How Volunteering with the Red Cross Launched a Professional Career in Emergency Management

by Shelomo Alfassa

May 1, 2018 

In 1987, the year of my high school graduation, I was living in Southern California. One day, I noticed my neighbor and friend getting into his car, he was wearing a white shirt and red windbreaker which caught my eye. Curious, we spoke briefly, and that was my initial introduction to the American Red Cross (ARC). I was only 18, still unclear on life’s path, so when my friend encouraged me to volunteer like he did, I decided to learn more. I visited the Orange County Chapter of the ARC, which at the time, was one of the largest and most active chapters in the country. The campus had an entire building for administration, emergency services and classrooms, and another large building where blood services and laboratories were.

Over the next year, I signed up for many classes and eventually became a responder on the local Disaster Action Team (DAT). First, with a partner and then on my own, I went to residential house fires in the middle of the night representing the Red Cross. There, I conducted ARC damage assessments and initiating casework to ensure that people had shelter, food, clothing, etc; I became a paperwork guru after just a few months, while increasing my self-confidence about the serious responsibility I had been entrusted with.

I progressed with ARC over next couple years spending many hundreds if not thousands of hours on volunteer ARC activities. I joined their First Aid Service Team (FAST), we had an ambulance and a few vans. On weekends we’d get up early and go establish medical aid stations at public events like 5 & 10K runs, helping the participants and demonstrating to the public that the American Red Cross was there to help.

In 1989 the massive Loma Prieta earthquake struck in San Francisco at 5pm. Freeways collapsed, houses shifted of their foundations, the Bay Bridge collapsed, and ultimately many tens of thousands were displaced. Along with many others from the Chapter, I was sent up north to assist. There, I helped unload trucks, set up kitchen in a public school (Marina Middle School) for mass feeding of the public. I was an Emergency Medical Technician by this point, and I joined the local Red Cross medical aid teams that were searching block by block in pick-up trucks, looking for wounded people and those who needed to be escorted back to the shelter. The ground remained shaky with aftershocks for over a week, so the Red Cross staff set up cots for sleeping under the stars on the basketball courts; this had been my first major disaster deployment, and it was all very surreal.

During the next few years, my ARC training progressed. I went on many disaster assignments, often squeezed into a hot Red Cross twelve-passenger van with others going out to the desert, mountains, or where other situations that had overwhelmed local communities. I went to the tragic Oakland Hills Firestorms in 1991 where I instructed volunteer members of the community—in impromptu classes that were set-up, on how to help the ARC which needed administrative field assistance. In Oakland, I also served as a Public Information Officer (PIO), speaking to local AM radio stations live on the air and local TV reporters. Later, I responded to the Southern California Mudslides and Big Bear Earthquakes, both major disasters for Southern California which occurred in 1992.

In 1993 I relocated to Central Florida. I was working as an EMT in a local hospital emergency room, but also volunteered at the Orlando Chapter of the ARC. I assisted in their EOC on several occasions. Including during an operation when the state was hit by the “Super Storm of the Century,” a Presidentially declared disaster. These were the days before the Internet as we know it, and I established a weather command station in EOC utilizing a portable computer (8088 ‘Luggable’ – not a laptop—they weren’t invented yet) and a dial-up modem. I connected to the Internet protocol ‘Gopher’ which allowed me to obtain real-time weather and forecast data from the text-only hyper-linked system that existed prior to the introduction of the world wide web. I printed off important data, creating a 3-hour weather SITREP in Word Perfect on the Daisy-Wheel printer, then hung printouts on the wall, to the praise of the Red Cross EOC staff who looked at this as “the future.” I always seemed to serve as a handy unofficial logistician in the EOC.

In total I donated eight years to the American Red Cross 1987-1995, serving in various capacities including volunteer first aid instructor, Disaster Action Team member, assistant to a Shelter Manager, and PIO. I also washed Red Cross vans, got filthy helping to unpack and repack storage facilities filled with supplies, helped tie down antennas and set up radio equipment. We had BBQs, holiday parties, and I met friends, including my best friend that I had met during the Loma Prieta earthquake—who I am still very close friends with to this day. It’s often not spoken of, but what you receive from volunteering with the Red Cross (or any other organization that strives to do good), is a great sense of camaraderie, esprit de corps, and fellowship.

In 2004 Florida was severely impacted by four hurricanes—Hurricane Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne, they were devastating to my community and my own home. Still, I went back and volunteered to assist with communications, serving as a Ham Radio operator (KI4GGU) in several county shelters the ARC had been coordinating.

Only at a disaster will you see a 53’ tractor-trailer being unloaded by two dozen strangers, working together with all their might to provide resources for other strangers; only at a disaster will you see a handful of people—who just met—cooking together like a well-oiled machine, in a school cafeteria that had been turned into a shelter; and, only at a disaster, will you see groups come together on street corners, for an opportunity to assist, all desiring to help their community after a disaster.

Since I started volunteering as a young man with the American Red Cross some 30+ years ago, I have had a whole career. I have worked in EMS and public safety in various capacities over three decades. This includes serving as Deputy Commander and founder of a Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) and one of the CBRN national response teams for the US Public Health Service and FEMA. Today, I write emergency action plans and other mitigation, preparedness and response material for corporate America. I have a BA in Homeland Security and I’m working on an MPA in disaster management. I’m also preparing to become a Certified Emergency Manager very shortly.

I never earned a dime ‘working’ for the American Red Cross, but I earned a folder full of certificates for appreciation & recognition. Yet, the ARC has paid me by providing me with purpose, direction, responsibility and opportunity at a time when I was seeking a path. In my time with the ARC, I have had the pleasure of learning many life lessons and have been put into situations where I was able to interact with numerous bright, caring and talented people.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my professional career in emergency management was launched the day I walked into the Red Cross office at 18 and offered to help. Insomuch, I strongly recommend young people volunteer for one of the many Red Cross programs, and for community leaders to continue to promote volunteerism across America.

A selfie from 1991 inside the ARC van

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