By Jason Viana
“There’s a house fire in St. Paul and media are on the scene, can you go?”
“Can who go?”
“You! You should go, you should totally go!”
This brief conversation with the media relations manager at the Twin Cities Area Chapter began my first ever on-the-scene response as a Public Affairs Volunteer for the American Red Cross. This was the moment I had been preparing for! Right? Then why did I suddenly feel so unprepared!
Gathering my things I kept trying to remember what I was going to say, trying to imagine what the scene would look like, trying to think of everything I had been taught during my training classes….my brain kept responding, “file not found.”
The pressure of the situation was definitely affecting my ability to process thoughts, but I got it together and headed over to St. Paul.
Arriving at the scene my thoughts and concerns quickly changed course. The sight of a smoldering house surrounding by fire trucks has a way of sobering your thoughts and calming your mind.
The conversation in my head became a lot less about me and a lot more about this family who has just lost everything. Seeing this fire first hand reminded me of why I had become a Red Cross volunteer in the first place: to help people when they need it most.
When I arrived I must admit I was a bit timid and concerned that my presence would be intrusive. But the truth of it was that the family seemed grateful for our presence, not only for the assistance we were providing, but also for the companionship. The financial assistance the Disaster Action Team volunteers were providing was vital, but I think the greatest value they offered the victims was their presence and their willingness to listen and help them make sense of what has happening.
In retrospect I can’t say that I added a great deal to the relief effort. I followed up with the media, snapped a few pictures, and took a few notes, but I really just observed and tried to comfort the members of this family who were sitting there watching their home go up in flames.
The gravity of the situation was sinking in for me, and the importance of the work we do as volunteers became evident. We tell the story of these people, their despair, and the hope that is offered by the Red Cross. These six people never imagined that they would need help on this day. And thanks to the work of the Red Cross they didn’t even have to ask.
So when your first call comes don’t panic. Trust your training, trust yourself, and know that whatever the situation calls for you will be able to respond effectively.
Editor’s Note: Jason Viana recently became a Disaster Public Affairs Volunteer with the American Red Cross Twin Cities Area Chapter. You can see an album of Jason’s pictures taken at this fire on our flickr photo stream. http://bit.ly/7OtnaQ