Tag Archives: Disaster Response

Disaster Response: From Behind the Scenes to the Front Lines

By Alex Keilty

Cameron with an Emergency Response Vehicle in New York City in 2019, which is used to deliver food and water to the site of a disaster.

When Cameron Bochman was completing his accounting degree in North Carolina, did he ever imagine his work would take him to a meeting with FBI agents who were investigating a helicopter crash in New York City? No he didn’t, because his career path has been anything but predictable.  

Cameron, an American Red Cross employee, studied accounting because he had a natural talent for it. He says, “I took accounting because it clicked with me. But I didn’t really feel it was my passion.”

He found that passion after a two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in China.

“I knew I wanted to do something in humanitarian work,” he says. “And the Red Cross really stood out.” And so this Boston hometown boy packed his bags for New York City three and a half years ago to start his job as a Disaster Response Manager working the overnight shift from midnight to 8 a.m.

Part of a Disaster Action Team – a group of employees and volunteers who are the first, on-the-scene, Red Cross contacts at the site of disasters – Cameron observed the “power of volunteers,” as he calls it. His volunteers responded to countless home fires within an hour of getting a call from the fire department. On site, they provided a shoulder to cry on for those displaced by the fire, and financial assistance in the form of a prepaid debit card that residents could use for shelter at a hotel, groceries, replacing clothing or any other expenses. Then the residents would be referred to Red Cross caseworkers for help with further recovery. 

But back to that meeting with the FBI agents… In addition to home fires, there were unexpected emergencies like when a helicopter crash landed on the roof of a Manhattan building, tragically killing the pilot and erupting in flames.

Cameron at the site of one of his first Disaster Action Team responses in New York City, responding to a multi-family fire in Brooklyn. 

On that freezing cold day, Cameron and his team brought a van loaded with meals, snacks and water to feed first responders as they worked at the site. Cameron also attended meetings with the intelligence agents who were investigating the crash to determine if it was a terrorist act.

Working in New York was never boring, but after a year Cameron wanted to work with the community in a different way. Running public engagement events and prevention programs appealed to him. And so did the sunny skies of California!  

So he moved to Alameda County, to become a Disaster Program Manager, where he helps organize the Home Fire Campaign including the Sound the Alarm program to install free smoke alarms in homes across the county, and the nation.

Cameron and his team of employees and volunteers are also ready to respond to small and large scale tragedies, like when a lightning storm in the summer of 2020 sparked fires across Northern California. Cameron’s team facilitated the opening of an evacuation center and set up a shelter where evacuees from Livermore could sleep, get hot meals, access mental health support and receive the latest information from emergency responders.

Not predictable but definitely rewarding, Cameron says of his work: “You walk away feeling like you did something good.”

Mo Ghandehari – Disaster Action Team Volunteer Extraordinaire

By Larry Dietz

American Red Cross Volunteer Mo Ghandehari is an incredible example of the Red Cross mission – and of the caring and dedicated individuals who do what it takes to accomplish that mission.

Mo started with the Red Cross in 2000, first in Las Vegas, then in Salt Lake City, before moving to California and joining the Silicon Valley Chapter in 2007.

Mo Ghandehari on a Disaster Action Team response.

One of Mo’s first positions as a Red Cross volunteer was on his local Disaster Action Team (DAT). In this role, he responded to the full range of disaster calls ranging from fires in homes, mobile homes, condos, and even a ski resort. He even had the unique experience of responding to a home fire where he and the team installed smoke alarms only a few months earlier.

Red Cross volunteers from the Northern California Coastal Region respond to between 30 and 40 disasters a week where a small handful of local DAT volunteers are some of the first on scene to assist families that have been affected.

The first job of the DAT volunteer on site is to help make the affected residents comfortable and to get them the immediate assistance or materials they might need. This could include simple things like blankets or water. Though, the needs of those affected varies from disaster to disaster, and DAT volunteers also help arrange lodging or financial assistance, which allows families to pay for immediate needs and get back on their feet.

DAT volunteers are also general volunteers and can work in other Red Cross areas. In particular, they can work in their local chapter to perform inventories or make sure that supplies and vehicles are ready to go where they are needed.

There are constant training opportunities for DAT volunteers to learn more about the latest in Red Cross systems, or improve skills with courses like Psychological First Aid: Helping Others in Times of Stress.

DAT volunteers are committed. Many sign up for frequent shifts and are always ready to answer the call, no matter what time of the day or night. When disaster strikes, speed is of the essence, whether it is a major wildfire or a single-family home fire. DAT volunteers have the enthusiasm and confidence to deal with a variety of situations.

Mo advises new DAT members to be proactive in seeking initial training. You can start with your chapter’s DAT lead, or the workforce engagement lead, or the Disaster Program Manager for your area to enroll in training. Though, he says there is no substitute for being on-call and responding.

“It is truly gratifying to help a family that needs a place to stay for a few days, before figuring things out,” he said. “When you are on the scene it is very important to be patient, and respectful of those who were affected and to work closely with your supervisors and managers.”

While the core of being a DAT volunteer is at the local level, there are also many opportunities to expand one’s volunteer career path and deploy to a major disaster as a shelter volunteer as well. It comes as no surprise that Mo has seized many opportunities to deploy and lend his talents across the nation.

When asked about which of his deployments captured the essence of really being on a deployment, he said his time as a shelter supervisor during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 would have to be the one.  It was Mo’s first assignment as a shelter supervisor on a disaster response. The shelter was in an elementary school in Pearl River, Louisiana.

“The experience taught me to treat shelter residents just like you would treat your own house guests,” he said. “Our crew did just that! The shelter experience was a team effort between the Red Cross and local volunteers. They opened and operated this shelter for two to three days, and were exhausted and very happy to see us. Residents had already been pitching in – helping the team to prepare breakfast, cleaning the bathrooms, and doing other chores.  We had no electricity and water for the first few days. The new shelter team, which consisted of four volunteers, plus residents (before others arrived), were literally like a family (the shelter had about 50-80 residents), helping each other to make it through.” 

Not only did Mo develop is shelter management skills and style on this deployment, it also taught him about the satisfaction of serving.

“As I was leaving the job – after two weeks – I noticed a hand-written thank you note on the board, on behalf of the shelter, saying that I provided good care during my two weeks as shelter manager,” he recalls. “This, to me, was heartwarming – a very good rewards for two weeks of hard work.”

When asked about what it takes to be a successful shelter manager, Mo said, “Being compassionate, friendly, and able to relate to people from all walks of life, able to establish trust with supervisors and shelter workers, and being a coach and mentor to other team members.”

Mo is a shining example of a Red Cross volunteer. He has won a number of awards, including the Chapter International Services Award (2021), the Extraordinary Commitment and Dedication Award for Chapter Disaster Cycle Services (2016) and the Chapter Clara Barton Award (2012).

You too can become a Disaster Action Team or Sheltering Volunteer and serve your community in their time of need. Visit redcross.org/volunteer to learn more.

Red Cross volunteer: “This is what we do; we go where we’re needed.” 

Dawson Springs, Kentucky was just one of the communities that was severely damaged by a series of tornadoes that swept through several states on Dec. 11. Photo by Jodi Wallace/American Red Cross

It was Dec. 11, and Jodi Wallace, a 16-year veteran Red Cross volunteer from California’s Silicon Valley chapter, was already tired when she got the call to go to Kentucky after a series of tornadoes had devastated broad swaths of that state.

Wallace, 60, had spent most of August responding to California’s Gold County fires and then moved on to assist with the hurricane response in Louisiana. After that, she had helped with the flood response in Washington state. She had been home for only a little more than a week, ready for a well-deserved break, when the call came in.

She knew the scale of the disaster meant the Red Cross would be needed more than ever, so she asked her husband what he thought. “He always tells me, ‘this is what you trained for,'” Wallace says. He’s even teased her: “Would you like me to pick a better month and schedule a disaster for you?”

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Looking back on 2021

Please join us as we say goodbye to 2021 with a look back at some of our favorite stories of the year from all of our lines of service.

Service to the Armed Forces

Lisa Ann Rohr was one of nine Red Cross SAF Mobile personnel who left the U.S. for overseas duty from August 2020 to April 2021. Lisa Ann was one of two Red Crossers initially stationed in Iraq, at the diplomatic post Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center (BDSC).

She says: “My entire ‘boots on the ground’ experience providing virtual services in Emergency Communications Messaging Delivery and Service Member follow-up with my peers, to creative ‘no contact’ distribution of incoming holiday donations, gifts and personal care items, to organizing cooking classes, language classes, and cultural history classes for U.S. and Coalition military forces serving their deployment rotation at BDSC, was a dream come true!”

You can read more about Lisa’s experiences here.


Lifesaving Blood

Blood donor Jennifer Sahni credits the Red Cross for saving her life after a challenging childbirth. After delivery, Jennifer’s cesarean incision would not stop bleeding. She received two units of blood, which stabilized her. Two days later, she had to receive a second transfusion with an additional two units of blood. She was able to go home the next day.

“I am so grateful to the people who donated the blood I received,” Jennifer said. “Because of them, I was able to go home and be with my kids. You can read more about Jennifer’s story here.


Training Services

On Tuesday, March 16, two local residents were honored with American Red Cross commendations in a virtual ceremony hosted by the organization’s Central Coast Chapter.

“These two individuals exemplify the mission of the Red Cross to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies and are to be commended for their willingness to help others in distress.” – Michele Averill, Executive Director of the American Red Cross Central Coast Chapter. You can read more about Linda and Robert here.


International Services

Red Crossers and the public at large were invited to a speaker series to learn how the American Red Cross International Services team provides relief and hope in communities around the globe by reconnecting families separated by crises, helping rebuild communities devastated by disasters and working alongside health organizations to eliminated global disease. 

Featured panelists included Chris Losavio, Executive Director, Heart of the Valley Chapter American Red Cross Northern California Coastal Region; Patrick Hamilton, Head of Delegation for the United States and Canada International Committee of the Red Cross; Koby J. Langley, Senior Vice President, Service to the Armed Forces and International Services American Red Cross; Christine Medeiros, Pacific Division Lead, Restoring Family Links American Red Cross. You can view a recording of the discussion here.


Disaster Services

Navy veteran Michael Ocaranza awoke earlier this year to flames engulfing his apartment. He had just enough time to grab his dog, Sparky, and race out the door as fire licked around his head.

American Red Cross volunteers and case managers, Betsy Witthohn and Cindy Jones, first contacted Mike during his hospitalization and began to put together resources for his welfare following his stay. During the recovery process, Mike says they became “like friends from the past that I never had before – it’s a good feeling all over.”

You can read more about Mike’s story here.


From all of us in Communications, Happy Holidays and best wishes for the New Year!

If you have a story lead for any one of our writers, please email us at NCCRPublicAffairs@redcross.org.

“I’m here to help, and I care.”

Margot Simpson, Alameda County Volunteer of the Year

By Marcia Antipa

Margot during the Lake County fires of 2015

Margot Simpson has responded to hundreds of house and apartment fires in more than a dozen years as a Red Cross volunteer. One of those Disaster Action Team (DAT) calls happened on a summer day at a 12-unit apartment building in Oakland.

“The residents were all standing outside; they were not all friendly with each other, so it was kind of a tense situation.”

Margot acted quickly, rallying her Red Cross trainees to gather information and hand out comfort kits filled with toiletries.

“It got interesting because two of the residents almost came to blows arguing out in front of the building. I had to step up to them and say ‘Look, we’ll leave and nobody gets help if you two don’t stop.’ So they did.”

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Volunteer lifts morale of all around her

Deborah Torres knew she wanted to volunteer for the Red Cross even before she retired from San Mateo County, where she ended a long career in social services and public mental health in 2013. Not long before her retirement, Torres found herself partnering with the Red Cross after two large fires destroyed two apartment buildings in Redwood City. The Red Cross had opened a shelter at the armory near Red Morton Park for people displaced by the fires and was helping them figure out their paths to recovery. “I got to see [the Red Cross] in action,” Torres said.

“I told myself when I started working with Red Cross, that when I retire that’s what I’m going to do,” she said.

Just three months after her September 2013 retirement, Torres became a Red Cross volunteer.

And this year, Torres was named the Red Cross Volunteer of the Year for San Mateo County.

“I was totally surprised [to receive the award],” Torres said. However, her fellow volunteers were not surprised. Torres’s background in social services and mental health and as a bilingual Latina with decades of experience working in the county make her invaluable.

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