Feb 15, 2012 Neil Benjamin Jr. Uncategorized
The American Red Cross of Central New York has been quite busy in the last few months in the wake of many recent fires in the Syracuse area.
Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 10, the Red Cross responded to 13 fire calls, assisting a total of 75 clients and providing $19,755 in assistance to those in need. In the 12 months prior to Jan. 1, the Red Cross showed up to 178 calls involving 712 clients and provided $142,779 in assistance.
The squad assigned to fires and other disasters is the Disaster Action Team, a group of volunteers trained to help those clients immediately after something terrible happens. Most of the time, the DAT helps with people affected by fire.
Nicki Macallair, a Syracuse resident since 1970 and area English teacher whose father was a volunteer firefighter for 50 years, decided to give her time to the Red Cross. On May 30, 2009, Macallair became an official member because she wanted to give her time for not just a good cause, but a good cause and an exciting time.
“I was inspired by [hurricane] Katrina,” Macallair, who recently had minor surgery to clean up the inside of her knee, said. “I saw what those people had to go through, and I thought I’d volunteer somewhere, but I wasn’t certain where. I looked into some that weren’t really too exciting. I wanted something with some action in it. I saw an ad in the paper for the Red Cross, so I called and did some research. At first, I wanted to do something on a national level, then I saw just how much volunteers are needed locally. I decided it was time for me to join.”
What she found, though, was that it isn’t a volunteer job that you sign up for and immediately begin. There are a handful of classes to complete, from learning the ideals of the Red Cross on down to how to respond in efficient and helpful ways. Within a year, Macallair was promoted to team leader, meaning she has extra responsibility in the form of mounds of paperwork.
She took the time to break down exactly what the DAT does in the wake of a fire.
“No one is ever prepared for a devastating fire,” she said. “There’s loss — possible loss of personal possessions, pets and even life.”
In simple terms, the DAT was formed to help those affected make clear-minded decisions on everything from where the family will stay in the interim to bringing diapers to the scene of a fire in case there are young ones involved.
You’ll notice the Red Cross refers to the people it is helping as clients.
“We call them clients because that’s what they are. We do not want to call them victims,” Macallair said. “We’re there to provide love and comfort in the wake of something catastrophic. We attend to immediate needs.”
Sarah Lamanna, a high school special education teacher who says she’s a few years away from retirement, is also a member of the DAT. Macallair had given Lamanna an outline of what the job entails, and Lamanna said she was sold.
“I think I’m very comfortable with people, so I thought it’d be a good fit,” Lamanna said. “I took some classes and got on board Nicki’s weekend team.”
One of Lamanna’s jobs is to assess the situation so she can offer referrals to other agencies who may be of assistance to the client. The DAT will make arrangements for the person or people to stay at a local hotel for three nights, as well as give them a preloaded debit card with enough money for clothing and food for at least three days. The situation is assessed, the money is loaded on and the card is activated within a few hours.
The DAT, though, doesn’t get emotionally involved while helping. Both Macallair and Lamanna said at first it was a little difficult to separate from the situation, but over time it becomes routine.
“You just get in the zone,” Lamanna, whose father and son are both firefighters, said. “Then you just do it. I’ve responded to a few fires and the people are usually very nice, but in shock of what just happened. It’s very similar to teaching — if the person is behaving in a different way, we need to find the root cause, but usually when we get to the scene there isn’t much in the way of hysteria.”
“Some clients are understandably unable to think rationally right away,” Macallair said. “We kind of have to do the rational thinking for them.”
Lamanna added that having firefighters in the family has helped her with her job.
“Since we’re always working with firefighters at a scene, it’s very good to know how firefighters operate,” she said. “Their jobs are very specific, and that helps us plan around them. I also have been able to explain to clients the breadth of the situation because I have that knowledge.”
When the team gets a call, the team leader will contact whoever is on call to drive the Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV), then the team will meet at the scene and assess. On top of helping the clients, DAT also will provide support to the firefighters with beverages and food if necessary.
One thing the team doesn’t do is try and save lives.
“We’re not trained for that,” Macallair said. “Our role is pretty specific.”
At the end of the day, neither of the women is looking for any sort of recognition for their time, but they would like to get the word out about bringing some more volunteers on board.
“Simply put, this is our way of giving back,” Macallair said. “We enjoy it, and we’re filling a serious need. There’s a little self satisfaction, but it truly is a way to give back.
“We’re always in need of more volunteers. People have busy lives and we understand it can be difficult to have much flexibility with a job and a family, but anyone who can help in any capacity is greatly appreciated.”
Neil Benjamin Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.