Red Cross DAT volunteer recounts going to first house fire to help

By Julia Lugon
American Red Cross
If I could give one piece of advice for anyone joining the Red Cross Disaster Action Team in the winter it would be to wear warm socks.

My first fire call came exactly two months after training for the team of volunteers specially trained to go to home fires and provide aid, comfort and support for those whose homes were damaged or destroyed. With the weather getting colder, the chances increased for getting a call from the Red Cross disaster duty officer who is alerted by the Kansas City Fire Department that there’s been a house fire and people needing Red Cross assistance.

Most of the disasters in the Kansas City area that the Red Cross responds to are home fires – with more than 2,000 people assisted last year in the 15-county Greater Kansas City Chapter area. With winter and people trying to stay warm, accidents happen. This is because people often make unsafe use of space heaters, open flames like candles or overloading old electrical wiring.

After my initial DAT training, the plan was for me to shadow a DAT Technician until I had enough experience to qualify as a Technician. Every week, the Technician to whom I was assigned sent a text with her schedule and asked if I was available that night.

american red cross of greater kansas city
American Red Cross volunteer Julia Lugon recalls how it felt going to her first house fire as a member of the Disaster Action Team in the Greater Kansas City Chapter and how she was able to provide comfort and assistance to the family that lost much of what they owned in the fire. (Photo by Carl Manning/American Red Cross)

Most of the times I was, but for some miraculous reason, there were no fires during my shifts.

When my Technician finally called, I couldn’t even believe it. It was 10 p.m. and I had just gotten home from school. I read her name on my iPhone but didn’t immediately process that this was real – a house caught fire and they needed me. I was so eager to arrive at the scene I didn’t realize I left my house wearing a simple pair of jeans and what apparently were the thinnest socks in the world – never mind it was 19 degrees and I would spend most of my time on the street.

Driving to the scene, I was trying to picture what it would be like: fire trucks everywhere, smoke, tears, destruction. Would I cry? Would I be able to keep it together and help a family that needed all the support they could get? Because it was my first fire, I wondered how I would possibly be able to help. My training seemed so distant and I wasn’t sure I would be able to provide any comfort to those needing it.

Boy, was I wrong.

The household had 11 people – seven adults and four children. They barely spoke any English and I happen to speak some Spanish, enough to translate what was going on. I am Brazilian and my Portuguese also helped me a lot, since the two languages are similar.

My Technician would tell me what to say and ask and I would translate their answers, becoming a vital conduit between explaining their needs and informing them what the Red Cross could do to provide immediate emergency assistance. The family seemed desperate, and the fact that someone was speaking to them in their language helped calm them down and enabled them to fully understand what was going on.

With no electricity, a destroyed bathroom and water damage, the family was in great need of assistance. There were two DAT Technicians with me at the scene and they guided me every step of the way, explaining all the procedures and making sure we were helping that family the best way we possibly could.

After assessing the damage and determining that the home wasn’t livable, we assisted them with their most urgent needs ­­­– food, clothing, gasoline, hotel.

It wasn’t much, but enough to get them through the first 24 to 48 hours after the fire. We also gave each adult and each child a Red Cross Comfort Kit with shampoo, tooth paste, and other hygiene items they might need.

The kids also received a stuffed Mickey Mouse toy, thanks to a partnership of Red Cross and Disney. The toy seemed to make the adults as happy as the kids and brought a smile to their faces in such a harsh time.

After saying goodbye and giving a hug to the family and other DATs, I realized that I was so glad to be at that scene. My presence mattered. The simple fact that I was there, representing the Red Cross was something already. No matter how long ago I had my training, I could do something about the fire. I could help that family in some way. I felt that because of us, those people could now afford a hotel, take a warm shower, have a nice meal and make a plan for their next days.

Yes, being at home watching some TV show after a long day would have been nice, but not nearly as rewarding as being a part of that moment.

With all the adrenaline running through my body, I didn’t notice how much my legs were shaking from the freezing temperatures and staying outside for so long. I couldn’t even feel my feet anymore. As I left the fire scene I had two thoughts in my mind: I am so glad to be a DAT volunteer and I hope I don’t have to amputate my toes. I got home and immediately tried to get myself warm. It was all worth it. Next time, I will know better.

If you would like to become a Red Cross volunteer and became a member of the DAT team, go to redcross.org or call 1-800-RED CROSS.

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