Wednesday, May 4, 2016

My First “Ride-Along”

By Stan Frank, American Red Cross

Although I have been volunteering with the Red Cross for five months, I didn’t quite know what to expect when I was invited for my first “Ride-Along”, especially since I was advised to wear long pants and sturdy boots…but I would soon find out. I chose to go out on a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift on a Tuesday morning.

I arrived early at the staging area on the second floor of the New York Chapter Offices and was greeted by Harry Davila, Response Manager, who introduced me to the two seasoned responders with whom I would “ride along” that day, Jean Cappello and Donna Bascom. Jean has been a volunteer responder for about ten years and Donna has more than three-years experience. They often work as a team one or two days a week as responders who help residents after local disasters.

Donna Bascom and Jean Cappello are seasoned responders who often work as a team. 
They keep the Emergency Communications Center advised of their findings at the scene.

After being outfitted with a “Go-Bag”, a Red Cross vest, jacket and helmet, Jean reviewed a PowerPoint presentation with me on the responsibilities of a Response Team and the do’s and don’ts for responders. Then we waited.

At 11 a.m. we got a call from the Emergency Communications Center (ECC) of a fire in a residential neighborhood of Queens. The ECC had verified the incident and assigned it an Incident Number, which would be used in all reports and communications.

Jean, Donna and I immediately grabbed our gear and went to the basement parking area where we selected a Red Cross van and headed out to Queens. The van had been pre-loaded with basic supplies such as Red Cross blankets, clean-up kits, water and snacks. Guided by our GPS system, Jean drove while Donna alerted the ECC we were on our way. Meanwhile, the ECC informed us that the fire had been elevated to a two-alarm fire.

Because of heavy traffic in Manhattan, it took us about 50 minutes to reach the fire scene in Queens. When we arrived in the middle-class residential neighborhood, the scene was chaotic. We saw about a dozen fire engines and half-a-dozen police cars, all with their red lights flashing. Residents of the burned buildings and neighbors were lined up on one side of the street. You could smell smoke in the air. Firemen and police officers were everywhere. By this time, the fire had been extinguished and the Fire Battalion Chief was inspecting the damage. Meanwhile, Jean and Donna kept in communication with the ECC and began filling out the necessary paperwork.

At first glance the house where the fire began appeared to have little damage.

Three 2-story houses had been affected by the fire. The house on the right side only suffered minor smoke damage. At first glance, the middle house where the fire began and the adjacent house on its left appeared to have minimal damage, but when the Battalion Chief gave us the OK to enter and assess the damage, it was much worse than it appeared. The inside and rear of both houses had been completely destroyed and were totally uninhabitable. Water on the first floor was an inch deep and ceilings and walls were either gone or barely standing. Clothing and personal items were strewn everywhere.

Donna assessed the damage and entered it into her iPad.

The inside and rear of both houses had been completely destroyed and were totally uninhabitable.

We were told by neighbors that six or seven members of an extended family lived in the middle house where the fire began. Jean and Donna tried several times to speak with the family to get more information and offer assistance if needed but they did not want to speak with us. Jean did, however, leave a sticker on the front door with the Red Cross phone number and the case number if the family decided to ask for help.

Six or seven members of an extended family lived in the house where the fire began.

We were able to speak with the owner of the adjacent house who said she did not need housing assistance. She was given a Client Assistance Card (CAC), which the responders are able to load with money for food and/or clothing purchases, depending on the number of people in the displaced family. We also provided information on seeing a Client Services caseworker at the Red Cross New York Headquarters. Our caseworkers help displaced residents make connections with the different NYC agencies such as the NYC Housing Authority.

After spending about three hours at the fire scene, we returned to the New York Chapter staging area to wait for the next call.

My “Ride-Along” proved to be an eye opening experience. It showed me what an invaluable service our volunteer responders provide to victims of fires or other incidents 5 to 20 times every day.

If you want to make a difference in someone’s life, sign up to become a Red Cross Volunteer. Visit:

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