Joanna Suckling, American Red Cross of Central Texas

Joanna Suckling, American Red Cross of Central TexasIn the spring semester of 2011, I fulfilled an emergency services internship with the American Red Cross of Central Texas chapter in Austin. An emergency services intern works with American Red Cross staff and volunteers to prepare for and provide emergency relief to clients in the greater Central Texas area.  This internship provided me with opportunities to experience how the American Red Cross operates and helps disaster victims.

At my internship, I gained valuable skills in disaster services and logistics through observing how the American Red Cross prepares for emergencies.  I also had the chance to develop skills in data entry and communications between disaster events.  Through assisting with disaster response and emergency preparedness, I saw firsthand how volunteering with the American Red Cross helps communities in need. My supervisor was the director of emergency services.  I also interacted with the volunteer services coordinator and the marketing and communications coordinator on specific projects.

Logistics is a vital part of the tasks of the American Red Cross.  Between disaster responses, the local chapter prepares for future emergencies.  An emergency services intern should expect to spend time in the office performing data entry and conducting special projects when necessary.  I had three major projects in addition to the general data entry and small tasks I performed.  The first was to make a brochure for the American Red Cross of Central Texas.  I volunteered to use my computer and design program skills to make an updated brochure about the accomplishments of the chapter in 2010.  Next, I worked on a demographics project, in which I compiled census statistics and contact information for the major counties under the care of the Central Texas chapter.  Finally, I helped an ongoing project in which the chapter was updating their information on local shelters.

Desired qualifications for the emergency services internship include knowledge of Microsoft Office and internet-based applications, Spanish language skills, previous volunteer experience, and an ability to maintain confidentiality while working with sensitive information. Being computer literate and familiar with internet applications was important during my internship, because the American Red Cross of Central Texas is trying to update important emergency response information and use new technologies to better respond to disasters.  Bilingual applicants are favored so that the intern can interact with a variety of individuals in the community.  As I learned through a demographics project I helped with during my time with the American Red Cross, the Central Texas chapter serves a region that has a large Spanish speaking population.  Experience and an ability to work with confidential information are important qualifications.  I learned while observing casework that emergency services volunteers and staff are responsible for gathering sensitive information about a client’s well-being and financial state after a disaster.  Volunteers and staff also interact with clients while they are going through the stress and emotional strain of experiencing a disaster, thus it is imperative that interns respect a client’s privacy and maintain confidentiality.  Staff members informed me that the disaster victims the organization assists are referred to as clients by the American Red Cross, because the label of “victim” can be traumatizing and disempowering.   Emergency services interns should be prepared to empathize with clients and demonstrate a degree of sensitivity.

The intern will need to be very proactive, make his or her interest clear, and be willing to go out on call whenever possible.  Going out on call might mean being awakened in the middle of the night to drive 5 hours to a fire scene.  Responding to disasters requires a schedule that can be variable.  Before responding to disasters, an intern should also have the most important training courses completed (disaster assessment especially) in order to be prepared for the duties of filling out paperwork and interviewing clients.

As I learned from training, being on scene, and through client casework, damage assessment involves paperwork for the Red Cross volunteers.  Volunteers record their observations with an “On-Site Detailed Damage Assessment Worksheet” and a “Form 5233: Disaster Assessment Summary.”  Another important form is the Intake Form A9, where the incident is recorded and the clients are interviewed.  For this interview, clients are asked if they have food, clothing, and a place to stay.  The Intake Form A9 is connected to issuing a “client assistance card”, or CAC, which is a credit card loaded with funds for the family to use.

The first disaster that I helped respond to was a house fire.  I was allowed to be in charge of interviewing the client and filling out the intake form.  I found out quickly that when interviewing a client, the interviewer must be careful of his or her wording.  It is important to show sensitivity and compassion to an individual that has experienced a traumatic event such as a disaster.  Volunteers also need to wear appropriate clothing and footwear.  Disasters typically involve a lot of debris, and damaged buildings may have unsafe areas.

The second disaster scene I went on did not occur until near the end of my internship.  This disaster was a wildfire in Austin.  The day before I went out with a response team, volunteers had already assessed the area for damage.  The team I went with was “canteening,” providing water and snacks to people in the area.  I was asked to follow the team and take photographs to document the relief effort.  Volunteers provided water mostly to workers that were cleaning the area and moving possessions.  I was able to see firsthand the damage caused by the wildfire.  When talking to the other volunteers, we were amazed how a whole forest and house could be burned down to the ground while their neighbor’s home remained untouched.  One volunteer related to me on how he has encountered survivor’s guilt on a previous event, highlighting the psychological implications of going through a disaster.

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