Answering the Call: A Journey of Recovery After a Home Fire

By Dave Wagner, Public Affairs Volunteer

A text from the Fire Communications Center woke Paul Brown, a volunteer with the Pacific Coast chapter, just after midnight. He was on the road a few minutes later, responding with the Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) to assist the survivors of a home fire.

Each year, the Red Cross responds to an average of 60,000 disasters, the vast majority of which are home fires. Disaster Action Teams are made up of specially trained volunteers who are available 24/7 to provide comfort and support for those displaced by these devastating fires.

“the small house had been completely destroyed by the fire and the man was literally left with just the pajamas on his back”

Paul thought he recognized the address as being in a community that he had canvassed with the Red Cross during a Sound the Alarm campaign a few months prior. They had installed two dozen smoke alarms and helped to educate the neighborhood about home fire safety. In the ten years that Paul has been a Disaster Action Team volunteer, he learned the best outcomes always were in homes equipped with working smoke alarms. He hoped that was the case tonight.

“I arrived about the same time as my DAT partner Christine Distl,” Paul said. “The fire captain pointed us to a man sitting on the tailboard of one of the engines. He was wearing soot smudged pajamas and had no shoes.” Paul glanced over to the small house which had been completely destroyed by the fire and realized this man was literally left with just the pajamas on his back.

Christine unwrapped a Red Cross blanket and, along with a friendly smile, offered it to the man in an initial gesture of warmth and comfort. He instantly recoiled and batted the blanket away.

Both Christine and Paul were shocked by this complete rejection. Paul recalls that the man told them that he didn’t want or need any help, and that he didn’t trust the government. It took the volunteer duo the better part of the next hour to calmly convince him that the Red Cross was not a government agency, and they had come out that night specifically to help him and any others affected by the fire.

The man, who we’ll call Fred, eventually did warm up to the DAT team and accepted their help. That night, in addition to the blanket, they provided him with a comfort kit of personal hygiene supplies, a debit card to start his path toward recovery and a safe place to stay for the night. Little did they know then that Fred’s case was far from over.

In addition to preparing for and responding to disasters, the Red Cross assists those affected to get back on their feet. For Fred, that job fell to volunteer recovery case manager Diana Swartz. She soon discovered that, due to the lasting effects of two tours in Vietnam, Fred had lived under the radar for more than 40 years. The bungalow that burned was provided to him by his employer in exchange for work at her restaurant. His lingering mistrust of the government resulted in him having no driver’s license or I.D., no V.A. or Social Security benefits, no Medicare or Medicaid – he didn’t even have an e-mail or telephone.

“This was a very challenging case,” recalls Diana, “but a huge success story. The community really came together to help him.”

With the help of the American Red Cross, Fred was connected with the V.A. for permanent housing, health insurance from Medicare/Medicaid for the hearing aids and glasses that he desperately needed, unemployment benefits because the restaurant had been shuttered due to COVID-19, and a social worker from the county’s Human Services agency to assist him down the line.

Diana mused at the irony of Fred’s case, “In the beginning, he wanted nothing to do with government. In the end, we just helped him get the benefits that he had earned and deserved.”

Become a Volunteer

Your time and talent can make a real difference in people’s lives. Our need for volunteers is constant and continues to evolve as we navigate this health crisis. Volunteer opportunities include delivering much-needed services to your community, with a wide variety of remote (work-from-home) options available.

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