MOUNT VERNON — When disaster strikes, they are there. American Red Cross volunteers, often working behind the scenes and out of the public eye, provide care, comfort and sometimes cash assistance to individuals and families in crisis.
Dee Hoeflich, emergency services coordinator for the Knox County Chapter of the American Red Cross, said the volunteers were asked to respond to at least 11 fires since the beginning of November. Sometimes, she said, if the blaze does not involve a residence, upon request, the Red Cross provides what is called mass care. Hoeflich said that means helping the firefighters by providing coffee, water, snacks and Gatorade. The Red Cross folks can spend anywhere from one to four or more hours at the scene in support of the firefighters.
“In weather like this,” Hoeflich said, “like at the fire outside of Jelloway, we take hot coffee and warm sandwiches. We actually went to McDonald’s to get warm food to warm the firefighters up.”
The American Red Cross has a national contract with McDonald’s and is able to buy the food at a reduced rate.
The only time the Red Cross does mass care, Hoeflich explained, is if it’s a large fire.
“It’s not like we’re at every fire handing stuff out,” she said. “The firefighters do not call us unless they are going to be out there a long time. In cold weather like this, we take hot food and beverages; or if it’s really hot, we bring them water. We view it as a community support sort of thing. By supporting the firemen, we’re helping them do their job, which in turn helps us all.”
If the fire involves a residence, the Red Cross will also assist the people living in the home.
“Once we get on scene,” Hoeflich said, “we find the family and usually put them in our vehicle. We get them rooms, and sometimes we will even go to the hotel with them to do the casework. We give comfort kits, which contain things like shampoo, soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant and maybe some hand towels. We provide minimal assistance to get them through the first few days. ... We give them money for food for the week, and a money allowance for clothing. In the winter months we do give them an additional allowance for winter clothing.
“We also do child kits in partnership with the Knox County Art League,” she continued. “They provided paper and markers and art supplies for the children, and we had donation of Beanie Babies and things, plus we went out and bought more things to put in the child kits. That way, when the family is at the hotel, maybe these kits will keep the kids busy so the parents can talk abut what they are going to do.”
Another area the Red Cross helps victims with is medication. If someone’s medication is burned up in a fire, Red Cross volunteers try to get in touch with the doctors and the pharmacies to get those replaced immediately.
“And we can help people with other resources,” said Hoeflich. “We might be able to put them in touch with Interchurch [Social Services] or HEAP or somebody who can help them with needs that we can’t assist with.
“We provide enough for short-term, immediate needs, usually from three to five days. That gives them a few days to not have to worry about ‘Gee, where am I going to go?’ and ‘What am I going to wear?’ That gives them time to think about what they are going to do next.”
According to Hoeflich, the average Red Cross expenditure per fire is around $800 or $900, depending on the size of the family. The last few fires, she said, averaged around $1,000 to $1,100 per family. The organization has spent $11,000 since July 1 helping victims from 16 fires, all through donated funds.
“We are not a government agency,” Hoeflich said. “We get no federal monies. We are a United Way agency, but we rely on financial donations from local individuals and organizations.”
Hoeflich said one way people can protect themselves from devastating fire losses is to carry renters insurance.
“Unfortunately, a lot of renters do not carry renters insurance,” she said. “People think it’s too expensive, or they don’t believe they have enough possessions to make it worthwhile. Losing things in a fire is devastating to somebody who rents that does not have insurance. You may think you don’t have much, but try to replace the few things that you do have in one day. That’s one big thing I’d like to see — more people getting renters insurance and protecting themselves that way.”
The local Red Cross chapter does more for community members other than just going to fires when called.
“We do health and safety, which is teaching CPR and first aid,” said Hoeflich. “We do burial assistance, and that is funded solely through United Way. We also give gas vouchers or medical transportation [out of county] as needed. If you have a doctor’s appointment in Columbus, for example, and you don’t have the money to get there, we can give you a gas voucher to get there. Or, if you don’t have a vehicle, we can try to find a volunteer to drive you.”