Pandemic hasn’t changed need for Red Cross DAT calls, just the way we’re doing them


Jillian Balceta, an AmeriCorps worker in the Silicon Valley Chapter, also serves on the chapter’s DAT and Casework teams. She supported the DAT team on two recent calls using her computer at home.

While the Covid-19 crisis has shuttered businesses, postponed community events, and required widespread sheltering-in-place, the pandemic hasn’t changed at least one thing: Individuals and families are still confronted with home fires and other emergencies that require critical assistance from the American Red Cross.

In our region alone, there were 17 such incidents just last week that required a prompt response from a Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT).

“We had three DAT calls in San Jose in a little over four hours one morning last week,” says Terry Unter, DAT Coordinator for the Silicon Valley Chapter and — effective several weeks ago — DAT Lead for the entire Northern California Coastal Region (NCCR).

But with social distancing the norm inside (and outside) of our region, the Red Cross has moved rapidly to adjust its DAT-response protocols.

“It became obvious that we needed to protect Red Crossers who respond to DAT calls from possible coronavirus contamination,” Unter says. “But it also became clear that we must similarly protect the local residents who are served by our responders.”

That’s why Red Cross teams in recent weeks have begun to handle DAT calls “virtually.”

Before Covid-19, teams would typically drive to the scene of DAT-level emergency, meet with the affected people, verify needed case information, and provide financial and/or other support face to face. Now, our region’s DAT members and caseworkers are doing almost all of their work over the phone or with video calls.

In the Central Coast Chapter, that’s just how a DAT team handled a home fire earlier this month in the rural Monterey County area called Royal Oaks.

“It was a pretty severe residential fire,” says Dan Kemper, Disaster Chair for the chapter that encompasses Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Cruz Counties. “The couple who lived there were both in their early 90s. She was OK, and a neighbor took her in that first night; but he needed to be hospitalized for smoke inhalation.”

Receiving a message from the North Monterey County Fire Department, the chapter’s DAT responders were able to contact the couple’s children, complete the disaster documentation with help from the local fire department, and provide the couple with immediate financial assistance.

“The last step was a little tricky,” Kemper said, “as we’re used to meeting with clients face to face and, if appropriate, giving them a Client Assistant Card [CAC] to help them pay for emergency expenses like lodging, clothing, and food.”

In this case, Central Coast Chapter volunteer Dwayne Taaffe, DAT Lead for Monterey and San Benito Counties, was dispatched to the scene as a “runner,” Kemper said. “Dwayne was able to verify the client I.D. through the window of his vehicle, leave the card outside his vehicle, and witness the client retrieve it.”

The follow-up casework, much of which has been typically been done over the phone, is still being handled that way.

Unter says DAT responders in Santa Clara County, where his local team is based, and elsewhere in the region are handling calls in an identical manner. He is especially appreciative of the support his and a number of other NCCR teams are receiving from responding fire departments. “In our recent calls in Silicon Valley, the San Jose Fire Department has been a tremendous help with the damage assessment and identity verification parts of our interview,” Unter says. “We can’t thank them enough for helping us with those key pieces of our DAT work.”

Both Unter and Kemper say the virtual calls, while necessary for the time being, are imperfect in one key area.

“The unavoidable downside of these virtual protocols,” Unter says, “is you don’t get that personal contact. And sometimes you get important clues about how clients are doing or what they really need just by being there and talking to them in person.”

Adds Kemper: “I’d much rather go and let the people know in person that we care about them and are going to help them get through their emergency. We can’t give the clients a hug over the phone.”