said.

Hamilton said she is on call every Friday night and an entire weekend once a month as a DAT team leader.

“I get called out more often then I thought I would,” said Hamilton, who has been on a DAT team since last year. “Recently, I’ve been called on two Friday nights, two weekends and at 2:30 last Wednesday morning.”

Sometimes it is difficult for DAT team leaders to get other volunteers to a scene in the middle of the night so team leaders from other nights are called, Hamilton said.

“When there is a fire and people’s lives are in danger, it’s worth getting up in the middle of the night,” Hamilton said.

Wagner became a Red Cross Volunteer in 2001, the first emergency she responded to was in New York City after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Hamilton started last year, inspired by the tsunami disaster. Both women are now certified to respond to any emergency in the United States.

“Becoming a Red Cross volunteer after I retired gave me a chance not only to help people, but to travel a little bit too,” said Wagner.

The Red Cross is getting more volunteers now because they are asking for smaller chunks of people’s times, Wagner said. Volunteers used to be on call all the time, now they are only asked to be responsible for one night a week or even one night a month.

“People have very busy lives,” Wagner said. “We try to accommodate people’s needs and get them to volunteer without interrupting their lives.”

People who are interested in volunteering for the Red Cross in Portage County can contact Wagner at (330) 296-9991.

Contact off campus reporter Sean Joseph at [email protected].