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The Red Cross Responds to Disasters — and the Critics

Senior Vice President Harvey Johnson discusses the mission and the criticism.

Red Cross (2)
The American Red Cross is one of the key partners working with emergency managers at all levels of government. When disasters strike Red Cross staff and volunteers play key roles in humanitarian assistance. As we moved into the 21st Century the Red Cross has been criticized for the manner in which it has provided services.

There are always two sides to every story. To get the Red Cross’ perspective, we submitted questions to the Red Cross. Harvey Johnson, senior vice president for Disaster Cycle Services provided responses to those questions below. Johnson’s career path included service in the in the United States Coast Guard where he served for 30 years, and also previously as FEMA’s deputy administrator and chief operating officer.

Q: Over the last few years the American Red Cross has regionalized its services and changed some aspects of its service delivery model. How would you describe those changes?

The Red Cross has completed a number of initiatives since 2008 to ensure that our structure allows us to deliver our mission while being cost efficient. These initiatives have aimed to eliminate redundant back-office functions and create a service model for providing service with fewer staff. The goal has always been to reduce the costs of delivering services — not the services themselves. As a result, across the Red Cross, we’ve cut management and general overhead expenses significantly in the last eight years.

In 2013, we embarked on a separate improvement strategy that was specific to the Red Cross Disaster Services. Its intent was to create a stronger, better integrated and more field-based organization for delivering Red Cross disaster services. That reengineering effort was headcount neutral and focused on optimizing national and regional Disaster Cycle Services teams.

As a result, we moved staff from the national headquarters team to the field. In addition, we employed division disaster staff and gave regions and divisions better control over their disaster staff. Through subsequent organization-wide reductions, Red Cross leaders have been careful to preserve this basic, field-based structure, to ensure that the benefits of reengineering, including decision-making from the field, closest to the people and communities we serve, remained intact.

Q: Humanitarian relief is a primary function of the Red Cross in responding to disasters. What are some of the key services provided by the Red Cross--post disaster?

We provide services across the whole disaster cycle — helping individuals and communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. We respond to an emergency every eight minutes — or nearly 66,000 disasters, large and small, each year. In 2015, 65 of those were large disasters. About 90 percent of the disasters we respond to each year are home fires. 

In the post-disaster phase, our primary response and recovery services are:
•    Sheltering — The Red Cross provides shelter to make sure people have a safe place to stay, a hot meal and access to support from trained volunteers. In 2015, we provided over 34,000 overnight shelter stays and provided resources and help to find shelter to thousands of individuals and families impacted by home fires.

•    Fixed and mobile feeding — After a disaster, we work with community partners to provide hot meals, snacks and water served at shelters or from Red Cross emergency response vehicles in affected neighborhoods. Last year, we served over 1,000,000 meals and snacks in disaster-affected communities.

•    Distribution of bulk relief supplies — We distribute basic personal supplies needed in the aftermath of a disaster, such as toothbrushes, deodorant and shampoo and other supplies like tarps, rakes, shovels, and trash bags to help people clean up their homes and return to normalcy. Last year we distributed more than 800,000 relief supply items.

•    Health, Mental Health and Spiritual Care Services — Our health, mental health and spiritual care volunteers travel to disaster sites to help people cope. Health workers can provide first aid treatment for injuries, monitor the well-being of people staying in Red Cross shelters, and replace prescription medications or eyeglasses. Other workers specialize in providing emotional support, and helping people to cope after a disaster.

•    Reunification and Safe and Well Linking — When disasters strike, normal communication methods can fail, and loved ones can become separated. People outside the disaster-affected area may not be able to reach their loved ones. Our reunification and Safe and Well Linking programs assist people with communicating to their loved ones that they are safe and facilitates their reunification.

•    Casework and Recovery Planning — We help individuals and families develop recovery plans, accessing the full range of community and government resources, advocacy and problem solving. Where and when there is no federal declaration for individual assistance, we provide financial assistance to help meet basic needs, such as food and clothing. In the event of a federal declaration, we may also provide financial assistance for disaster-impacted individuals and families who are ineligible for individual assistance.

Q: During the Craig Fugate era at FEMA, a concerted effort has been made to push resources forward for forecasted hurricane events. This is being done to reduce the response time from state and local jurisdictions when they do ask for help. Has the Red Cross implemented anything like this for your services?

We fully agree with Administrator Fugate’s emergency management philosophy to, “Go early, go big, go fast, and go smart.” To that end, over the past year, we’ve pushed resources forward in advance of hurricanes, wildfires, and predicted storms, and quickly upon occurrence of no notice events such as tornadoes and floods. Those resources have included response teams, government liaisons, and trailers filled with shelter supplies, food, bulk relief goods, and disability integration equipment. By strategically positioning equipment in advance of predicted events, we can provide more help faster to those in need.

Q: What is the division of responsibilities between the Red Cross and FEMA for Emergency Support Function (ESF) 6, Mass Care?

The respective roles of the Red Cross and FEMA for ESF #6 are described in the National Response Framework and the associated Support Annex for ESF #6. As designated in the ESF #6 Annex, FEMA is the coordinator and primary agency for ESF #6, and the Red Cross serves as the co-primary agency for the mass care component. We’re also a support agency for the other three components of ESF #6.

In fulfilling our joint ESF #6 mass care responsibilities, we work with FEMA to improve nationwide mass care service delivery. Together, we support, provide technical assistance on, and convene other partners regarding accessible and inclusive mass care service delivery. This includes sheltering, feeding, supply distribution, access and functional needs support, household pet and service animal support, and reunification services. Our work with FEMA includes:

•    Developing and executing mass care and other response strategies which leverage one another’s logistical capabilities and mass care technical expertise.

•    Increasing Federal Interagency readiness to fulfill ESF #6 responsibilities by convening ESF #6 Support Agencies, assisting agencies in developing procedures for implementing their responsibilities, and identifying multi-agency capacity to fulfill responsibilities.

•    Coordinating to deconflict information and resource requests from state, local, tribal and territorial governments and partner organization or with the federal interagency response.

•    Co-leading the National Mass Care Council, working with other Co-Council leads and partnering with other support organizations to develop the National Mass Care Strategy, including the strategic goals of developing common terminology, increasing mass care capabilities and capacities, and cataloguing best practices for accessible, inclusive, and improved nationwide service delivery.

Q: Would the Red Cross ever become involved with providing long-term temporary housing that mirrors some of FEMA's efforts in a post-disaster scenario?

While the Red Cross has a long history of stepping in to fill in gaps in a community's recovery consistent with our mission and where resources are available to do so, we do not offer a transitional program that mirrors FEMA’s. Following Hurricane Katrina, we did create a temporary housing program, not dissimilar from FEMA's Transitional Shelter Assistance program today, that enabled survivors to stay temporarily in hotels. In 2014, we began implementation of a new recovery framework that allows for consistent and standardized delivery of recovery services to individuals, families and communities. Although, transitional housing is not a key element of that framework, we remain flexible to help fill gaps in a community's recovery, including housing needs, whether through our technical expertise, grants or direct funding of a solution.

Q: What is the status of the Red Cross volunteer cadre that A) works in the local communities and B) is deployable to disasters that occur anywhere in the nation? By status, I mean, specifically, how robust are the numbers of volunteers you have access to?

We have 37,684 registered disaster responders across the country who respond to disasters in their own communities. Of those, 13,792 are registered as “national responders” and may be available at any given time to respond to a disaster anywhere in the country. The availability of our national responders depends on the disaster, our organizational need and the calendar (it fluctuates seasonally).

In recent months during “steady state,” we’ve had approximately 2000 responders registered as available. When a large disaster event occurs, that number surges. For example, to support recent flood relief efforts in Louisiana, we have staffed our operations with well over 4,000 Red Crossers from all 50 states, District of Columbia. and Puerto Rico.

Q: What is the best way for first state and then local emergency managers to coordinate their activities with that of the Red Cross when they arrive in a region to provide assistance?

The best way for state and local emergency managers to ensure coordination with the Red Cross is through pre-disaster readiness, response and recovery planning. Coordination is best achieved and sustained when agencies work together before a disaster occurs to ensure they have a shared understanding of the disaster risks in the community, the mission, capacity and capability of each responding agency, and a plan for how each agency will react and respond to the disaster.
Q: What are the Red Cross's policies in respect to emergent volunteers who arrive on scene and wish to help as A) individuals B) organized groups of volunteers, such as a single church cadre of people?

We welcome event-based volunteers, both individuals and groups. Every disaster has different needs, but we strive to effectively utilize and maximize offers of volunteer support. Our goals in engaging event-based volunteers are to complete intake quickly (this includes volunteer registration, a background check, and assignment to a position), to provide effective training for assignments, and to ensure support and training throughout their assignment. Our goal is to enhance our ability to serve people in need and provide volunteers with a satisfying volunteer experience.

Q: The Red Cross was an early adopter of social media tools. What specific applications do you use to achieve situational awareness and to monitor for rumors?

Our social media team uses Salesforce Social Studio, which includes Radian6.

Q: What advice do you have for local emergency managers who might be hesitant to implement the use of social media usage in a disaster and post-disaster situation?

Given many American’s increasing reliance on social and mobile technologies, it’s a riskier option to not use social media in disaster situations (that includes pre-, during, and post-disaster situations). Monitoring conversations on social media can alert emergency managers to rising disaster situations, as well as needs and complications during disasters and the recovery process.

Social channels also provide quick and nimble means of connecting people to potentially lifesaving help and resources. A U.S. survey we conducted earlier this year found that almost half (47 percent) of those who participate in any online communities or social media have used social media to get information during an emergency, disaster or severe weather event. And among those, more than four in five (85 percent) have taken some kind of action based on the information they saw.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add about the Red Cross and your disaster response that we have not covered already?

The American Red Cross has been proud to provide response services as a gift from the American people to meet the needs of those impacted by disasters large and small. Our response services are provided and led by a largely volunteer workforce. In addition to those response services, the Red Cross also serves communities across the country in support of preparedness and recovery missions as well. For example, starting in October 2014, the Red Cross has worked with fire departments and community groups across the country as part of a multiyear campaign to reduce the number of home fire deaths and injuries by 25 percent; home fires remain the biggest disaster threat to individuals and families in the U.S. This campaign is in direct response to that dire threat, with the Red Cross committing to install 2.5 million free smoke alarms in neighborhoods at high risk for fires, and to educate those residents about fire prevention and preparedness. The Red Cross is fully committed to being there for communities across the country, before, during and after a disaster. 

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.
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