Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Day in the Red Cross Jacket: A Ride-Along with the Metro New York Red Cross

Story and photos by Amanda Grzymala

On the blustery night of Thursday, Feb. 10, I scoured my Manhattan College campus for a friend with work boots, size 9, that I could borrow. When packing for college this year (I’m a junior), I did not figure work boots into the equation, but I guess I should have. The following day, I was getting the chance to go on a “ride along” with the Metro New York Red Cross. In order to accompany a Disaster Response team, I needed to wear sturdy boots that would not be afraid of dirt.

I had been working as an intern in the Marketing and PR department for two weeks when I was given this opportunity to see firsthand where the real difference is made, what we in Metro NY are fundraising for, and how we as an organization provide crucial services to New Yorkers displaced by disasters.

Although I woke up a bit earlier and a bit more energetic than most mornings, my commute to the office seemed to drag because of anticipation. When I bounded into the office, I was escorted to the building’s Disaster Response area and was fitted with all the essentials needed by a responder: a walkie-talkie, a Red Cross jacket and a bag containing a hard hat and paperwork. Not to mention video equipment. As the Marketing and Public Relations intern, my task was to document and record. All geared up, I was raring to go.

I was to work with two responders that day: Luke Carron and Nell Baird. Both were AmeriCorps volunteers with a few years experience serving the Red Cross here in New York. AmeriCorps volunteers devote their time to a community or national cause while receiving a stipend for living expenses. Luke and Nell welcomed me to their shift and chatted about the upcoming weekend. With light hearts and positive outlooks, both responders were able to keep an upbeat attitude while waiting for the next disaster response. They explained to me that they did not know when they were going to be called out, that it was a guessing game of events. I would just have to sit patiently and wait.

And wait.

Settling back into my usual cubicle in Marketing and PR, I began other work. The excitement began to subside, until a call came ringing in loud and clear around 10:30 a.m. Quickly grabbing my gear, I sped downstairs to meet Luke and Nell, and off we went in a Red Cross van.

 We’re called to a “vacate”

The first incident was one that surprised me, a “vacate” order in the Bronx. When you think of disaster response, you immediately think of fires and extreme nature conditions, not vacate orders. Buildings (or individual apartments) are ordered to be vacated when a city agency has determined that the residence is unfit or unsafe to inhabit. Although intended to ensure the safety and well-being of a building’s or apartment’s occupants, vacate orders often leave residents homeless, many times with little or no advance notice. The Red Cross was called to assist the now ex-tenants. As we entered the home, we learned that two people had been evicted from attic apartments and needed Red Cross help. They were taken surprise by the eviction and had nowhere to go.

That’s when I understood how vital Red Cross help is in these situations and how much good the Red Cross does for those affected. The responders offered the tenants a hotel room for the weekend and financial support for food and basic necessities. They encouraged them to visit the chapter for further support and guidance.

It was after helping to escort one of the clients to a hotel that I realized that this is a truly warm-the-heart kind of goodness that not many interns can say they have experienced.

We respond to a residential fire

Soon after leaving the hotel, around 1 pm, we were called to a fire in the Bronx. This was it. I had known that the Red Cross responds to fires, and had been fortunate enough to never experience one myself. We raced across the Bronx to a residential neighborhood where we saw a multitude of fire trucks pulling up to a blocked-off street. Climbing out of the van, we were ready to enter the madness that accompanies the stress of a fire.

The world seemed a little dimmer as we crossed the police tape and stood beside the firemen and police. They had done their job, putting out the fire and securing the area. Now the task of helping the residents was up to the Red Cross. As we looked up at the building, we could see windows smashed and fire-scorched brick. Displaced residents were huddled on the stoops of neighboring apartments, wondering what they were going to do next.

I could not imagine the worries that must stampede through a person’s mind after experiencing a fire that ruins every possession they own. When we were given the “all-clear,” the responders and I were able to enter the building. I watched as Luke and Nell conducted damage reports on the apartments. I was unable to tell what was damaged beyond repair, what was water damaged and things that were salvageable. Luckily, I was not the one to make those decisions. I did my job, which was to snap photo after photo of the scene.

Then came the questions. We were the link between the fire marshals and the residents, each of whom wanted to know when they would be able to enter the building and clean up the mess. As the day pressed on and they were still not allowed to enter the building, the concern in their eyes gave way to stress and confusion.

After about two hours, safety inspections were completed by the fire marshals and the building was deemed uninhabitable because water and electricity had to be switched off while repairs were being made. Everyone now needed safe shelter for the night—and possibly beyond.

We systematically and carefully walked residents to their apartments to collect essential belongings, then walked them back down to safety. It was difficult to watch the tenants’ reactions as they re-entered the building. Their apartment doors were damaged and their things were soaked or smelled of soot. A woman who knew the tenant from the apartment where the fire started wished to grab paperwork for him, but just by glimpsing the unit, she could tell nothing was salvageable.

As it grew dark and the cold grew treacherous, chilling everyone to the bone, the responders provided hotel accommodations for every person who had no other alternative, arranged a bus to the hotel, and food for the night. They also encouraged everyone to visit the chapter as soon as the next day to receive further assistance and support.

A feeling of gratitude

By this point, my shift and the shifts of the responders I was working with had ended hours earlier. I found this remarkable. The responders are volunteers and employees who give their time, effort and compassion to people they do not know, and may never see again. Luke and Nell took on this heavy work load and did so with a sense of calm and control. An entire building of people had to be taken care of, something that Red Cross responders see often.

This had been a long day. Riding back to the chapter, I let out a sigh of relief. I had an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for what I have been fortunate enough to have in my life, what I have been lucky enough not to lose. As we entered the garage, I was snapped back to reality, seeing yet another van with a team of responders heading out to an incident. This is a living, breathing organization of caring individuals that give their time and energy to others. In fact, each day, the chapter responds to an average of 7 disasters in Greater New York.

I am thankful to be part of such an organization, and as I headed home to fall into a deep sleep, I felt calm knowing that even though my day was over, the Red Cross was still going strong, providing hope to the city that never sleeps.


  1. Dear Amanda,

    Thank you very much for sharing your story. I am impatiently waiting for my first Ride-Along on April 10th. Good luck with your experience with Red Cross.

    Anna Shpek

  2. Dear Amanda, I enjoyed reading your blog today. As a Social worker with Dept. of Social Services, I work with people after Red Cross has helped them initially and they are truly grateful. It is a difficult and scary time for them and we are all very lucky to have the Red Cross volunteers to make it alittle easier. Your blog gave me a glimpse of what they do every day. Thanks.

    Barbara Leo

  3. Do you still have jackets like these? I work in the Information Technology Office of the Red Cross Society in the Philippines. Quite useful, memorable, especially when its my birthday next month.


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