On August 2, 2022, American Red Cross volunteers Ron Redmond and Don Powell visited the home of Martinez, California resident, Burnie Gipson, to install smoke alarms.
Burnie, who is deaf, recently moved to the area after suffering a home fire at his previous residence in San Francisco. Following the fire, which damaged multiple homes in Burnie’s residential complex, Red Cross Disaster Action Team volunteers responded to provide comfort, care and financial assistance to help impacted residents meet their immediate needs.
With an average of 60,000 disaster responses a year, the majority of these home fires, the Red Cross and our partners are every bit as focused on disaster prevention as we are on disaster response.
Enter the Home Fire Campaign: a year-round effort aimed at home fire prevention through free smoke alarm installations and preparedness education. To date, the campaign’s efforts have saved at least 1,366 lives since 2014.
One component of the Home Fire Campaign is the ability for the Red Cross to provide specialized smoke alarms to alert individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing in the event of a fire. After moving to Martinez, Burnie reached back out to the Red Cross to set up a free installation in his new home.
People who are deaf or hard of hearing are particularly vulnerable to home fires because they may not be able to hear a traditional smoke alarm. The specialized alarm, frequently referred to as a ‘Bed Shaker,’ is typically installed next to the bed, and alerts residents using a strobe light and vibrating pad that can be placed under the mattress or pillow. It is activated when an accompanying traditional smoke alarm is triggered during a fire.
“Every day, people’s lives are devastated by home fires,” said Natalie Manier, Red Cross Disaster Program Manager for Contra Costa County. “We are proud to play an important role in the prevention of home fire-related injuries in our communities, while at the same time, we’re also able to play an important role in the response process when a fire unfortunately does occur. Our volunteers ensure our services are available full circle if they are needed, and that we’re here for our community members – ensuring they do not have to face life’s emergencies alone.”
Burnie’s home now has an added element of protection thanks to his preparedness mindset and the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign.
All Red Cross services, including smoke alarm installations, are free of charge thanks to our generous partners. During short home visits, Red Cross volunteers and partners install free smoke alarms, and share information on common home fire causes, how to prevent them, what to do if a fire starts, and how to create an escape plan. If you or someone you know needs smoke alarms in their home, visit SoundTheAlarm.org/NorCalCoastal to schedule an installation appointment.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Margot Simpson, Alameda County Volunteer of the Year
By Marcia Antipa
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.”
“I see my job as being in customer service,” says Melissa Kaplan.
That is putting it mildly. Since Melissa joined the Red Cross in 2006, she has become one of the most dedicated and essential volunteers in the Northern California Coastal Region. She volunteers more than 1,200 hours a year and has performed multiple jobs in her 15 years with the Red Cross.
Fellow volunteer Angela Thompson Hunt nominated Melissa for the Gene Beck Award, named for the long-time volunteer and board member.
“She has worked tirelessly for Red Cross for such a long time and all those behind-the-scenes tasks that let other people make progress. I would not have been able to do the kind of work I’ve done if she wasn’t there with me, backing me up.“