(Remember–everything I write is from me, Mary, and no organization.)
On Monday, July 22, I took a vacation day from my day job. I am the technology manager for a nonprofit firm that helps low-income women, the majority of them domestic violence survivors. I put in around 50 hours a week in and out of the office. I love my job, adore my coworkers and managers, and have no interest in doing anything else for pay.
It was a rare day for me, with no business, personal, or church obligations.
Because I am a volunteer senior responder, I get reports every four hours, around the clock, from the Greater New York Red Cross chapter, listing every response to emergencies in the five boroughs of New York City, as well as Nassau, Suffolk, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan and Westchester counties; and Greenwich, Connecticut.
I also get emails from a news service that sends notifications of every fire-related emergency in New York City. I am on four or five mailing lists at the Red Cross, that are designated recipients for these and other subjects.
I open everything I get, and I read most of them.
While I was sleeping (and maybe you were, too)
When I woke up a little after 8:00 a.m. on Monday morning, I saw that I had 18 emails from midnight on. Between midnight and 4:00 a.m., two responders had gone to two fires, one in a building with 34 apartments and another in a housing project with 218 units. A third responder had given financial assistance to an upstate family in a single-family-house fire.
By 8:00 a.m., there was only one additional fire, in Westchester, that a responder from the area had gone to. That was a good thing, because there were exactly two people available in the response unit in NYC.
From breakfast until lunch:
By lunchtime, 8 adults and 3 children left homeless by the Westchester fire, had gotten housing, financial and other assistance. Four Red Crossers, two of them bilingual, had gone to their assistance.
I’d gotten 15 more emails regarding requests for government documentation of apartment vacates, reports of a car crashing into a tree, and several requests for corrected information on clients. (It’s hard to type into a keyboard when standing in the street, up to your ankles in water and surrounded by scared people all looking for reassurance at once. Typos happen.)
Here’s more–the twenty emergencies that had taken place between midnight Saturday and midnight Sunday, were being evaluated and assessed by caseworkers in the office on Monday morning, to be sure that the families affected were getting everything they needed. I don’t get emails about all that work.
A fire broke out in an 83-unit apartment building in Brooklyn. This was a “10-75″, the FDNY designation for a fire that needs multiple units to respond. The American Red Cross in Greater New York responds to every 10-75 in an occupied multiple dwelling, in New York City.
Around 2:30 p.m., a fire in an apartment complex in Orange County went to a third alarm–the fire service designation for a major fire. Their local responders got sent on their way to that incident.
And then, all hell broke loose.
At 3:49 p.m., the “10-75″ was transmitted for a fire in a 41-unit building in Hamilton Heights, in Manhattan. 16 minutes later, the fire was designated a third-alarm, and the Emergency Communications Center at the Manhattan Red Cross office went into high gear.
Here is what happens for a third-alarm fire in New York City:
- Any available warm bodies in the response area start to fill an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) with snacks, heater meals, and cold and hot water.
- A dispatcher begins a “call-down” to every NYC hotel that works with the Red Cross, to determine how many rooms are available if housing is needed.
- Disaster Health Services volunteers and staff are notified, along with Public Affairs teams.
- Responders–both volunteer and paid–are contacted to ask them to come in before their shifts begin, to provide extra help. (That’s tough on the people who have full-time jobs, especially folks who are already juggling child care and commuting needs.)
- Client caseworkers are notified to stand by.
- The available responders are sent out to the fire, two in the ERV, and at least two in a van, to begin to assess the situation. If there are trainees, they are sent along to help and to gain experience.
When I saw the report, I called the dispatch center to see if they needed me. “Get in here!” was the answer.
By the time I arrived, the day volunteers had gone home or to work themselves, and the fire had grown to a fifth alarm. There were four responders on the scene, and four people in the communications center. We were answering the regular number of calls about Sandy recovery, CPR training, blood donations, and information requests, as well as coordinating and verifying information received from the Office of Emergency Management, Housing Preservation and Development, and communications from the previous three-alarm in Orange County.
Then at 5:16 p.m. another “10-75″ came in, for a 109-apartment building fire in Manhattan.
At 5:20 p.m., part of the roof collapsed on the 5-alarm fire building. For us, this meant that housing was almost certainly going to be required for many, if not all, of the tenants.
For the next two hours, the on-call Disaster Sheltering volunteer team was called and began to assemble. The on-site responders worked with the Office of Emergency Management to get access to and set up a nearby public school as a reception center/shelter. Logistics workers rolled out a truck to assemble and transport shelter supplies, including cots, blankets, chairs, signage, and so on.
At 5:28 p.m., we were notified of a fire in Nassau County, for which we would have to contact a responder.
And then it got worse
At 6:46 p.m., we were were notified of a “transportation incident” at LaGuardia Airport. The Office of Emergency Management asked us to stand by. Another request came in to find a source for 150 meals, if they were to become necessary.
As soon as the airport incident had been reported to us, workers in Disaster Staffing sent out a blast email and phone call to all trained volunteers, asking them to call in if they were available. So, that resulted in a cascade of calls to the dispatchers, from regular but off-duty volunteers who had that number in their speed dials.
At 6:53 p.m., we received the closing status update of housing and financial assistance provided to the survivors of the Orange County fire.
By 8:00 p.m., I’d gotten 52 more emails about all this.
At 8:20 p.m., a “10-75″ was transmitted for a fire in a 2-family building in Brooklyn.
At 8:25 p.m., a “10-75″ was transmitted for a fire in a 60-unit apartment building in Queens.
For each fire, someone in the dispatch center calls the FDNY Fire Operations unit to confirm that the building does contain residences, and that we will be needed. Fortunately, the 8:25 fire proved to not need a Red Cross response.
A long-distance call from a panicked mother
I answered a call from a woman in the Midwest, whose adult child had just moved into the Manhattan fire building. Her child had texted her with some disturbing comments, and the mother was frightened for the health of her offspring. This was very tough–the child was over 21, I had no actual proof that the mother was who she said she was, and the mother was telling me things that were really the child’s private business.
In one short phone call, lots of major issues had to be dealt with on the fly:
- If the adult child is as sick as the mother says, they need immediate medical attention.
- If they do not want medical attention, as an adult they can refuse it.
- Any information about the child’s present location, is by Red Cross policy, private and not shareable with anyone without consent. I got the head of Disaster Health to give me advice, and her decision was to call 911 and get the proper professionals on the scene to make the evaluation.
It was a very tense phone call. I was trying to support the mother, get the needed information about the person at risk, and get advice from the mental health professionals who were on another line.
At the same time, we were receiving status updates from the Manhattan fire response team and the airport team, via email and phone.
We were getting emails about car crashes around the city (we weren’t needed), a request for flood assistance from a home in Connecticut (we were), and more calls and emails from volunteers who were just getting to their email or phone messages.
I finally left some time around 10:30 p.m., I think. I had to be at my day job at 9:30 a.m. the next morning, and I hadn’t eaten anything since lunch.
By 12:20 a.m. Tuesday, I had received 101 email messages regarding disasters and the work Red Crossers were doing in response to them.
The concept of “office hours” means nothing in an active emergency; at the end of the typical business day, every available paid Red Cross worker and volunteer was operating at full speed.
I’m sorry some non-Red-Cross people think we are such slackers.